Presidential campaigns operate according to a natural rhythm dictated by the seasons, the primary-caucus calendar and the way most Americans follow events. People pay attention sporadically and make their decisions only when they have to. Until then, they are free to change their minds, express contradictory views and shop the field of candidates.
That rhythm is at odds with the round-the-clock needs of a political-media culture that demands order when order doesn’t yet exist. Speculating about what might happen draws more attention than explaining what has happened. But somehow this year, little is going to form.
One week Michele Bachmann is the star of the show. Then it’s Rick Perry coming to the party’s rescue on a white horse, and everyone writes off Bachmann. Herman Cain was written off months ago, and yet he is enjoying a new burst of attention. Jon Huntsman is just a speck in many national polls but has shown movement in New Hampshire. What does that mean?
Ron Paul has his cadre of passionate supporters, but does he have enough to be a real spoiler in some early states? Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have been effective in debate, but they get little respect from the political class. Mitt Romney’s poll numbers remain steady but not particularly impressive. Donors pant after Chris Christie. Sarah Palin bides her time.
Making sense of all this is now an industry in overdrive, although what’s evident today was evident at the start: Republican voters are conflicted about their choices and only loosely attached to the candidates. They will need to see more before they settle on their choices, and they will probably be influenced by one another and by results in the early states. If history is a guide, there will be some embarrassments.
This has happened repeatedly over the years. What looked obvious or apparent in October got blown up once the voters began to get serious about picking a new president or a presidential nominee. Choose almost any campaign and there is an example of how the narrative sketched in the fall by those supposedly in the know had to be rewritten on the fly the following winter when the voters weighed in.
At this time in 1983, Walter Mondale was on a march to the Democratic nomination, with Sen. John Glenn seen as his principal challenger. Glenn was viewed as perhaps the party’s most attractive general election candidate. House Speaker Tip O’Neill thought he could be described as a Democratic Eisenhower, a national hero whose popularity transcended politics. But voters cast Glenn aside quickly when their time came.
Gary Hart was barely a blip in the polls that fall. He was quietly building an organization in New Hampshire, but most of the experts couldn’t see it. To everyone’s surprise, Hart nearly stopped Mondale’s seemingly unstoppable machine.
The 1992 Democratic campaign was a case of a party in search of a candidate. Heavyweights such as Al Gore and Bill Bradley and Mario Cuomo passed on the race, to the despair of party elders. Sound familiar?
Bill Clinton didn’t formally announce his candidacy until this month in 1991 and, given the scandals that quickly arose, was declared all but dead before the first votes were cast in New Hampshire — and several times after that. He somehow managed to defeat an incumbent president.
In 1996, Phil Gramm tied Bob Dole in the Iowa straw poll and was on the move in the Republican nomination contest. He had staked his credibility as a candidate on his ability to raise lots of money. By the time of the Iowa caucuses, he was almost an afterthought to the voters, who saw less virtue in his candidacy than some of the experts. He disappeared quickly.
At this time in 2004, the early Democratic front-runner, John Kerry, was in a tailspin, having jettisoned his campaign manager. Howard Dean was rising quickly, the darling of the left with his outspoken opposition to the Iraq war.
In Iowa, Dean appeared headed for a showdown against Dick Gephardt, because, it was assumed, those two had the best organizations in a state where organizing is considered king. By the time Iowans voted, Dean and Gephardt were in third and fourth place. Kerry blew by both of them and quickly wrapped up the nomination.
In every case, voters proved that they had their ideas and weren’t going to be swayed by the predictions and polls of a few months earlier.
In this campaign, there are a few constants. One is the yearning among Republican elites for the ideal candidate. Another is shifting poll numbers that have raised or lowered the standing of candidates as the shape of the field has changed.
Another has been Romney’s willingness to hold to a campaign strategy in the face of those shifting sentiments. His only departure from his above-the-fray approach has been to take on Perry aggressively this past month. No one knows whether that strategy will pay dividends next year.
It’s not that nothing of consequence happens in the year before the presidential election. It’s good to remember, however, that voters have always reserved the right to think for themselves — and will undoubtedly do so again.