Sometime in the future, people will look back on these early weeks of 2015 and decide what, if anything, was important in the making of the president in 2016. At this point, it’s all normal people can do to keep their bearings.
Here’s one small example. Six weeks ago, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was seen as a prospective candidate who had weathered tough fights at home, had the potential to rise, but also had a reputation as bland and unexciting — and perhaps too parochial for a national campaign.
Then he gave a fiery and well-received speech to an audience of conservatives in Iowa, and suddenly he was the hot ticket in the Republican field. A subsequent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll of Iowa Republicans showed him at the top of the pack.
Last week, Walker went to England on a trade mission. His London itinerary included an appearance at Chatham House, a prominent think tank, where he talked about Wisconsin cheese, his Welsh ancestors, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. But he declined to answer questions about Britain’s role in the European Union, lethal aid for Ukrainian forces, dealing with Islamic State militants or the theory of evolution. He was mocked in some quarters for refusing to engage.
What will people remember eight or 10 months from now, when Republicans are in the middle of debate season and the primary-caucus season is about to begin? Will they remember any of these episodes? More importantly, what of all this will have provided clues as to Walker’s real strength in the competition to become the Republican nominee and a possible president?
Walker is an easy example to cite, because the narrative about his prospective candidacy has swung rapidly since the turn of the year. But he’s hardly the only example of conflicting assessments.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is either a strong front-runner for the GOP nomination with the best fundraising potential in the party and a general election message that could give Hillary Rodham Clinton heartburn, or he is someone with a treacherous path to the nomination, with a very large problem in the Iowa caucuses and potential problems in a New Hampshire primary.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is either toast — and you can pick from the bridge scandal that still hasn’t touched him directly to his pugnacious personality to the problems in his home state as the reasons to conclude he isn’t going to be the GOP nominee — or he is a candidate with leadership strengths, considerable retail political skills and the potential to raise the kind of money needed to compete over a long and difficult primary season.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is seen either as the cleverest Republican of the bunch, capable of attracting a younger, more diverse coalition to a party badly in need of it, or as a somewhat thin-skinned newcomer, prone to mistakes and still trying to demonstrate that his disparate views fit into a coherent package.
Clinton is either one of the most experienced and capable people to seek the presidency and a virtual lock to be the Democratic nomination, or she is a candidate prone to mistakes who doesn’t know what she stands for and leaves the base of her party longing for someone else.
The presidential candidates are now subjected to intense analysis even at this early point. Twitter comes alive with instant analysis and commentary whenever someone does something, as happened during the Iowa Freedom Summit a few weeks ago or when Bush spoke to the Detroit Economic Club or when Christie walked back comments about vaccinations while in London or when Walker spoke at Chatham House, or when Clinton did nothing.
The reality is that this is an inside game, carried on by a small number of people — candidates seeking to impress donors or commentators; a cadre of activists who can’t get enough of politics at any time of the cycle; journalists hungry to get the campaign moving ever faster.
People seize on early polls at the same time they offer a caveat that early polls don’t mean much. So now Scott Walker leads in Iowa? He does, but with just 16 percent support — and only one point ahead of Rand Paul and just three points ahead of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. It’s all margin of error.
Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, provided something useful when he parsed the recent Iowa and New Hampshire numbers for his column in The Hill, though he offered a consumer warning at the top that his ramblings amounted to “rank and nearly meaningless speculation.”
He looked not at the overall support for each candidate but rather at other findings, including the relationship between how well-known candidates are and their current vote share, or how favorably they are seen now by people. He concluded that Walker has room for growth in both states; that Christie’s stock is overvalued; and that Bush and Paul have work to do.
What’s missing are the people who will pick the nominees and eventually the next president: voters. They are paying little attention now. With real lives, people don’t have time to watch a live stream of a Scott Walker speech in London at 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, or spend 10 hours on a winter Saturday in front of C-SPAN watching two dozen speakers on a stage in Des Moines.
It’s true that there is a politically engaged audience across the country that pays more attention to these early months than before — and they have easier access to do so through the Internet. But history tells us to be cautious about reading too much into events that take place during much of the year before the presidential campaign year.
In the fall of 1983, then-Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado was mired in single digits and frustrated. He complained that the press just didn’t get it, that reporters were badly underestimating his potential. Most everyone ignored him. A few months later he pulled off a shocker in New Hampshire and nearly beat Walter Mondale for the nomination.
John McCain was nowhere at this point in 1999, yet stunned George W. Bush in New Hampshire in early 2000. McCain was declared politically dead in the summer of 2007 and came back to be the GOP nominee in 2008. Howard Dean was cruising to the Democratic nomination in late 2003 and six weeks later saw his campaign unravel. Eight years ago this spring, Barack Obama was drawing negative coverage — a candidate unable to live up to the hype.
The problem now is that there are often too many conclusions but not enough information. Insiders are eager to connect the dots. Most voters are content to let the candidates come into sharper focus.
This is already a fascinating campaign and destined to become more so. There’s no reason to get too far ahead of it, because no one really knows how it will all unfold. That’s the beauty of it.