As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
Right now you should pay less attention to presidential election. Paradoxically though, you should also paying more attention. The real problem is the media covering the election acts as if they’ve never covered an election before and have no familiarity with elections in general.
No one is winning and no one is losing yet. The large number of candidates in the race make some in media eager to start eliminating candidates and to indulge in breathless discussions about momentum. History suggests media discussed polling momentum is silly and meaningless.
No one’s campaign is on life support and no one is inevitable. You should feel free to listen to and evaluate multiple candidates. For example, Fox would have had you believe that you should ignore all but ten candidates. They relegated all the other — the losers in the so-called Fox primary — to a junior varsity debate. The losers were allowed to talk at 5:00 (2 in the afternoon on the west coast) but prohibited an audience. Yet the candidate who most improved his or her position as a result of the events was Carly Fiorina, one of the candidates we were told to ignore.
Better advice: don’t give up on anyone yet. Four years ago the candidates seen to have momentum changed on a regular basis. At this point, Newt Gingrich’s campaign was essentially shuttered. But he would have two surges in which he took the lead in the national polls — one right before Iowa and one in the middle of the primary voting.
Around this time four years ago, Michele Bachmann experienced a big surge only to fall away quickly. Rick Perry jumped in the race and skyrocketed to a healthy polling lead — he had a 12 point advantage over the next highest of eight major candidates before seeing his support collapse over the next six weeks.
Then came Herman Cain. His catchy 999 plan took center stage and pushed him to a narrow lead in national polls. He too saw his support collapse in about six weeks.
Newt Gingrich then came back from the dead. His campaign surged to a 13 point lead in national polls just three weeks before the Iowa caucus would allow actual humans to vote and steal the media’s thunder. Then he too collapsed.
Rick Santorum had a moment in the sun. He took advantage of the Gingrich collapse and won the Iowa Caucus. He would remain a contender for the duration of the primaries, winning elections in eleven states despite having been dismissed by the media as a nuisance candidate six months earlier.
Gingrich was dead again. He came in third in Iowa and a distant fifth in New Hampshire. But Gingrich deaths tend to be short lived. He came back again and won the third primary, in South Carolina, and regaining the lead in national polling.
All this goes to show that none of the discussions about momentum amount to a hill of beans. Almost everyone still has a chance to have a day in the sun. New Hampshire is supposedly paying more attention than any other state but even here only 11% of the voters claim to have picked a candidate and half of them will change their mind.
Polling means little most years. It means even less when there are 17 candidates this year instead of eight in 2012. One or two debates will do little to destroy any individual campaign. What they might do is introduce a candidate to voters who decide to learn more. It may put a candidate or two on a voter’s dance card so to speak.
Most of the working political press has little interest in telling you anything informative about a candidate. Since George Bush declared in 1980 that he had “big mo,” writers and reporters have been focused on momentum and process.
What remains remarkable is that voters are willing to listen but then to ignore the stories about who is up and who is down, who can or can’t win. Rick Santorum couldn’t win Iowa but he did. Newt Gingrich’s two campaign deaths were apparently exaggerated. The campaign eulogies written about John McCain in 2007 didn’t keep him from winning the nomination. The Phil Gramm juggernaut in 1996 didn’t earn him any delegates.
The behavior of actual voting humans tends to confound political reporters and I suspect we all enjoy that.