Let Elections Be Elections Again

Presidential primary campaigns used to have a predictable script, one that went as follows. Before anyone started campaigning, journalists declared one candidate to be the early front-runner, based on his standing within "the establishment," that shadowy group of party insiders whose string-pulling power, attenuated though it might be, still exists. This candidate was often a sitting or former vice president (George H.W. Bush in 1988, Al Gore in 2000) or had run before and fallen short (Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008). If no such person could be found, the candidate who looked strongest on paper could be a reasonable substitution (George W. Bush in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, Hillary Clinton in 2008). Once the front-runner was in place, the search would begin for the challenger, the dynamic candidate who could break from the pack of nobodies to make it a two-person contest. This candidate was usually the one offering "new ideas" and "fresh thinking" in contrast to the staid and boring establishment favorite. Think Gary Hart in 1984, Howard Dean in 2004, or Barack Obama in 2008. And with the exception of the latter, the challenger candidate almost always lost.

But the 2012 Republican primaries have made that script seem outdated. Oh, we have our boring establishment candidate and his temporarily interesting rivals. But the fact that this race has been led at one time or another by no fewer than six candidates has made it less a coherent plot than a cacophonous muddle. And that's hardly the only thing different about 2012. This race has upended a whole series of things we thought we knew about contemporary presidential campaigns—so many, in fact, that it's worth arranging them in a list. Here, then, is what this strange race has taught us:

Money matters a lot less than we thought.

Everyone knows that campaigns get more expensive every cycle; that is, we knew it until this year. As The Washington Post detailed last week, this has been the cheapest primary campaign in over a decade. Four years ago, the Republican candidates spent a total of $132 million through the September before voting began; this year they spent a mere $53 million. That combined total is less than one candidate, Mitt Romney, spent during that period four years ago. This year he spent a mere $18 million through September, compared with the nearly $54 million he spent through September 2007. Political observers swooned over Rick Perry's dramatic fundraising during the 12 minutes or so he spent at the front of the pack. But even if Perry sank $100 million into Iowa, it wouldn't help him now. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich became the front-runner without his campaign having two nickels to rub together. That isn't to say the ads won't fill the airwaves in Iowa and New Hampshire soon enough, but to this point things have been awfully quiet.

Debates matter more than we thought.

Their audiences may be largely limited to political junkies, but those interminable primary debates (14 so far, with plenty more to come) have had more influence than ever before. Every campaign has had its dramatic debate moments, but in no prior campaign have so many candidates been boosted or undone by what happened on debate stages. Confident performances by Herman Cain and then Newt Gingrich helped rocket each in turn to the front of the pack, while Rick Perry's seemingly strong candidacy was utterly destroyed by his bumbles and brain freezes.

The campaign ain't over till it's over.

The saddest man in America today may be former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. He seemed like a strong contender when the campaign began, someone with the seriousness to satisfy the establishment and the conservative credentials to woo the Tea Party. Yet after getting beaten by Michele Bachmann in a meaningless straw poll in Iowa in August, Pawlenty packed his bags and went home, concluding that his campaign could never recover. Since then, he's watched one ignorant yahoo after another become the front-runner, then flame out when they couldn't handle the spotlight. Had Pawlenty stuck around, he might have had his moment. But he'll never know. And the current front-runner, Newt Gingrich, is someone whose campaign began with such a rapid series of pratfalls that one party stalwart after another almost begged him to quit the race. You might recall conservative eminence grise Charles Krauthammer declaring after Gingrich criticized Paul Ryan's Medicare plan, "He's done. He didn't have a big chance from the beginning, but now it's over. … He won't recover." Krauthammer seemed right at the time, but look where Gingrich is today.

The Tea Party doesn't call the shots.

For all the influence the Tea Party has had over Republicans in Congress, and the lengths the candidates have gone to convince primary voters that they're hard-core conservatives, the idea that the establishment candidate (Romney) would fight it out with a candidate of the Tea Party has proved to be misconceived. When everyone is a Tea Party candidate, no one can be the Tea Party candidate. The conservative Republicans who make up the Tea Party have thrown their support to one flash-in-the-pan candidate after another, never able to coalesce around a single standard-bearer.

If you substitute "Republican base" for "Tea Party"—which you should, because the two are essentially identical—the lesson is the same. The base was unable to produce its own candidate, because the base wasn't capable of acting as a single entity. (The establishment, on the other hand, is pretty good at sticking together. It helps if you have those oak-paneled rooms and high-backed leather chairs, where over cigars and snifters of brandy you can make decisions all your members will adhere to.)

Technology doesn't determine the outcome.

A mere 15 years ago, Bob Dole told voters they should go to his newfangled Internet site, and when he read the URL, unaware that the period was pronounced "dot," he said it as two sentences: "DoleKemp96. [pause] Org." Four years later, John McCain showed that you could raise money on the Web, and everyone was amazed. This was the future of fundraising! Four years after that, Howard Dean showed that you could use the Web to connect campaign volunteers to each other with tools like MeetUp. This was the future of organizing! Four years after that, Barack Obama used social media to keep people energized and engaged. This was the future of campaigning! Although you might remember the story in August revealing that 80 percent of Newt Gingrich's Twitter followers were fake accounts set up by consultants he hired, we've heard almost nothing about any new, innovative, transformative uses of technology the candidates are employing. The likely reason is that social media have been around long enough that no one is surprised by them. When every campaign is using Facebook and Twitter, no one campaign can gain that much of an advantage from them.

Electability isn't always a primary concern.

It isn't that Republicans haven't been discussing which candidate is best positioned to beat Barack Obama in the general election, but the electability discussion seems far more muted this year than it has been in prior elections. The reason seems clear: The Republicans choices are limited to candidates with glaring, dramatic flaws. Who's the electable one? The insincere, robotic flip-flopper? The condescending serial adulterer with a comically overinflated ego? The cornpone governor who struggles to string together a pair of coherent sentences? It's hard to talk about electability when none of the candidates seem electable.

These are all the things we've learned, and the first votes won't be cast for weeks. It's been quite a campaign already.

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