Primary Campaigns: Very Predictable, But Still Fun

When Newt Gingrich began his presidential run, he said that he was such a transformative and revolutionary figure that a regular kind of campaign just wasn't capable of containing and advancing his unique brand of awesomeness. He proved this by going away on a two-week cruise to Greece, whereupon most of his staff quit in frustration. But just a few weeks ago, it began to look like Newt may have been right, and that his unusual way of running for president -- starting with being a uniquely unpopular figure, then eschewing the normal things candidates do, like raising money and organizing supporters -- might not stop him from becoming the Republican nominee.

But alas, now Newt seems to be coming back down to earth. A number of polls in the last week have shown him falling both nationally and in Iowa, where the caucuses are two weeks away. So what does this, and everything that has come before, tell us?

I think what it tells us is that even the craziest campaign often has the most boring, predictable ending. Things could still go any number of ways, of course, but if Newt's flame-out is for real, it makes it all the more likely that the nominee is going to be exactly the guy everyone thought was going to be the nominee from the beginning. For all the wacky twists and turns, and polling leads being held by no fewer than six separate candidates at one time or another, it'll probably turn out pretty much the way we thought it was going to.

This is actually pretty encouraging. It tells us that while it's possible for a crazy person like Michele Bachmann or an ignoramus like Herman Cain to capture voters' attention for a few moments, there isn't much danger that any one of them could actually become president. In the end, the factors that get you to the finish line are the same as they've been for a while: money, organization, institutional support, and so on. That doesn't mean that the candidates that win are going to be good presidents, but it does mean that even in today's fast-moving media environment, the outright cranks can't succeed for long.

In fact, if you look back at the last few decades of presidential primaries, the person who wins is almost always the person everyone thought was going to win. Since the rules on how primaries operate were changed between the 1968 and 1972 elections, there have been 13 primary contests not involving an incumbent president. A few of those featured no real early front-runner, but there were really only two out of the 13 in which there was a clear early front-runner who didn't prevail: Ed Muskie lost to George McGovern in 1972, and Hillary Clinton lost to Barack Obama in 2008. And in neither of those cases was the eventual victor some kind of out-of-nowhere candidate who ran a seat-of-the-pants campaign and stumbled into the nomination. McGovern and Obama both ran extremely smart primary campaigns that deftly played the delegate rules to their advantage and captured the desires of their parties at that particular moment in history.

In many other campaigns, there was a candidate no one thought had a chance but who temporarily caught fire -- Mike Huckabee in 2008, Howard Dean in 2004, Paul Tsongas in 1992, Gary Hart in 1984. These candidates always seemed unprepared for their success and couldn't put together enough of a campaign to prevail over the early front-runner. And I'm willing to bet that's what will happen again this year, the only difference being that the brightly-burning challenger isn't one person, but four different candidates in rapid succession.

The relative predictability of these contests shouldn't convince you that the primary campaign is all sound and fury, signifying nothing, and we shouldn't even bother paying attention. If nothing else, it's fun! This primary has featured a wackier cast of characters than any network sitcom. And that's what's fascinating about politics: even if you know what's going to happen, you never really know what's going to happen.

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