Today, still 14 months out from the Republican National Convention, some journalists remain wary of thinking the race could be over so soon despite Rick Perry's impressive polling. Amy Gardner at the Washington Post wrote yesterday that "Republicans are still shopping for a presidential nominee" and Ken Rudin argued on his NPR blog that the 1972 primaries provide historical evidence that all candidates should be considered viable nominees, especially this early in the game. However, we don’t need to go back decades to show that predictions of Perry winning the nomination are not necessarily premature; we only need to go back to the last presidential election.
At first glance, it seems the 2008 Democratic primaries prove exactly the opposite: Clinton was a frontrunner, and Perry is the current frontrunner, so isn’t it logical to assume that Romney or a new candidate could still win the primaries? Not exactly. Rick Perry is polling ahead for the same reason Obama eventually won his party's nomination.
In September 2007, Hillary Clinton's eventual nomination to be the Democratic candidate for the 2008 presidential election seemed like a no-brainer. Clinton had bested her rivals in the polls and the punditry for months. In the futures markets, Clinton was leading Obama by as much as 55 points. The Economist wondered: “Can Hillary be stopped? It's looking less likely by the day.” Even George W. Bush predicted that Clinton would be the Democratic nominee. But, by the beginning of election year, Obama and Clinton were in a dead heat. He scored endorsements from Oprah, John Kerry and Andrew Sullivan, raised a record $32 million in January 2008 and had his significant victory in the Iowa caucus.
The reason Obama beat Clinton in 2008 is because independent and moderate voters — the bread and butter of general elections — are mostly irrelevant in primary elections where passionate partisans drive decision-making. Obama looked like the best candidate to liberal Democrats in 2008 -- in part because of his long-standing opposition to the Iraq War -- and those are the voters who matter most in the primaries for both parties. The same fundamentals are working to push Perry to the forefront now. Tea Partiers —the most vocal contributors in the primaries -- find the 'ponzi scheme' Perry more attractive than his more moderate rival, just as Clinton couldn’t compete with the passionate rhetoric that liberals craved, and Obama offered, after eight years of Bush.
In a way, it's 2008 all over again.