Presidential elections take place every four years, and a media-dependent public has to learn once again why certain events ritually take place in the months before the campaign begins in true earnest.
In only a few weeks, Governor Rick Perry, previously rumored to be a candidate for president, has formally announced he is running, and almost immediately vaulted ahead in mot state and national polls. Until very recently, few outside Texas and GOP activists had even heard of him. How could this happen?
My answer is that it almost always does happen, albeit with different personalities and different issues. Ever since presidential nominating contests, when there is no incumbent in the major political party, became media events, wildly gyrating polls have been features of the early stages of the contests.
Remember Fred Thompson’s much-ballyhooed late entrance to the 2008 Republican campaign? It fell flat soon enough, but for a while the former movie actor seemed to the inevitable next Wendell Willkie (the latter being the only recent, in 1940, late entrant to upset the political apple cart and win his party’s nomination.) And remember that Rudy Giuliani led all the polls by a wide margin in 2007? Likewise, Hillary Clinton dominated Democratic polls that same year. Anyone seen President Giuliani or President Hillary Clinton lately?
There is another reason why Mr. Perry is doing so well in the polls right now. The true frontrunner for the GOP nomination, Mitt Romney, has adopted a very low profile approach to this part of the long campaign period. In my opinion, this is a good strategy, including his avoidance of the recent Iowa Straw Poll, and his refusal to attack rivals in debates and his advertising. As good as this strategy might be, however, it is not sensational news, and thus the media collectively and reflexively turns elsewhere for daily “news” fodder. Thus, they continually run stories about Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani (again), Chris Christie and even George Pataki getting into the race. Their coverage has little to do with these persons actually running, or even being serious candidates. Their coverage is about promoting audiences for their print publications and broadcast programs.
This is not to say that Rick Perry cannot be a serious candidate. He has been a successful political figure in Texas, and he has personality and charm. But Fred Thompson was a famous and enormously well-liked movie and TV star. It didn’t matter. His campaign soon fizzled. (To be fair to Mr. Perry who is working hard so far, Mr. Thompson did not seem to have fire in his political belly.) Also to be fair, the Republican field, except for Michele Bachmann, has not produced many sparks (and remember how Mrs. Bachmann was the darling of the polls only a few weeks ago?).
Like Mr. Romney, Tim Pawlenty had the background, skills and viewpoints, that made him an authentic presidential contender. but Mr. Pawlenty was drawn into public relations traps by the media that seemed to doom his efforts. The quest for a major party presidential nomination is a formidable and risky enterprise to begin with, but the mediazation of the contest has made it into a much more treacherous political enterprise than any time in the past.
Finally, somewhat like the Democratic 1992 presidential contest, the 2012 GOP battle has seen some of its most attractive or well-known candidates choose not to run next year. Mike Huckabee and probably Sarah Palin are not running. Nor is Jeb Bush or Mitch Daniels. This has resulted in a partial vacuum that someone like Rick Perry can appear to fill.
Th answer to why Rick Perry is doing so well in the polls is that someone like him HAS to do well in the polls. If Mr. Perry did not exist, or was not running, the media would invent someone else to fill this role.
In 1992, third party candidate Ross Perot actually led both incumbent President George H.W. Bush and certain Democratic nominee Bill Clinton in the national polls (only months before the actual election) It was shocking, but short-lived. Anyone seen former President Perot lately?
Although I am not yet predicting Mr. Romney’s ultimately victory, nor Mr. Perry’s ultimate defeat, I do think the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign strategy is not being given its proper due. Unlike Senator Ed Muskie (1972), his own father George Romney (1968), and Gary Hart (1984) — all temporary frontrunners – Mitt Romney has avoided the kind of gaffe or political mistake that would diminish his chances once the actual voting begins.
That’s the key to understanding the current phase of the GOP presidential nomination contest. Until December and January coming, when the candidates trek through the snow and ice of Iowa and New Hampshire, and then under the palm trees of South Carolina and Florida soon after that, it is primarily a media puppet show, with the press pulling most of the public strings.
In about 90 days or so those strings will be removed, and the political show will get much, much more serious.