Craziest Ever. No, Really!

Sometimes a perfectly valid observation about a political phenomenon will be repeated so often and then internalized that people forget exactly how true, and how significant, it actually is. That may be the case with the “unusually volatile race” label for the 2012 GOP presidential contest.

National Journal‘s Alex Roarty supplies some historical context:

I wrote in October, when Cain’s campaign was at its peak and before Gingrich’s and Santorum’s rise, how the contest had already seen the most upheaval since 1964. That year, four different people – Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, Henry Cabot Lodge and Barry Goldwater — were leading the race in at least one poll. A fifth man, William Scranton, surged to within a point of the lead two weeks before the party’s convention.

But now, after the volatility of the last four months, even the ’64 race seems tame in comparison. The fact of seven front-runners doesn’t quite capture all of the movement in the polls: It doesn’t include Michele Bachmann’s temporary status as the Iowa front-runner or that Gingrich and Santorum both fluctuated between contender and also-ran twice. Or that Romney has oscillated between front-runner and underdog nearly every month for the last six months.

Polling data supplied by Gallup dating back to 1930 shows that no other race since that time has even come close to the same level of volatility. The 1940 GOP primary produced perhaps the most shocking result, when the GOP nominated businessman Wendell Willkie when he had polled at only 3 percent nationally in April of that year. But that was the product of a late surge, not a year’s worth of rises and collapses from potential candidates.

Now it may be rightly objected that we didn’t used to have so many public offering so many chances for someone to play front-runner-for-a-day. But still, the gap between 2012 and every other contest is so wide that it can’t really be explained away. And the fact that so many fringe characters like Trump, Cain and Bachmann at some point led the polls has to be taken into account as well. Indeed, it’s perhaps significant that one of the very few candidates or potential candidates who never enjoyed a surge–Tim Pawlenty–began the contest as the smart-money favorite. Yes, TPaw turned out to be as boring as he looked, but it’s not as though he imploded via personal scandals like Cain or got taken down by a combination of key missteps and multi-million dollar attack ads like Perry or (three separate times!) Gingrich.

True, the odds are still high that Mitt Romney will eventually win this thing. But sorry, no one will ever convince me that this outcome was “inevitable.” If the craziness of the last year has been just one long hallucination, then it’s time for us all to change our meds.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.