There’s invariably a big debate every four years in political circles about which indicators really matter in the Invisible Primary that occurs before the presidential nominating process begins (and is usually quickly ended). You’ve got your game-change fans who follow every detail and trend and poll as critical. You’ve got your “party insiders” who invariably think they’re pulling the wires, and who are often echoed by political scientists who genuflect towards The Party Decides and place enormous faith in things like elected official endorsements. And of course, you have your secret advocates and open spinners who will seize on any interpretive device that is good for their candidate.

At Ten Miles Square today, the great journalist and historian Rick Perlstein notes a lot of these explanations with little respect, and suggests most of the commentariat are missing the factor that’s quietly taken over much of the whole process: the walking moneybags liberated by Citizens United:

The bottom line is that the penumbras and emanations of Citizens United are changing the campaign game in ways that throw all previous understandings of how Republicans nominate presidents into a cocked hat…..

[A]ll this, admittedly, gets reported, in bits and pieces. But all this noise doesn’t amount to an ongoing story by which citizens can understand what is actually going on. Not just concerning who might be our next president, but what it all means for the republic. And not just concerning the candidates, but the behind-the-scenes string-pullers whose names, really, should be almost as familiar to us as Mr. Bush, Mr. Rubio, and, God forbid, Dr. Carson.

Instead, we get the same old hackneyed horse race—like, did you know that Rick Santorum is in trouble? Only one voter showed up at his June 8 event in Hamlin, Iowa. The Des Moines Register reported that. Politico made sure that tout Washington knew it. Though neither mentioned that Santorum is still doing just fine with the one voter the matters: Foster Friess, the Wyoming financier who gave his super-PAC $6.7 million in 2012, and promises something similar this year. “He has the best chance of winning,” Friess said. “I can’t imagine why anybody would not vote for him.’’ Which, considering only 2 percent of New Hampshirites and Iowans agree with him, is kind of crazy. And you’d think having people like that picking the people who govern us would all be rather newsworthy.

You’d be right.

Just don’t expect to read anything about it in Politico.

Yeah, we may be in uncharted territory this cycle. It pays to watch closely instead of tossing out iron rules that often turn into putty, or conventional wisdom that’s anything but.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.