It’s more than three months before anyone will cast a vote in the Iowa caucuses, and another month beyond that when Georgians will weigh in on who should be the nation’s 45th president. Yet the horse race is churning at full tilt with lively contests in both parties — at least in the theoretical, fantasy league version played out in the polls.
According to said polling, one trend has emerged so far: The rise of the Outsiders, with all the buzz surrounding a handful of new, if not all fresh, faces.
Republicans have three wild card candidates with little in common, other than they’ve never held public office: Donald Trump, the brash, snarky casino magnate and TV celebrity who claims he knows how to build walls and create jobs because he’s very rich; Ben Carson, a soft-spoken neurosurgeon who recently visited Gainesville’s Free Chapel; and Carly Fiorina, a no-nonsense former CEO who elbowed her way into the top echelon of the GOP field with sharp efforts in two televised debates.
The Democrats have Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a septuagenarian socialist independent and the darling of millennials with his bare-bones, grass-roots campaign aimed at bringing down Wall Street billionaires and turning the nation into a Scandinavian-style utopia.
The rise of this offbeat foursome has left the more conventional field of candidates wondering how the show has wandered so far off the script. What the outsiders lack in polish, they make up for in passion, and after years of choosing the lesser of two evils in the same suits, many voters find their brutal honesty refreshing.
But will it translate into votes? Or will the flavors of the month fade before the first ballots are cast?
We’ve seen this movie before, when the Howard Deans and Herman Cains rose and fell like cannon shots, brought to earth by money woes and their own gaffes. A few long shots have reached the brass ring but are exceptions to the rule. Even with the wind at their backs, it’s too early to tell if the current quirky quartet can make it to the big stage.
Thus, we best throw up a caution flag before labeling anyone as a true frontrunner. Polls have their place and usually are close to predicting results, despite some prominent slips (Dewey defeats Truman, Florida in 2000 and Mitt Romney in 2012 come to mind).
This time, though, they may be having an effect on the outcome rather than just measuring it.
Because of the numbers of candidates on both sides — the GOP started with 17 before some folded their tents; the Democrats began with five, now down to three — TV networks in search of high ratings chose to weed the field for the first two GOP debates by relegating those with lower poll numbers to the kiddie table, saving the prime-time show for the top 10. That became 11 when CNN decided to add Fiorina to the last contest.
Trump ballyhoos his poll standings, constantly claiming “we’re winning,” though no one can truly be winning a race before the starting gun goes off. And that won’t happen until Iowans make their way to school gyms and libraries in mid-winter to decide who really is “winning.” History’s ashcan is full of sports teams, boxers and politicians who were deemed future champions only to have fate throw up a detour. That’s why they play the games — and why they count the votes.
In recent weeks, the venerable Gallup polling firm announced it would no longer do “horse race” tracking polls to feed this phantom beast, and would instead focus on issues. Gallup officials claim the debate angle wasn’t a factor in the decision, but it’s clear the company is looking to take a different tack.
Maybe others should follow suit. Pollsters have it harder in the post-landline era, now forced to vary their methods to get accurate results when ringing up folks around dinnertime no longer can effectively take the nation’s pulse.
And the constant blather over who polls better detracts from the more substantive debate the candidates should be having about how to battle global terrorism, nurture economic growth and address other issues within the president’s grasp. Any claim by one that “I’m winning” should not become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and is never a good reason to vote for someone.
But polls have long been catnip to politicians. The modern candidate spends more time wetting a finger to the wind than raising a sail to catch it. Polling data is used to hone messages toward this or that slice of the electorate, weigh which ads and slogans hit the mark, even what they should wear. Focus groups and poll numbers turn candidates into chameleons who say and do whatever gets them elected. What they accomplish once they get there matters less than the final score.
Perhaps this is why voters are enchanted by the four Pied Pipers who are taking a different approach, at least in this early sorting-out phase of the campaign. Their unconventional styles are a breath of fresh air in a stale climate. Whether any of them has true substance and staying power, time will tell.
Or, more accurately, voters will tell. By then, the polls may be relegated to their better-suited role of figuring out why some of the self-proclaimed “winners” turned out to be anything but.
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