The Republican presidential campaign hasn’t featured this much upheaval since the days of President Lyndon Johnson—and that’s a precedent worth remembering.
The parade of fast-rising and fast-falling challengers to front-runner Mitt Romney began with Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin. Then came Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Georgia businessman Herman Cain is the most recent flavor of the month, but few expect him to last, either. Judging by the polls, Republican voters have been looking at candidates as if they were trying on heaps of clothes at a department store without buying anything.
But it’s not all Republican voters. Polls show that one group in particular is driving the volatility—the party’s most conservative and populist elements. “Activists are looking at the race like they’re in no rush, especially now that finally the field has come together,” said Adam Brandon, a spokesman for the tea party-aligned FreedomWorks. “You have a group in the base of the party that has changed dramatically, and the candidates haven’t kept up. And none of these guys are naturals.”
If such fickleness seems strange for a Republican presidential primary, it is. An analysis of historical poll data shows that only once in the last 50 years has a GOP election been as volatile as 2012’s. Consider that Romney, the presumptive front-runner, can barely crack 25 percent in national polls, even as he sees his rivals rise and fall around him. The early front-runner has always eventually triumphed in recent Republican Party history, but this cycle’s atypical upheaval—and, just as importantly, the forces behind it—show just how much more difficult Romney’s path to the nomination is than it was for his front-runner predecessors.
The pattern that GOP preprimary battles usually follow hasn’t held in this election cycle. Republicans usually find an early leader, someone who can attract about half the party’s support long before any votes are cast. That candidate, while not necessarily enjoying a smooth ride, runs a strong campaign throughout. Excluding 2008, the eventual Republican nominee has always had at least 40 percent support nationally by fall of the previous year, according to data provided by Gallup. In October 1999, for instance, George W. Bush had 60 percent support nationally, almost 50 points more than his closest rival. In an early November 1995 poll, Bob Dole was similarly formidable, holding 46 percent of the vote. His nearest opponent was Pat Buchanan, at 7 percent.
The front-runner’s popularity rarely wavers. In 1967, Richard Nixon rose above 40 percent in September and didn’t sink below that figure for the rest of the primary season. His opponent, Nelson Rockefeller, rose as high as 27 percent in January 1968, but he was still 15 points behind Nixon. Republican nominees have certainly faced stiff challenges: In 1980, Ronald Reagan had a commanding edge for more than a year, then saw it shrink precipitously after George H.W. Bush won the Iowa caucuses in January. The two men were tied at 32 percent, although Reagan quickly pulled away after winning in New Hampshire.
To some degree, the 2008 race broke the mold. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the eventual nominee, was the early national front-runner, but his campaign and his popularity seemed to implode during the run-up to the primaries. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, soared to the head of national polls for most of 2007. But Giuliani decided not to compete in the early states, which opened the door for McCain and allowed him to recapture the lead after winning the New Hampshire primary.
But the best comparison to 2012 actually dates back to 1964. That race featured four different national front-runners in the 18 months before the GOP convention. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the eventual nominee, started well behind New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in early 1963. Even after surpassing Rockefeller in the polls, Goldwater had to fend off three more rivals: Nixon (who ultimately didn’t run that year), ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, and Pennsylvania Gov. Bill Scranton. All four men—Rockefeller, Goldwater, Lodge, and Nixon—were “front-runners” in at least one national Gallup Poll.
What’s driving 2012’s volatility? It’s a mixture of hardened conservatives that includes evangelical voters and tea party activists who can’t make up their minds. In South Carolina, Cain leads Romney 36 percent to 25 percent among self-described tea party, conservative, and evangelical voters, according to an NBC/Marist poll released this week. When Texas Gov. Rick Perry was atop the polls in September, he had surged in particular among tea party supporters. A CNN/ORC International poll late that month showed that 38 percent of tea party supporters backed his bid. Less than one month later, the same survey from mid-October indicated that the Texas governor only had 10 percent of tea party supporters behind him. Cain was now their choice, receiving 39 percent of their support.
None of the tea party types have warmed up yet to Romney, who does best with self-described moderates and Republicans who don’t identify with the tea party. If Romney’s star has risen, it’s only because his rivals are all fighting for the same block of disaffected conservative populists.
This article appears in the October 22, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.