Two weeks ago, Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for president at Liberty University, and last week, Rand Paul announced at the Galt House hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. Marco Rubio is expected to announce this week at the Freedom Tower in Miami. Others will follow.
So what have we learned about the race for the Republican nomination for president so far?
1.) Nobody is running away with it. In no national poll of Republican primary voters this year has any one of the dozen or so candidates tested received more than 20 percent of the vote.
And only twice has any candidate received more than 20 percent in the multiple polls conducted in the four early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
Some commentators expected Jeb Bush to jump into a significant lead when he made it clear he would in time announce. That hasn’t happened. At this point in the 2000 cycle, Gallup showed George W. Bush with over 50 percent of the primary vote. Jeb Bush’s current Real Clear Politics average is 17 percent, just tenths of a percentage point ahead of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Republican primary voters are shopping around, uncertain whom to back, with nothing approaching a consensus choice.
2.) Numbers can move fast. Speaking of Walker, on Jan. 24, he gave a well-received speech at the Freedom Summit in Des Moines. The next round of polls showed him shooting up from single digits in the middle of the pack to double digits up at the top.
And not just in Iowa, but also nationally — including New Hampshire, South Carolina and elsewhere. Evidently, some significant quantum of Republican primary voters are paying attention to what is happening not only in their own media markets but all over the nation. They’re keeping up on digital media.
Walker is not the only one who has benefited. In the three national polls and one South Carolina poll conducted since his announcement, Ted Cruz also moved from single digits to double digits, and money followed. Now we’ll see whether Rand Paul’s numbers increase.
In any case, it seems Republicans are ready to move around, moving some candidates up sharply and others, as Rick Perry and Herman Cain learned in 2011, down the totem poll.
3.) Money doesn’t have much to do with this, at least so far. Political reporters like to keep tabs on how much money candidates are raising and if they’re making progress attracting big money donors to sympathetic superPACs. That, like poll numbers, is a measure of support, but it doesn’t seem dispositive yet.
In his Wall Street Journal column, Karl Rove sketched out how much money serious candidates need to raise. Clearly, several candidates will raise enough to hire staff and lease headquarters this year.
Big money comes in handiest, to judge from the last two Republican cycles, in buying attack ads against opponents, especially in the short intervals between early caucuses and primaries. But in a multi-candidate field, there’s always a risk that if Candidate A spends big bucks against Candidate B, voters will recoil against both, and the real benefit will go to Candidate C. Money can boomerang.
Also, the Internet makes it possible to raise late money even faster than you can spend it: Scott Brown, when he suddenly looked to have a serious chance to be elected the 41st vote against Obamacare, was raising $1 million a day in January 2011. So don’t assume the biggest-buck candidate will have an inevitable advantage in early 2016.
4.) Issues and events can reshape the race. Republican primary voters in 2014, after watching provocative Senate candidates lose winnable races in 2010 and 2012, shunned them in 2014 primaries. The positive reaction to Cruz’s articulate and non-emollient announcement suggests some are now willing to take a chance on one. Look for more of that if Hillary Clinton’s numbers keep falling.
The ISIS beheadings last August and terrorist advances since have made Republican voters less isolationist. That made Rand Paul’s views on foreign policy less appealing — and apparently caused him to strike a different note in his announcement.
Bottom line: It’s a very fluid race and an opportunity for candidates to offer new ideas and expand the electorate — two things Republicans need to maximize their chances in November 2016.