It really isn't that unusual to see big swings in primary polling numbers.
In mid July, Michelle Bachmann's poll numbers reached their peak. By August, Rick Perry surged to the front of the pack of Republican presidential candidates. Herman Cain dominated October. Today, Newt Gingrich is the latest GOP flavor of the month.
A new poll by Gallup shows that Republican voters now consider Gingrich and Mitt Romney the only acceptable candidates. Gallup found 62 percent considered Gingrich acceptable, and 54 percent said the same of Romney.
Perry had 41 percent support, followed by Bachmann and Cain at 37 percent, Ron Paul at 34 percent and Jon Huntsman Jr. at 28 percent.
Surging in opinion polls like that one, a confident Gingrich declared Monday he plans to challenge Barack Obama in every state next year, and he began running a gauzy TV ad — his first — to push toward the Republican nomination to take on the president. But, illustrating how far he has to go, Gingrich also found himself defending the state of his campaign. (See related story.)
The rise and fall of so many candidates in so little time suggests that public opinion is unbelievably fickle. It is hard to imagine a single person could support four such divergent candidates in the course of less than six months.
Yet this is precisely what Washington Post journalist Dan Balz discovered when he traveled to Iowa to talk to Republican voters there.
"'I am on my fourth way of thinking' about who would make the strongest challenger to President Obama," said Arlan Eckland of Dennison, Iowa. Eckland's wife Gwen, is leaning toward Gingrich, after being excited about Bachmann and Perry only to watch them wilt under the media spotlight, Balz reported.
Why has support for GOP candidates shifted so dramatically?
One explanation for this election cycle's volatility is that many conservatives are dissatisfied with Mitt Romney, who they see as the establishment candidate, said Scott Clement, a Washington Post polling analyst. Media attention, and in particular debates, may also have an impact, he said. In their search for an alternative, these voters are swayed by the media attention lavished on potential challengers. The volatility in polling numbers prompted Michael Salsman, Forbes Magazine political columnist, to accuse Republicans of being the "real flip floppers." Ultimately, however, fluctuating opinion polls do not mean that Americans are unprincipled opportunists, experts say. They just haven't found what they are looking for.
The success of anti-establishment candidates such as Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Mike Lee in the 2010 midterm elections made it clear GOP politics is undergoing a tectonic shift. Forces within the Republican party affiliated with the tea party movement, including Freedom Works and local grassroots groups have "helped move the Republican party to the right," says Vanessa Williamson, co-author of the new book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. The rise of the tea party means many on the right expect candidates that reject moderate positions. "Call them tea party or social conservatives or whatever you want, but they want a Republican nominee who is a no-holds-barred, unadulterated conservative" wrote Charlie Cook in his political column for MSNBC.
That many of the Republican presidential hopefuls dipped their toes in liberal waters doesn't sit well with tea party activists. Only one in ten of Republican or Republican leaning independents who support the tea party agenda say they are "very satisfied" with the field of candidates, says Clement, the Washington Post pollster.
Some do not consider Romney, who served as governor of what is often considered the most liberal state in the nation, a true believer. "Romney is not a conservative," said right wing pundit Rush Limbaugh on an October installment of his radio show. "He's not, folks. You can argue with me all day long on that, but he isn't. What he has going for him is that he's not Obama."
Atlanta-based tea party activist Jack Starver agrees. "His beliefs. His character. [Romney] is not our guy," said Starver. That Romney has changed positions on key issues like abortion and the individual mandate to purchase health insurance doesn't make help his standing among social conservatives. Some of the religious factions within the Republican party seek an alternative to Romney for other reasons. Over half of Republican or Republican leaning evangelicals consider Mormonism a non-christian tradition according to a Pew Research Center poll released in November of 2011. For voters who want a candidate that represents their religious convictions Mormonism is a non-starter.
To satisfy the conservative demand for an outsider candidate, the media has focused with laser-like intensity on the challenger that appears to be on the rise. On the flip side, candidates who don't receive media attention have difficulty getting traction with voters. "It is hard to rise in the polls when you are invisible," says Quin Monson, associate director at the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.
If polls suggest that a new candidate may be the real thing, journalists have been flocking to cover every detail. Recall the upswing in media attention Rick Perry received as his poll numbers started to rise. Everything from the particulars of positions on immigration to his controversial plan to give grade schoolers the HPV vaccine were covered at length. The attention can result in increased awareness and, at least initially, better polling numbers.
The nature of the political poll-media attention cycle is reinforced by the bandwagon effect explains Alan Abramowitz, professor of Political Science at Emory University. That is, voters care about what other people think. If polls suggest that a candidate has broad support, they are more willing to give that person serious consideration.
But, what intense media attention gives, intense media attention can take away. "In choosing and displaying news...[journalists], play an important part in shaping political reality" said Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in their 1972 landmark study published at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Intense focus on a candidate's flaws can change the way they are perceived by voters.
Consider the impact of coverage on Bachmann's insistence that God caused the 2011 earthquakes on the East Coast, Perry's ineptitude on the debate floor, and Cain's string of alleged sexual improprieties. As their imperfections became manifest, media coverage helped shape a perception that these candidates are not ready for the presidency.
The Nature of Polling
One could easily conclude from this cycle of boom and bust that American voters are a fickle bunch of hypocrites. They shift support from candidate to candidate in quick succession to avoid supporting one accused of changing his mind.
But there is another interpretation. Polls catch people in flux. They offer a glimpse into the decision making process. Responding to a poll is not a binding decision, nor should it be treated that way.
Shifting results in public opinion polls tell us who the public has on their mind, but they are not always a good indicator of who they will ultimately choose in the voting booth. "It really isn't that unusual to see big swings in primary polling numbers" says Abramowitz.
Case in point: the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. After a brief surge by Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani was the front-runner up until voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary states rejected him in favor of Huckabee, McCain, or Romney. Similarly, Hilary Clinton enjoyed huge leads in nearly every poll until a majority of voters chose Obama.
This does not mean that polls are inaccurate. It simply means that their predictive power is limited. Polls are a reliable measure of what people are thinking at the moment. But what people are thinking at the moment does not necessarily correlate with what they will ultimately decide.
And this is not such a bad thing. Considering your options is part of the decision making process, a democratic duty.
EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this report.