During the Republican nominating contest, competing paradigms have arisen for how to interpret the evidence from polls, voting results and other tangible indicators of success or failure. The paradigms present profoundly different conclusions about the most likely outcome.
One might be called “More of the Same.” It asserts that the traditional rules of engagement in a nomination race still apply, and that the empirical evidence from past contests is reasonably powerful.
That evidence looks something like this: Although the nomination is technically decided by delegate counts, and somewhat less literally by the preferences of rank-and-file voters, ultimately the nominee is determined by a sort of open negotiation among the party elite, which includes elected officials, major donors and the partisan news media, among others.
Voter preferences can make some difference, but more as a lagging than a leading indicator. Being well-credentialed and building a traditional campaign matters, and candidates who do not do so may soar in polls but inevitably fall back to earth. Moreover, parties tend to come to fairly rational decisions about their nominee, placing heavy emphasis on electability. (This view is eloquently explained in the book “The Party Decides,” by the political scientists Marty Cohen and others.)
The competing paradigm might be called “This Time Is Different.” It asserts that a fundamental change has occurred in America’s political culture, or that a temporary shift is especially salient in this year’s Republican race.
Under this interpretation, elite support and the ground game do not matter as much as usual. Instead, success is more idiosyncratic: personalities matter a lot, and nominations are determined based primarily on momentum and news media coverage.
There is the potential under these rules for the process to be chaotic. Not only is there no guarantee that voters will “fall in line,” but they may actively rebel against presumptions that they will do so, leading to rapid changes in momentum, and increasing the potential that a party will nominate an “unelectable” or nontraditional candidate. Under this view, the best indication of voter sentiment at any given time is probably the polling — although it may be acknowledged or expected that the results will change rapidly.
Up until a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses, it had seemed the “This Time Is Different” paradigm had a lot going for it. Blatantly nontraditional candidates (or pseudo-candidates) like Herman Cain and Donald J. Trump had once led in national polling, something for which there is no good precedent.
Moreover, polls had been exceptionally volatile: Mr. Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry had each surged then collapsed in a way that was not at all typical. There seemed to be a strong resistance among rank-and-file Republicans to nominating someone like Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty or any candidate who was playing by the rules.
Once Republicans got around to voting in Iowa and New Hampshire, however, “More of the Same” had seemed to make a comeback. Yes, there had been late surges in polls, but they benefited candidates who seemed to have earned them: Rick Santorum in Iowa and Jon M. Huntsman Jr. in New Hampshire, who had concentrated heavily on those states and who were good cultural fits for them.
Meanwhile, the candidate who emerged in by far the strongest position in the Republican race was Mr. Romney, who was the overwhelming choice of party elites. He had won New Hampshire going away, and he had appeared to win Iowa. And he had taken a clear lead in national polls of Republicans, of a magnitude that had historically been insurmountable.
I have tried to weigh these competing paradigms in my coverage of the Republican race. But I had found the evidence for “More of the Same” compelling after Iowa and New Hampshire. Suddenly, but not unexpectedly, according to the theory, everything seemed to have fallen into place. The Republican nomination race of 2012 more closely resembled the Democratic contest of 2004, in which there was some ambiguity about the outcome before the voting began, but one candidate — John Kerry — emerged as a clear front-runner after Iowa and New Hampshire and never looked back.
Then came South Carolina.
The political culture there is not well understood. South Carolina has not occupied the crucial role it now plays in the nomination process for long, and conventional wisdom has tended to reach some dubious conclusions based upon on limited sample sizes. South Carolina, moreover, is a quirky state, seemingly having resisted the tendency of its neighbors Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia to behave less like a Southern state and more like a coastal one.
But South Carolina’s seeming rejection of Mr. Romney goes beyond cultural or demographic idiosyncrasies. Mr. Romney was resoundingly defeated by Mr. Gingrich, losing badly among his worst demographic groups and barely beating Mr. Gingrich among his best ones. Had you extrapolated the exit poll cross-tabulations from South Carolina to the other 49 states, Mr. Romney might have lost 47 of them. Moreover, the decline of Mr. Romney was almost as significant in national polls as it was in South Carolina.
Perhaps Mr. Romney’s defeat had less to do with the place and more to do with the timing. It is not at all uncommon for voters to rebel against an “inevitable” nominee. In fact, it might be expected under the “More of the Same” paradigm.
Since a version of the current nominating rules were adopted in 1972, the only non-incumbent candidate to have swept all 50 states was Al Gore in 2000, and Mr. Gore was a de facto incumbent, having been the vice president to a popular president and having only one significant intraparty challenger in Bill Bradley.
Meanwhile, candidates as strong as George W. Bush in 2000 took losses somewhere along the way, despite polling at about 50 percent in national surveys from the start of the nomination race to its finish. Voters in different states seem to work together to test their nominee, and to make sure that he is not just handed the nomination, even if they ultimately like him a great deal. Bill Clinton, for instance, lost states like Colorado and Connecticut late in the nomination process to Jerry Brown in 1992, even though his selection was all but assured.
The question, then, is whether there is anything precedent-breaking about Mr. Romney’s defeat, one that might provide evidence that “This Time Is Different.”
A case can be made that there was something new about Mr. Romney’s defeat. The case relies less upon the outcome and more upon the sudden reversal in the polls that was its prerequisite.
After his win in New Hampshire, Mr. Romney built about a 19-point lead in the national polls. No candidate who has led by a margin that large has failed to win the nomination. Yes, Iowa and New Hampshire might behave unpredictably, and sometimes they will not produce a clear front-runner. But when they do, as seemed to be the case for Mr. Romney, their judgment has usually been impeccable. And even when they do not — like when Mr. Bush lost to John McCain in the New Hampshire primary in 2000, or Bob Dole lost there to Pat Buchanan in 1996 — the eventual winner might nevertheless be clear based on national polls and other empirical indicators.
Mr. Romney has not trailed Mr. Gingrich in a national poll since mid-December, but the odds are that he soon will. His lead was already down to 3 points in one recent survey, and that was before the momentum from South Carolina could be factored in.
The cases where the national polling lead shifted after New Hampshire are few and far between. It has never happened in a Republican race, although it did occur for Democrats in 1972, 1984, 1988 and 2008. With the partial exception of 1988, when Michael Dukakis became a fairly clear favorite after Super Tuesday, each of those contests was a fight to the finish.
But in each case the front-runner’s lead had been marginal — not like the robust lead that Mr. Romney had seemed to hold. What has been especially strange about the recent reversal in polls is that it seemed to come out of nowhere. The Monday night debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., was not Mr. Romney’s strongest, and he was judged by most observers to have lost it to Mr. Gingrich. Even when a candidate loses a debate, however, he usually does not see an overnight 20-point shift against him in polls.
Perhaps, then, there is profound resistance among Republican voters to nominating Mr. Romney after all. He has significant weaknesses as a candidate, having reversed his position on several major issues at a time when conservative voters distrust the Republican establishment and value authenticity. And he is a Mormon from Massachusetts — not a traditional pedigree for a Republican candidate.
If the resistance is strong enough, perhaps Republicans will nominate Mr. Gingrich. Or perhaps there will be an effort to draft a candidate who is not currently running for president, like former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida or Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin or Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.
Political parties sometimes do go through challenging phases. In the past, they have not happened to coincide with periods in which the other party had an incumbent president with a 45 percent approval rating amid a poor economy. But parties have tended to nominate more ideologically extreme candidates in their first cycle out of the White House rather than being willing to settle for an electable moderate.
Still, the nomination of Mr. Gingrich would very much violate the “More of the Same” paradigm, given that he has proudly and loudly proclaimed that he will not adopt the auspices of a traditional campaign, and that he would be one of the most unpopular candidates ever to be nominated by a major party.
But perhaps “This Time Is Different.” We will learn a lot more in the coming days based on the results in Florida and movement in national polls.
Although there can be a tendency to overreact to developments, there can also be a tendency to stubbornly default to conventional wisdom and previous assumptions about the way the process is supposed to work.
In the case of presidential primaries, previous beliefs ought not be accorded all that much weight: Americans have not been picking presidential nominees in quite this way for all that long, and yet a presidential nomination process is complex. In more abstract terms, both conceptual and statistical models of the presidential nomination process may be “overfit” and draw too many conclusions from idiosyncratic examples.
My view is that Mr. Gingrich’s win in South Carolina alone is not enough to be paradigm-breaking. But if he follows it with a win in Florida, all bets are off. Not only would that represent further evidence of Mr. Gingrich’s strength, it would suggest that we had been weighing the evidence incorrectly all along.