Let the craziness begin.

Photographer: Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Wild Times in Iowa and New Hampshire

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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A Catch of the Day to Nate Cohn for warning us that the last month of campaigning in Iowa (Feb. 1 caucuses) and New Hampshire (Feb. 9 primary) can be a time of unpredictable movement in the polls. That’s because:

[M]ost voters have still not made up their minds by this stage. After all, this isn’t a general election, when most voters invariably choose the candidate of their party. Most voters like most or even all of the top candidates. Because of that, it doesn’t take much for voters to switch quickly from one candidate to another.

The outcome, as Cohn documents, is that swings of 20 percentage points or more are not unusual in the final weeks before a vote. 

It is understandable that most voters haven't paid much attention to the Republican contest so far. After all, a lot of the potential decisions -- Marco Rubio or Scott Walker? Ted Cruz or Bobby Jindal? Chris Christie or Lindsey Graham? -- have already been resolved. People would have wasted time considering them in advance.

A voter who opposes illegal immigration may know now that Donald Trump is the candidate who talks about stopping it. But people will discover, as the election draws closer, that Cruz or another candidate shares that position, and they may change horses with little prompting. Or a voter who supports Cruz for his anti-abortion position will see that other GOP candidates are just as vehement in support of that view.  

Yes, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have already been exposed to information about the candidates. But this will increase in the last few weeks before the caucus or primary, and voters will be more receptive to it.

And the nature of the available information about candidates may change when they launch attacks against one another. Jeb Bush’s super PAC, for example, has begun attacking Marco Rubio. This could hurt Rubio, and could help Bush, but it could also hurt Bush and help some other candidate (Christie? John Kasich?). Or it could even backfire and help Rubio. Good luck trying to predict any of that. 

Multicandidate elections without parties or any other fixed allegiances to distinguish among the candidates are inherently unstable.  So the next few weeks will be fascinating to watch. Nice catch!

  1. Of course, that’s only true for those who do nothing more than vote. The fate of Walker, Jindal and Graham was determined in large measure by Republicans who are more deeply involved in party politics. 

  2. In the long run, parties can choose despite that instability. The long sequence of primaries and caucuses allows parties to weigh in over time in favor of some candidates and against others. Party-controlled resources matter. In the short run, however, crazy things can happen.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net