The Real GOP Race Has Barely Started

UT Dallas_tex_orangeby Karl Rove

At this point in 2011, Rick Perry was on top—and three others led without winning, too.

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Mitt Romney and Rick Perry take part in a CNN presidential debate in Las Vegas, Oct. 18, 2011.

The difficulty with a Thursday column after a Wednesday presidential debate is that the newspaper is put to bed hours before the debate starts. But here are a few observations about the GOP contest that don’t depend on how specific candidates fared in their second face-off.

The race is likely to swirl unpredictably for some time to come. On this day in 2011, Texas Gov. Rick Perry led the presidential field with 29.9% in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. Still in the future were the periods during which Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were each the front-runner. Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, didn’t grab the lead in the polls for good until Feb. 28, 2012. Several people on stage last night probably moved their numbers—for good or ill—with their debate performances.

Remember, too, that in 2012 the Iowa caucuses were held on Jan. 3. Next year, the caucuses take place on Feb. 1. That makes movement even more likely: 63% of Republicans believe it is too early to make up their minds, according to a Sept. 13 New York Times/CBS News poll.

Conventional wisdom has been that nothing front-runner Donald Trump says hurts him. But there are signs that the contrast between Mr. Trump’s abrasive style and Ben Carson’s soft-spoken demeanor is having an effect. Mr. Trump’s support seems to have topped out, rising only three points, to 27% from 24% in the past two months, according to the New York Times/CBS poll. Perhaps Mr. Trump’s pungent insults are having a cumulative and corrosive effect.

Support for Mr. Carson, meanwhile, rose 17 points, to 23% from 6%. This jump came even though Mr. Carson had a lackluster first debate performance—though his thoughtful closing remarks alone may have caused voters to pay more attention to him.

The danger for Mr. Trump is that his campaign is built around his poll numbers. He obsesses about them in his speeches and gets testy when journalists point out negative ones, like recent Marist/MSNBC/Telemundo poll showing that 70% of Latinos view him negatively. What happens if he loses the lead?

There is also likely to be more volatility as voters become increasingly interested in whether candidates have credible plans to achieve their goals. After the glitter of campaign announcements fades, the time for substance arrives.

If the past is any guide, voters will be increasingly preoccupied with the deeply personal and complex question of whether a candidate is qualified to be president. Especially in the early states, party activists are becoming serious about determining which candidates have the temperament, character and vision to provide effective leadership in the Oval Office.

All of this comes when trust in government is at a historical low. Last year when Gallup asked Americans how much confidence they had in Washington, more than half said “not very much” or “none at all.” Americans are more skeptical of the federal government now than they were even in 2008, during the financial crisis, or in 1976, two years after Watergate. The presidential candidates successful in those years were relatively untested “outsiders”—one-term Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter and then-first-term Sen. Barack Obama.

Fifty-six percent of Americans want the next president to have experience in the political system, while only 40% want someone from outside the political establishment, according to a Sept. 10 Washington Post/ABC poll. Republicans, however, favor an outsider 58% to 36%. They are so infuriated with the political class that they want a candidate who will throw a brick through Washington’s window.

This points to the challenge for Republican hopefuls who have held office: They need to show that they have effectively challenged the political status quo. Having served outside Washington, governors should have an easier time at this than senators.

There will be four more debates—one a month—before the Iowa caucuses, then three debates in February. Until then, the only thing we know for sure is that the race will be determined by how the candidates conduct themselves. That would be true in any political year; it’s triply true in this unusually volatile era, when many of the usual rules don’t apply. The candidates—and all the rest of us—should buckle our seat belts. We’re in for quite a ride.

Mr. Rove helped organize the political-action committee American Crossroads and is the author of “The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the 1896 Election Still Matters,” out in November from Simon & Schuster.

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