Rep. Michele Bachmann is the woman to beat in the GOP presidential primary. No, wait—it's really former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who's way ahead in the polls in crucial New Hampshire. Scratch that; Texas Gov. Rick Perry is the new darling of the Republican primary electorate, just weeks after getting into the race.
The lessons from the early-ish months of the Republican presidential primary campaign are this: there is really no such thing as a "front-runner" in the race, except as defined by a media that hasn't always gotten it right. And the fact that the head-of-the-pack role has been changing frequently shows just how unhappy or unsettled the GOP electorate is with the slate in front of them. [See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]
"Front-runner" is a meaningless phrase when a single primary hasn't been held. A straw poll in Iowa? Interesting, but that's all it is—a poll. It shows, to some degree, which candidates are at that moment in time attracting the attention of a group motivated enough to get out and vote so far ahead of an actual, official presidential nominating contest. It might bring more attention to a candidate (like Ames Straw Poll winner Bachmann) who might not have been taken as seriously before the event. But it does not a front-runner make. And yes, Romney is obviously a strong candidate—a stronger and more practiced one than he was in the last campaign—but winning the New Hampshire primary is no longer critical to winning the nomination.
The media, unfortunately obsessed with horse-race dynamics at the expense of actual issues, likes to categorize candidates in the field. It's somewhat understandable, especially when the field is large, but it's terribly unfair and often inaccurate. Hillary Clinton was the presumed front-runner in the media for much of the primary campaign, until she lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. Texas Rep. Ron Paul has gotten written off as the team wacko in previous campaigns, although a close read of the transcript of the GOP Michigan debate in the last election shows that Paul, alone, foresaw the then-looming economic and housing finance crisis. [Read: Is Ron Paul a Fringe Candidate?]
The fact that the alleged front-runner has been changing frequently in this campaign is an indicator of a GOP flaw that could be Obama's winning ticket next year: the Republican primary electorate is still deeply divided and unhappy with parts of each candidate. Romney has a business background that appeals to fiscal conservatives, but he is hamstrung by his signature on a healthcare law in Massachusetts that served as the blueprint for the federal law so many Republicans hate. Perry's swashbuckling ways appeal to the angrier and more combative part of the party, but his description of Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" is a sure-fire way to lose older voters, and with them, the election. [Check out political cartoons about the Tea Party.]
The process may well end up making the eventual GOP nominee stronger for having survived the competition. In the meantime, there is no front-runner.