GOP voters still sampling flavors before settling for vanilla

Sorry, Carly. You’re peaking too early. Just ask President Herman Cain.

This week’s CNN poll shows Carly Fiorina, the former business executive, rocketing to the top tier of the Republican presidential race. She has 15 percent support, up from just 3 percent weeks earlier. Meantime, the previously unassailable front-runner, Donald Trump, is suddenly hemorrhaging support, falling to 24 percent from 32 percent, while Ben Carson has dropped to 14 percent from 19 percent.

Then there’s Scott Walker, who just two months ago was the commanding front-runner in Iowa, then saw his support evaporate entirely. On Monday, he dropped out of the race.

This dizzying reshuffle of the Republican deck, if confirmed in other polling, can mean only one thing: GOP primary voters have returned to their preferred method of candidate selection, the flavor-of-the-week technique. Using this method, they undergo a flirtation with every possible alternative before finally holding their collective noses and settling on the most obvious, if uninspiring, consensus choice.

In 2008 they sampled Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney before settling for John McCain. In 2012 there were five front-runners — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum — before voters settled on Romney. If past is prologue, the voters this time will have several more flings over the next few months before settling for somebody such as Jeb Bush who thrills nobody.

One explanation is that the Republican electorate is an awfully fickle bunch. A better explanation is that voters just aren’t paying that much attention to the race, and the constant rise and fall of front-runners is little more than a creation of the media.

A Pew Research Center poll this month found that 27 percent of the public is paying very close attention to the election — slightly more than usual, thanks to Trump and the horde of candidates, but not exactly evidence of an engaged electorate. In this low-information environment, public opinion is susceptible to huge shifts — and manipulation. Indeed, the Fiorina boomlet may be almost entirely a CNN creation.

First the network changed its own qualification rules to give Fiorina a place on the main debate stage. During the debate, moderator Jake Tapper of CNN teed up several confrontations between Fiorina and Trump that played to her advantage (inviting her to comment, for example, on Trump’s “persona” and his insult of her appearance). After the debate, CNN proclaimed Fiorina “the breakout star of the night, taking on Republican front-runner Donald Trump with finesse and capturing the crowd with polished, zinging answers.” Then came the CNN poll that showed, as CNN described it, that “Fiorina shot into second place in the Republican presidential field on the heels of another strong debate performance.”

CNN shoehorns her into debate; CNN puffs her up during debate; CNN praises her debate performance; CNN trumpets poll showing debate gained her support: In the corporate world Fiorina comes from, this is known as vertical integration.

The Fiorina rise is, most likely, a fresh-face phenomenon; she’s the flavor of the week. A month ago, 36 percent of registered Republicans hadn’t heard of her; that fell to 21 percent in the current poll, and those viewing her favorably jumped to 54 percent from 45 percent. As voters give her a serious look, her negative ratings, now just 17 percent, will inevitably rise — and the electorate will very likely move on to sample a new flavor.

Until that happens, Fiorina will look like a cure for all that ails Republicans. After last week’s debate, The New York Times published an article titled “Carly Fiorina Offers Republicans a Pathway to Reach Women” that suggested she could be “a credible antidote to the gender gap and the Democrats’ claims of a Republican ‘war on women.’” That may be the case eventually, but there’s certainly no evidence yet that Fiorina will bring women to the Republican Party — any more than Cain brought African-Americans.

Speaking of Cain, Fiorina fans may wish to recall that it was almost exactly four years ago when the businessman took the lead in the Republican primary competition. In the October 2011 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Cain soared to 27 percent support from just 5 percent in August. Perry, who had been the front-runner, fell 20 points during that same period.

But two months later, in December, Cain was out of the race. Republican voters were by then tasting a different flavor — Gingrich — and would sample him and Santorum for a few more weeks before settling for an old standby: the plain vanilla of Romney.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.

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