Cutting through the campaign myths: Why 2016 remains a roller coaster

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In this first column of 2016, I stubbornly refuse to surrender to the listicle culture: Eight Takeaways from the Speech, The Five Best Moments of the Debate, 13 Must-Read Emails from the Latest Dump.

But without descending into numerical headlines, I hereby offer some observations on the strangest presidential campaign in modern memory as we head into the season when voters actually get to cast their ballots.

Maybe I’ve spent a little too much vacation time in the sun, but the cold reality of January suggests some observations that might have been lost in the blur of constant coverage.

Many of you are just tuning in. Pundits, myself included, often forget that not all of America was breathlessly following the exhibition season of 2015. Millions of people don’t know that the press has largely deemed Jeb Bush to be toast, that Chris Christie is viewed as mounting some sort of comeback, that Ben Carson is seen as a Herman Cain flash in the pan. They barely remember that the media briefly conferred front-runner status on Scott Walker, who, along with Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal and George Pataki, is gone from the race.

The media have not “made” Donald Trump the front-runner. Sure, the billionaire businessman has dominated the coverage and enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the Fourth Estate. But he is incredibly astute at commanding attention, not just through the art of insult but with over-the-top attacks and proposals on Mexican illegal immigrants, Muslim immigrants, John McCain’s war record, Bill Clinton’s sex life—and, of course, the “scum” and “sleazebags” of the media. No politician has ever thrived on the media’s scorn the way The Donald does. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban calls Trump a master of generating “headline porn.”

Policy has never mattered less. Ted Cruz has catapulted himself into a strong second place because voters know he’s a confrontational conservative, and his stance on social issues has a particular resonance with evangelical voters. Republicans know that Cruz, like Trump, is fiercely opposed to illegal immigration. They view Trump as a proven job creator because of his real estate empire. They care little about the details of his tax-cut plan, or the fact that he’s taken liberal positions in the past. They may know that Cruz has been hammering Marco Rubio on immigration and Rubio has been hitting Cruz on NSA surveillance, but the details are fuzzy at best. This is partly the fault of a media culture that values stinging sound bites and taunting tweets far more than substantive proposals. So far, at least, talking tough on terror matters more than the specifics of fighting ISIS.

Experience has never mattered less. Once upon a time, having served two successful terms as Florida’s governor would help a presidential candidate; now it’s practically a liability. Anyone who served in the pre-Twitter era is viewed as a dinosaur. Politicians with experience in Washington, and even in state houses, are dismissed as part of the problem. After seven years of GOP complaints that Barack Obama was too inexperienced for the Oval Office, this is an odd turn of events.

Advertising has never mattered less. Bush and his Super PAC have dropped more than $30 million on commercials and yet he’s remained mired in the low single digits. Trump spent not a dime on TV advertising and has a huge lead (though as I exclusively reported last Monday, he announced today that he is blitzing Iowa and New Hampshire with a campaign ad costing $2 million a week -- and which focuses on ISIS, illegal immigration and temporarily barring Muslims from entering the U.S.). Rubio’s commercials seemingly air constantly but have provided a modest boost at best. It’s a cluttered marketplace; people are increasingly suspicious of ads; and candidates can communicate more efficiently on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube, especially if the media magnify those messages.

Most outsiders lose for a reason. Carson, who was once neck-and-neck with Trump, has faded in the polls as a series of mistakes highlighted his lack of foreign policy knowledge. His messy staff shakeup, with the campaign manager and other top aides leaving, reflected a quintessential clash between professional operatives and a candidate’s longtime friend, in this case Armstrong Williams. Carly Fiorina, who surged after strong debate performances, slid back to single digits once she and her team were unable to capitalize on her moment in the spotlight. Running for president is a minefield, which is why every president since Ike had already been a seasoned political warrior.

New Hampshire has never mattered more. A Cruz victory in Iowa’s caucuses could give him major momentum, or be written off as an anomaly, which is what happened to Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. A Trump victory in Iowa could launch him on an unstoppable run. Either way, no fewer than four so-called establishment candidates—Jeb, Christie, Rubio and John Kasich—view the Granite State as crucial to their survival. Anyone who finishes poorly there after a weak Iowa showing will face anemic fundraising and media obituaries by the time South Carolina votes.

The race is utterly unpredictable. Beware of the prognosticators who claim to forecast the future. Most of them dismissed Trump as a mere sideshow.

Let’s see, how many bullet points is that?