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The Trump moment won’t last — just check history

A UCLA political scientist reminds us of a few moments from the contest for the 2012 Republican nomination.

Supporters holding cut-outs of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump while waiting in line outside a campaign town hall meeting in Derry, N.H., on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The Trump moment seems to still be building. In the latest polls, among Republicans Donald Trump leads both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, even in Florida.

A great many pundits who started out assuring the public that this cannot last have decided to stop acting so sure about that. Not so Lynn Vavreck, and she’s got a few facts from not-so-ancient history to suggest why it’s too soon to believe that the Donald is here to stay.

UCLA political scientist Vavreck, who writes often for the hoi polloi, takes to the Upshot blog of The New York Times to remind us of a few moments from the contest for the 2012 Republican nomination. The story of such flashes in the frontrunner pan as Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry has been mentioned before by others, but it has begun to seem as if Trump has lasted so long and risen so high that the comparisons no longer apply.

Unless, that is, you check the history. From Vavrek’s piece:

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Is there reason to believe that Mr. Trump will be the nominee because he is well ahead of the others in the polls now? No. Does it matter that he has been ahead for so long now? No.

I tracked such candidate boomlets in 2012 with John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, and we called the process “discovery, scrutiny and decline.” What Mr. Sides and I learned in 2012 was not about just the dramatic onset and disappearance of these boomlets. It was also their duration: Some of them lasted a long time.

Let’s look back to August 2011. A headline in The Times proclaimed “Promising Better Direction, Perry Enters Race.” Within two weeks, CBS reported “Rick Perry Surges to Front in Latest GOP Poll.” By Aug. 21, Mr. Perry had outpaced the rest of the pack, garnering 29 percent of the vote in a Gallup Poll to Mitt Romney’s 17 percent…

Perhaps because of faulty memory, we seem to be thinking of the candidate surges in 2011 as happening quickly, but they didn’t. Some, like Mr. Perry’s, took time. Lots of it. He was the front-runner for the G.O.P. nomination in the fall of 2011 for roughly 44 days. Herman Cain stayed atop the polls, sometimes earning as much as 40 percent of the crowded field, for about 41 days as voters and media checked him out… He ceded the lead to Newt Gingrich, who held it for nearly 47 days, until January 2012.

We call them boomlets because they don’t build and last throughout the nominating process, not because they are quick, fleeting or irrelevant. For at least 132 days in 2011 someone other than Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, was the front-runner in the Republican field of candidates for president — despite Mr. Romney’s being in the race that whole time. Pundits explained that pattern in 2011 as a dissatisfaction with Mr. Romney that was leading people to look elsewhere — anywhere else — for a nominee, but the evidence didn’t support that argument. People shop around.