THE know-it-alls didn't know it all.
Months of predictions to the contrary notwithstanding, the presidential nominations weren't all sewn up on Super Tuesday. John McCain didn't put it away. Mike Huckabee has not been reduced to political irrelevancy. Once again - as with earlier forecasts of Hillary Clinton's implosion in New Hampshire, Rudy Giuliani's commanding national appeal, and Mitt Romney's untouchable leads in the early states - the politicos proposed but the voters disposed.
In the final hours of his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton spoke repeatedly of the "great mystery of American democracy." He was on to something. For all the sophisticated tools and technology with which modern candidates wage their campaigns, what happens in the voting booth is still, so often, a mystery.
Part of that mystery is what a candidate needs to pass the threshold test of presidential believability. On paper, Romney seemed to have all the necessary ingredients: brilliant private-sector success, a spotless and wholesome personal life, ample gifts of intelligence and charm, proven appeal to Blue State voters, extremely deep pockets, and the benefits of massive advertising.
Yet at no point has he managed to dominate the Republican race. Instead he finds himself fighting to catch up to McCain, whose campaign was all but abandoned for dead last summer.
What is it that pushes a candidate over that threshold? Is it powerful media support? For weeks, many of the most influential media voices on the right, especially on talk radio, have lacerated McCain and championed Romney. Yet voters in state after state have ignored the talkers, and chosen McCain over Romney.
Is it the right stand on issues? They don't seem to be the key to the 2008 campaign, either. Andrew Kohut, head of polling for the Pew Research Center, told the Wall Street Journal yesterday that in the race between Clinton and Barack Obama, "there is no correlation in the exit polls so far between the issues people think are important and the candidates they vote for." Among Republicans surveyed, McCain has often been the least likely to share voters' positions on issues. For all that, he has become the frontrunner in the GOP race.
All theories should be treated as suspect, but here is mine: Voters this year are seeking character and integrity. More than popularity or ideological compatibility, what they crave are candidates of honor and decency. That is why McCain and Obama continue to ride high, when so many other candidates have left the field.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is [email protected].