A crowd of seasoned politicians competing for the Republican presidential nomination is being dominated by a former New Jersey gambling mogul - and not a very good one at that - who openly disdains the Constitution, not to mention accepted standards of decency and hair care. Meanwhile, the Democrats' heir apparent is apparently losing New Hampshire to a professed socialist who makes Vermont's last presidential contender look conservative.
Growing disaffection? Probably. Slow-starting establishment candidates? Certainly. But the air of unreality about the campaign has much to do with its distance from reality.
The Granite State won't kick off the voting for president for nearly half a year. Pennsylvanians may not have a say for eight months; New Jerseyans for 10. And the nation won't actually elect a president for well over a year.
Here at the wrong end of America's marathon run for the White House, our temporal and psychic separation from the decision seems to encourage a fair amount of collective daydreaming. The polls at this stage are the product of a strange alchemy of name recognition, low stakes, and democratic dyspepsia.
On this date four years ago, according to RealClearPolitics' compilation of polling data, Rick Perry was the public-opinion front-runner for the Republican nomination. Candidates as improbable as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and pizza purveyor Herman Cain would bask in the party's theoretical favor before giving way to the most likely (if least interesting) choice, Mitt Romney.
At the same stage of the campaign in 2003, national polls showed the favorite for the Democratic nomination to be either Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman or that era's insurgent Vermonter, Howard Dean. The latter would go on to dominate the polls for months - until voting began and Democrats coalesced around another dull and predictable choice, John Kerry.
What might be called the absurdist phase of the American presidential campaign - the portion that takes place in the wrong year - used to at least be grounded by the need for broad-based financial support, leading some to call it the money primary. But the loosening of campaign-finance restrictions has helped more candidates wage endless campaigns with fewer sources of support, ushering in today's funny primary.
Campaign-finance deregulation appears to be an irreversible condition for the time being, as do the fragmentation and proliferation of the media, another factor in the metastasis of the presidential race. But the primary and caucus schedule bears the chief responsibility for pushing voting into the dead of January and campaigning deep into the prior year, while creating a void as long as eight months between the de facto nominations and the general election. The primaries are ripe for consolidation and rescheduling: Just imagine the relative efficiency of a process that, say, starts in May and ends in July.