While Canadians are watching our national election unfold, the 2012 U.S. presidential race is taking a turn for the bizarre.
A few months ago, I said the field would essentially freeze at Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich because those candidates had too much profile to allow lesser dark horse candidates to thrive.
Primaries are tribal clashes. The four main tribes of the Republican Party (social conservatives, Tea Partiers, the wealthy, neo-conservatives) each have a horse in the race, and they aren't going to leave that candidate for a less appealing figure with no natural constituency. There just aren't very many paths for an unknown Senator or Governor to get the votes to win.
The thesis failed to account for the possibility of another high wattage public figure entering the race, which is what happened. Donald Trump is now tied for first among Republican primary voters, in the latest CNN poll.
Trump 19% / Huckabee 19% / Palin 12% / Gingrich 11% / Romney 11% / Paul 7% / Bachman 5% / Daniels 3% / Pawlenty 2%
Question: What does this poll mean? Well, it sure made Barack Obama's month. The leading s even candidates for the Republican nomination are badly damaged.
A good test of a candidate's electability is if you can summarize their negatives in a bumper sticker. Here is a very quick scan of the Republican field:
Trump: Bankrupted casinos? You're fired
Huckabee: Raised taxes, and pardoned convict who killed four cops
Palin: She can see Russia from her house
Gingrinch: Left his wife while she was in the hospital for cancer, and government shutdown
Romney: RomneyCare is basically ObamaCare, and his flip-flops and Mormonism
Paul: Scares the hell out of 80% of Republicans
Bachman: Scares the hell out of 80% of Americans
It isn't until you get to governors Mitch Daniels and Tim Pawlenty that you find candidates who are broadly competitive in a general election and who have the potential to appeal strongly to independents and Democrats.
And those guys are not going to win the nomination in a field this crowded and top heavy. There just isn't the oxygen when you have the cast of the best reality show on TV ahead of you. Who is going to take their eyes off the political train wreck of those first seven candidates long enough to read Tim Pawlenty's plan for health care?
Question: There are only 800 people in this survey. Is Trump's showing evidence of a rouge poll?
Answer: Actually, Trump has been doing well in a broad array of surveys of likely Republican primary voters. He was as high as 10% in March national polls, and finished second in a New Hampshire poll (behind Mitt Romney) earlier this month.
Question: Pish-posh. Early polls are just meaningless. Anything can happen in politics, right?
Answer: Actually, early polls are usually correct in picking the eventual winner, when you average them out.
Nate Silver found that early surveys - including those more than a year from Iowa - did a remarkable job in identifying the eventual Republican nominee.
In fact, since the rise of open primaries in 1972, John McCain is the only Republican candidate not leading in early polling to go on to win the nomination, a measure of the failure of Rudy Guiliani's campaign and McCain's own strong second place showing.
The Democrats have had a few upsets, but they are more rare than you think. Bill Clinton was a rare exception in a field that looks like this one, but featured lots of people taking a pass on the nomination. There is no indication Huckabee, Romney, Gingrich or Paul are not running, and either Palin or Bachman will certainly run.
The fact is that early polls matter, especially when the candidates are generally well known, and the five front-runners are. Even Paul and Bachman have huge natural constituencies that simply will not go to another candidate if they are in the race.
Question: So Trump is going to be the nominee?
I wouldn't put money on that. Trump has the whiff of Fred Thompson around him, a dilettante who won't have the steel to undergo the most grueling electoral contest on earth: an American Presidential primary.
He could lead for a short while and then collapse, or decide he has something better to do. But if his numbers keep going up as people recalibrate to the new entrant, Trump might actually win the nomination.
The main point is that the Republican field is getting less electable, not more electable.
Question: Trump matches up pretty well against Obama in a hypothetical race. Could he win the Presidency?
That's true. Trump did do well in an early head-to-head with Obama, trailing by just three points. But Trump has never had a negative ad run against him in his life, except the ones "the Apprentice" uses as promotions.
I don't expect his biographical flaws will remain quiet in the bruising Republican race, let alone a general election, and his unfavourables (44%) are already a lot higher than his favourables (32%).
Question: Can a "real" candidate win the nomination, someone like Mitch Daniels or Tim Pawlenty?
The Republican establishment is terrified of this weak field, and has tried to rally behind Romney. His sudden collapse to 11% in this poll is as startling as Trump's rise. The reality TV star appears to be eating into Romney's support more than anyone else's. That could send the establishment into a mad panic and an abandonment of Romney.
We could see a move to either rally behind Daniels, a competent and mainstream Republican who is probably the most viable in a general election. But he has a long way to go through a crowded field with very little media coverage if he is to win. It's not impossible, but it's unlikely.
The primaries are a death match, not a beauty contest. Being people's second choice is useless if you can't get their one and only vote, especially in the critical early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The Republican electorate in those states are conservative and anti-establishment. There just aren't very many votes for a nice moderate guy no one has heard of.
Question: What about Jeb Bush?
Some establishment Republicans want to draft a major figure like former Florida governor Jeb Bush to run for them, as a uniter who can bring the party together.
Like Trump, Bush could destabilize the field. But the real challenge is where is his vote going to come from? He isn't the social conservative Huckabee is, or the neo-con that Gingrich is. The tea partiers will back Palin or Bachman ahead of this establishment figure. Ron Paul's libertarians aren't going anywhere. And Romney and Trump appear to have sizable constituencies. Compassionate conservativism is out of fashion, and a front-runners strategy.
And, frankly, is America ready for Bush the Third?
Question: So what's going to happen?
I have no idea who is going to be the nominee. My gut says former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, but things could change again quickly.
Given Mr. Trump's ease at commanding a significant following, I wouldn't be surprised to see a fluid situation with multiple front-runners between now and Iowa. There may even be some more late entrants who shake up the field like Trump.
But I do know that the Republicans are in deep trouble trying to beat President Obama in 2012.
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