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Primaries are funny things (as I noted earlier today). They tend to be susceptible to dramatic convulsions due to various unpredicted influences. Candidates have provoked marked shifts in their numbers through entirely unplanned episodes - think of Hillary's recent near-tear-shedding epiphany, George Allen's Macaca-moment and Howard Dean's infamous scream-heard-'round-the-world.
Often, the actions of candidates have profound effects on their rivals. The most prevalent factor (apparently unless you're Fred Thompson) is simply whether or not a candidate is present in the race. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader (and, potentially, Ron Paul?) demonstrate the incredible impact of a third-party presence.
Usually, however, the sudden waves in the primary pool are caused by the jettisoning of a candidate from the race. Already, the present cycle has seen the departure of Sen. Joe Biden (D), Rep. Tom Tancredo (R), Sen. Brownback (R), Sen. Chris Dodd (D) and Gov. Bill Richardson (D) (and Stephen Colbert (I), if you insist). While these resignations have had little effect (as the candidates held little sway among voters), we've now reached the point at which major contenders will begin packing it in and calling it quits.
On the Republican side, the field is still wide open, and so the likelihood of a meaningful bow-out is unlikely. Ron Paul probably ought to quit the race, but will likely remain long after the humor of his campaign has worn thin. And, along with Fred Thompson, the Paul departure would likely have little effect. However, the next Republican to fall could have a tremendous influence on the remaining flock, as unmoored voters scrambled to find a new candidate.
The Democratic race has already reached the critical stage in this regard. The political wisdom (for what it has proved to be worth) has pretty much narrowed the field to a contest between Clinton and Obama. While the jettisoning of Kucinich [Did you remember that he was still a candidate?] will likely prove unmentionable, John Edwards could possibly swing the nomination with his parting. If either of the remaining Democratic candidates were to siphon off a solid majority of Edwards' not-insignificant voter base, they would likely sweep the primaries and clinch the nomination.
However, Paul Mirengoff over at Powerline thinks this unlikely. Mirengoff posits that Edwards' anti-corporate voters will shy away from Clinton, whereas the New York Senator will attract his female and blue-collar constituencies. The result would be "a wash," with neither candidate having an opportunity to decisively capitalize upon the moment. If true, the Democrats might endure a far more bloody and divisive two-person conflict than the somewhat diffused Republican race.
The dynamics and possibilities are endless and impossible to predict with any certainty - but we augur our entrails and peer into our crystal balls nonetheless. Thus is the curse of the thinking and restless class!
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