COLUMBIA -- Keeping up with the latest presidential polling is like watching a roller coaster.
Candidate A is up in one poll, down in another and rebounds in a third. All in the same week.
For example, a Clemson University poll of S.C. voters, released in late November, had former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee in a statistical tie at the top among Republican presidential hopefuls. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee polled third, followed by U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was a distant fifth.
An Associated Press-Pew Research Center Poll of S.C. voters released days later showed Giuliani tied for first place with Romney and Thompson.
In the AP-Pew poll, McCain was again fourth and Huckabee was fifth, lower than he had placed in the Clemson poll.
The candidates, arguably the people paying the most attention to the sea of rankings, understand the finicky nature of the poll.
"I am delighted that I'm here in first place today," presidential hopeful Mitt Romney told a crowd at Eagle Aviation in West Columbia earlier this week.
"But I know enough about polls to know I won't be in first tomorrow. It goes up and down, up and down."
While the election season is in full swing and new polls are appearing nearly every day, South Carolinians just now are starting to pay attention to the rankings, political scientists say.
S.C. voters head to the polls next month for both the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries, and will have a historic influence on who becomes the major party candidates for president.
Now is when voters are beginning to pay attention, the experts say.
"There's a period from a couple of months out (from a vote) to a couple of weeks out when people begin to engage in 'information seeking mode,'" said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist and pollster.
"They're paying attention when the evening news comes on versus continuing to chop that onion (for supper). They can move from undecided to a soft supporter to a hard supporter pretty quickly."
That means polling conducted from now into January might give a clearer picture of what will happen on primary day.
"The closer you get to the election, the more and more people have their minds made up. There are fewer and fewer undecideds," Huffmon said. "When you're a week out, it takes something massive to change people's minds."
But do we know yet who's likely to be the parties' nominees?
Short answer: No.
Research conducted by the Pew Center earlier this year looked back at nearly 50 years of early primary polling and found that Republicans who became front-runners early on are often good bets to capture their party's nomination. However, the crystal ball is historically more murky for Democrats. (Think Howard Dean.) But this year is different.
"Unfortunately for Republican aspirants in this cycle, no candidate can benefit from the GOP's traditional early leader tendency for the simple reason that no single front-runner has been established," the Pew study concluded.
From a campaign perspective, polling -- be it six months or six days out from the election -- has equal impact, said Zac Wright, S.C. spokesman for U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.
"No matter when the polls are, you remain focused on Jan. 26 and winning," Wright said.