Last week, the Republican Party held its second presidential candidate debate. For those of us who follow presidential politics closely, it seems we are already well into the 2016 campaign cycle. Yet, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire (the first contests) will not go to the polls until February 2016, and the general election is still more than a year away. This shows an important reality about American politics—we now live in a perpetual presidential campaign. Not only is running for president a complex and at times chaotic process, but the campaign seasons now seem to overlap from one to the next as speculation begins about who the contenders will be for the next election weeks before the polls close in the current election. In reality, the 2016 campaign began in October 2012 as political pundits began to look past the Obama v. Romney matchup in November 2012 to begin handicapping the next race four years later.
The American news media, which loves to speculate on and predict future political outcomes, has contributed greatly to this trend. The horse race coverage (as in, who’s ahead, who’s behind, who’s winning, who’s losing, etc.) that has dominated campaign coverage in recent decades has found a more permanent home as an everyday staple of political reporting. Constant stories about candidates, their fundraising efforts, and where they place in the latest opinion polls focus on the game of politics and the personalities of the candidates as opposed to news coverage that offers a substantive discussion of policy alternatives. The lack of substance also leaves tremendous room for coverage that is not only at times vapid, but negative in tone. Other consequences include the fact that longer campaigns cost more money, and in each successive presidential campaign in recent decades new fundraising and spending records have been toppled. It’s not surprising that many American voters feel apathetic and alienated from the political system, and that voter turnout is low.
At present, we find ourselves nearing the end of what is known as the pre-nomination or invisible primary period. Journalist Arthur Hadley was the first to coin the term “invisible primary” in 1976, but as it has evolved in recent campaigns, the activities during this period are now far from invisible. During this phase, presidential candidates are vetted by party officials and major financial backers, as well as the news media, as candidates attempt to showcase their viability as candidates for the general election. Two things matter more than anything else during this time—raising money and media coverage. These two things also contribute to higher standing in early polls, which can be construed as candidate viability. A two-tiered campaign often emerges during this phase of the campaign. A handful of candidates are considered viable early on, while others never break through to the top-tier of serious contenders (and as a result, do not receive much attention from the media or donors).
Who are the top-tier contenders for 2016? The Republican field started out with 17 candidates, but has winnowed to 16 with the early exit of former Texas Governor Rick Perry. In all likelihood, several other candidacies will end in the next few months as well. At present, the top tier includes three anti-establishment candidates who have never held political office: real estate mogul and reality television star Donald Trump, retired pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Also in the top tier are former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (son of President George H.W. Bush and brother of President George W. Bush), Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Ohio Governor John Kasich. Three other candidates are near the top tier: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. All three need to increase donations to their campaigns and support in public opinion polls quickly to avoid an early exit from the race.
On the Democratic side, what once seemed an inevitable victory for Hillary Clinton in the race for her party’s nomination is inevitable no more. Her support has plummeted in numerous polls as a majority of voters find her dishonest and untrustworthy due, in part, to the continuing story of the private e-mail server she had installed in her home during her years as Secretary of State (2009-2013), as well as the pay-to-play allegations about donations to the Clinton Foundation. As a result, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, leads or is tied with Clinton in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, and his campaign has generated large crowds and intense excitement from the progressive base of the Democratic Party. Clinton, on the other hand, at times struggles to fill public venues when she campaigns, and has not provided a consistent campaign message (contributing to what many say is her lack of authenticity as a candidate). As a result, speculation persists about a possible late entry into the race by Vice President Joe Biden.
While it is still much too early to speculate about who will win each party’s nomination, there are a few things to watch in the coming months. First, campaign contributions are an important indicator of whether a candidate is viable beyond the pre-nomination phase. Campaign organization and the ground game (which includes volunteers who focus on voter registration and turnout) also shows viability and strength of a campaign. These can provide early momentum heading into the first state contests. Yet, while both Clinton and Bush have greatly outpaced their competitors in fundraising to date, neither is currently a lock for their party’s respective nominations.
Second, the plethora of polls notwithstanding, most are not accurate predictors this early of how voters will actually behave. National polls at this point are meaningless, as the party nomination is won by competing for delegates to the national convention in each state contest. A high standing in a September 2015 poll will not guarantee support from voters come February 2016. This is particularly true for Trump, who may be dominating Republican polls and media coverage (because of name recognition and the fact that his no-holds-barred campaign style makes for good headlines), but it remains to be seen if his support in polls is actually coming from people who are registered or likely voters in the primary contests.
Third, related to a candidate’s standing in the polls, a good debate performance does not guarantee any victories in primary contests. While Fiorina was the consensus winner from last week’s Republican debate, her strong performance may not translate into a win in any of the state contests. She may, however, be positioning herself to be a serious contender as the eventual nominee’s running mate, or, a high-level cabinet position in a Republican administration.
The bottom line is that while political junkies love all the early coverage and gamesmanship of the pre-primary period, it remains a long road ahead before the final votes are cast to determine who will be the next President of the United States. And, if the history of presidential campaigns has taught us nothing else, anything can happen between now and November 2016.