Now that the US election campaign is only a year away, it is time to get serious about the candidates, if, not yet, the issues. That comes later. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a quick look at what the field seems to look like - and why.
What with the Ebola epidemic still raging, the oil price swooning ever lower, the potential for further military incursions (openly or by stealth) by Russia into its “near abroad”, democracy sit-ins in Hong Kong, massacres in Paris, even worse in the far northern parts of Nigeria, elections in that country, the UK, Greece, Israel and many other places coming up, readers might be forgiven for forgetting that the next US presidential election is about to enter the preliminary stages already.
Sure, the actual US election itself only happens in November 2016, but those interminable primaries, caucuses and conventions are just a year away. As a result, since the campaigning and pre-campaigning are so complex (and cost so much and require so much time and effort to raise the money to pay for everything), the actual organising to deal with that state of affairs for would-be candidates is already advancing forward.
In the coming months, Daily Maverick will be offering more in-depth profiles of the various contestants (and, yes, it is rather like a beauty contest in some respects). We shall also take occasional looks at the events in the lead-up to the actual formal campaign, as various individuals step forward and officially declare their respective candidacies, as well as the way the big, core issues eventually come to be framed by the candidates, the public, and the media.
People often ask why would-be candidates take so long to make formal announcements of their candidacy in America. The question is sometimes framed this way: Why tease the public with those coy, less than a straightforward honesty about intentions? Actually, there are several reasons.
The first, most important, concern is probably the legal reporting aspect of things. As long as an individual is not a formal candidate, announced publicly and the documents are all signed, they do not yet have to comply with a whole raft of complicated Federal Election Commission regulations on funding and fundraising reporting as a real candidate.
Second is the growing importance of the role of the so-called superPACs, those political action issue advocacy committees not directly tied to a candidate. According to the tax and campaign rules, superPACs cannot coordinate formally with a candidate’s campaign in support of a particular candidate. They are supposed to be organisations that advocate policies. But, the funding rules that govern these superPACs are a lot looser than actual campaign committees, and so each candidate hopes that people especially friendly to them (and with some rather deep pockets) will decide to organise a superPAC that is broadly supportive of a candidate’s views on certain “hot button” topics that catch voter attention and gain positive media coverage.
In the meantime, even before they declare their actual candidacy, would-be candidates must begin to assemble a network of experienced campaign staffers who know the ropes, the pitfalls and the personalities involved, let alone the actual issues of an election. And, in truth, while there are lots of people who want to do this kind of work, the pool of genuinely talented, experienced people for this work is limited, especially if ideological comfort with a particular candidate is important.
Finding people who can do the actual on-the-ground campaign stuff both nationally and state-by-state becomes hard work. But then so is finding people who can deal with the all-important social media presence, the traditional media presence, and the issue and opponent research, as well as the crucial fundraising and “bundling”. The latter is the invaluable ability (complete with the necessary computer database) to be able to call upon a network of high net worth individuals such that they agree to contribute up to federal limits for both the primary season and the actual presidential race that comes after the conventions.
Then there is also the more Machiavellian need to suss out the competition and possible competition so as to outflank them with crucial primary voter blocs, or chivvy the potential competition into awkward statements where they have contradicted themselves with their past positions, or have offered a policy idea that can be mocked by competitors as a dog whistle bit of politicking with the media and party-aligned interest groups. And all of this must begin to take place before a candidate has formally announced they intend to run for the nomination.
Eventually, a candidate has to announce himself before the deadlines of the various primary elections. (The late New York Governor Mario Cuomo famously equivocated so long about filing for the New Hampshire presidential primary back in 1988 that he ultimately failed to file the documents, even though a plane was ready and waiting to carry them – and him – on the short hop to New Hampshire from Albany, New York where he was ensconced as governor.) Nevertheless, some candidates hope to postpone that day of reckoning as long as they can so that they can concentrate on getting things organised and outfoxing their potential opponents – or flushing out any embarrassing material others may have about them before things get too far along.
And, of course, there is also sometimes truth to that presumably simple-minded notion that some individuals being frequently mentioned as potential candidates actually are just not sure if they wish to run. As a result, they continue to weigh the pros and cons late into the run-up to the campaign season and into the wee hours of the morning in every one of those nights leading up to decision day. Becoming an actual candidate means they will subject themselves to the incessant scrutiny of their families, their personal finances, health records, past public and private decisions, their track record as office holders – as well as the kinds of scurrilous attacks that now routinely come with any hunt for this job.
With all this as background, let’s run through who the pundits think are the likely contestants for the nomination. On the Republican side of things, for months it seemed 2016 would be a battle by some of the party’s newer faces. But, now, surprisingly, both Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush have been making serious noises (and the all-important moves like dropping participation on the boards of companies and other institutions that could be troublesome to explain or reveal conflicts of interest between the private and the public good) about coming into the contest. What is fascinating about this seemingly sudden turn of events is that both men’s networks of supporters, potential campaign staffers and funders overlap to a considerable degree – therefore putting an early, sharp competitive edge to this pre-campaign, going into 2015, even before either man has fully and officially committed to going after the nomination. And either of these two men, if they commit, will begin drawing attention away from the more “moderate” of the other potential candidates. So, only days into 2015, a big shake-up in the accepted narrative is already underway.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz is making all the right noises about a candidacy, even though it remains a real question of whether he can expand his reach beyond an incredibly-loyal-but-not-especially-big base of support. And, of course, the bottom line for Cruz is the question about whether he can raise enough money to capitalise on a respectable showing he might achieve in that early Iowa caucus, a vote that has, in the past, anointed as frontrunner someone who doesn’t ultimately have the staying power to win the election in the end. And so, for Cruz the key question is whether he can raise enough money to capitalise on that strong showing, if he does happen to win, place or show in the 2016 Iowa caucuses?
Then there is former Arkansas Governor (and former contender for the GOP nomination) Mike Huckabee. He has always been able to tap into a very loyal born-again, fundamentalist base and he has just left his role as a host on a Fox News public affairs talk show – a sure sign of movement on the campaign idea front. Moreover, he’s come out with a new book that is replete with “red meat” for his support base of those social conservatives. In his book, for example, he has charged that Jay-Z has been pimping his wife, Beyoncé – for whatever that bit of prose may help him on the campaign trail.
Meanwhile, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has gotten something of a thumbs-up from meetings with social conservative groups in Iowa a short while back. For Jindal boosters, this is a sign of his ability to appeal to both the religious and business “tribes” of the GOP – and his backers insist this is a quality no one else in the potential field can deliver convincingly. Still, it remains to be seen if he will get a real look-see from primary and caucus voters, now that the roster of contenders is getting increasingly crowded, and especially with the presumed entry of Bush and Romney.
Then there is Ohio Governor John Kasich. Absent the two big guns, he might get more of a look-see, given the weight of Ohio in the electoral arena. However, it will be hard for him to stand out in a collection of proto-candidates who will be making their pitch as politically attuned policy wonks. In a field without Jeb and maybe Romney, Kasich would be a stronger choice perhaps.
Then there is Florida Senator Marco Rubio. His own approach to the issue of same-sex marriage – he’s still opposed – is a bellwether for Republicans, especially as state after state slides over to the approval of same-sex marriage and as public opinion moves decisively in favour as well. His message on Cuba – strongly opposed to relations – will also be an issue that may help or hurt (more likely now) him with the public.
Among the names already being discussed, probably nobody will be more disadvantaged by the rising tide of Jeb Bush is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. His greatest strength had been, aside from his public charisma (in a style that can play well in the Northeast), has been his close relationships with the biggest Republican donors in the New York/New Jersey area. Unfortunately for Christie, his Rolodex overlaps considerably with that of Jeb Bush’s own supporters. But, after Christie’s near-death experience with that pesky bridge scandal of last year, many of those donors may just see Bush as a safer bet and give Christie a pass, despite his natural skills as a communicator to the rich and powerful and to John Q Public alike.
If Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and 2012 presidential candidate is really serious about running, he almost automatically rises to the top of the pile as the GOP’s champion. No one in the party, not even Jeb Bush, has the proven fundraising and vote-harvesting ability of Mitt, despite the fact he lost decisively to Barack Obama. But it will depend on whether he has that crucial fire in his belly and the full on backing of his tight-knit family and close friends. He knows what the candidate meat grinder feels like, and he will have to decide if he wants to go through it yet again.
Then there is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a man who seems ever closer to deciding to run, now that he has hired former Republican National Committee political director Rick Wiley to construct a national political operation for Walker. That’s pretty illuminating, since Walker has gone through three state-wide campaigns in only four years. This is also important because, as noted earlier, there are only so many experienced political aides at key levels to take on board for a run at the presidency.
Of course, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is already mixing it up like a likely candidate. In an interview with a conservative news blog, he called Jeb Bush a “moderate” (presumably fighting words with the GOP) and he has decried Bush’s support for the Common Core curriculum standards and his refusal to sign that evergreen campaign pledge of “no new taxes”. Paul has also had a bit of a shoving match with Christie over the issue of privacy versus national security, and with Rubio over Cuba relations. Watch for a lot more of this as Paul tries to separate himself from the rest of the mob as the iconoclast voters will come to love.
Finally, of course, there is Jeb Bush. As with Romney, he has easier access to money and organisational talent and skills than the rest of the pack, and that can help him rise early on in this scrum. If he commits to run, his seriousness of purpose will stand him in good stead, although there is a real sense that the country is already suffering from a degree of Bush fatigue (just as there is the sense on the part of some that there is Clinton fatigue, if Hillary Clinton should put her foot forward to become the Democratic candidate).
Over in the Democratic camp, there is, of course, that likely prohibitive favourite of a frontrunner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, especially since she has been building up a full-fledged campaign organisation, in advance of any decision. But of course, there are those who are starting to push for alternatives like Vice President Joe Biden or Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren who would, if she ran, attempt to tap into the public’s unease or worse with the way the economic recovery seems to have preferentially benefited the already well-off. And then there is a slight boomlet for former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, and the mutterings of Martin O’Malley, former Maryland governor. Webb is a decorated military veteran, former Pentagon official and an increasing rarity in Democratic circles, a genuine white, male senator. But, he, like O’Malley is largely unknown, outside of his home state, so far.
Of course it is very early days and much will depend on the viability, strength and durability of the current economic recovery (it is almost always the economy, stupid, just as Bill Clinton’s team used to say), as well as the uncertainties of the international political and security scene. A new major terror attack, or a landmark Middle East settlement under the Obama administration’s final years would, of course, change many of the calculations all of the putative candidates have been working on to weigh their respective chances, so far. So stay tuned – it will be a long campaign with lots to write about. DM
Photo: A file picture dated 07 October 2006 shows then US president George W. Bush (C) with his father former President George H.W. Bush (L), and his brother then Florida Governor Jeb Bush following a christening ceremony the US Navy’s new aircraft carrier the George H.W. Bush, at the Northrop Grumman shipyard in Newport News, Virginia. EPA/MATTHEW CAVANAUGH; Then Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event at the Exhibit Edge building in Chantilly, Virginia May 2, 2012. REUTERS/Benjamin Myers