Campaign Silly Season Is Already Underway
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Okay, I’m calling it: We’ve officially entered the silly season of presidential-nomination speculation.
That’s why we’re getting articles about how secure President Joe Biden’s hold is on renomination if he winds up running again in 2024, and articles about how shaky Vice President Kamala Harris looks right now. Expect more. Expect them to be silly. Expect them to be sillier than such articles usually are at this point in the cycle, and they usually are quite silly indeed.
The problem is that there’s very good reason to write about presidential nominations several years before the Iowa caucuses — traditionally, the first event in which voters get to weigh in. Political scientists disagree on exactly how important this stage can be for choosing the nominee, but it’s pretty clear that early skirmishing around the nomination is an important part of a long process in which candidates and party actors wind up pushing the eventual nominee, and therefore the party as a whole, toward something resembling agreement on policy positions and priorities.
How does that work?
Candidates start circulating among the politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, donors and activists, party-aligned interest groups, and the partisan media. They see which policy ideas win support and which leave their audiences cold. They also begin, even at the very early stages, to test out their ideas on voters, sometimes at personal appearances and sometimes by commissioning survey research. Some candidates modify their agenda to account for what they hear; others are committed to running on what they believe in (or, in some cases, what they’re convinced will sell regardless of what they hear). Eventually, some candidates thrive and collect valuable party-controlled resources — such as money, personnel and publicity — while others drop out. Collectively, all of that activity, some in public and some less so (thus the “invisible” primary), pushes the party toward a collective platform.
That’s why it’s a good thing for the media to cover the early stages of the nomination process. So why is it silly? For one thing, much of the activity is behind the scenes, and the people eager to talk to reporters about it aren’t always the ones who are actually important within the parties. For another, reporters — and, lets face it, readers and viewers — are far more interested in the candidates than they are in policy, and they’re most interested in the candidates who are already well known, whether or not they’re serious contenders. Even so, any party with an open nomination, and therefore a relatively public process, gets generally solid coverage with only relatively small doses of silliness.
The real problem is the parties without open nominations — typically, those with first-term presidents. In those cases, if there’s any early maneuvering around a potential nomination fight, it’s almost always done quietly, leaving reporters with less to report. One obvious solution is to just ignore that party. But some speculation is normal, and ignoring one party entirely may seem unfair. (One substitute for speculation about a primary challenge to a sitting president is speculation about whether the vice president will be dropped from the ticket. This time, we’re just getting speculation about whether the vice president’s political career has been ruined instead. The truth, of course, is that vice presidents always have a rough ride, and it’s even worse when the president is unpopular.)
Which brings us to the 2024 cycle, in which both parties are more or less frozen in place. On the Republican side, several candidates are doing candidate-like things, but many believe that the nomination is Donald Trump’s if he wants it, and none of the other candidates wants to earn Trump’s wrath by seeming to challenge him. On the Democratic side, meanwhile, Biden’s advanced age makes the possibility that he’ll eventually drop out more plausible than it normally would be, which means that the press is (correctly!) more tempted than usual to cover a nomination race, even though the potential candidates are just as careful as they always are about keeping their ambitions quiet.
Thus reporters have good reason to be looking into the inner workings of both parties, but little of substance to say. Which is why they’re apt to either speculate or, more likely, amplify everyone else’s speculation. So take it all with a large grain of salt, or just ignore it for a while. It’s silly season.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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