The race for the White House has officially begun! I’d expect the vast majority of people who read that either shrug or let out a small groan. For the next forty-five weeks until the Iowa Caucuses (and eighty-five until Election Day), the news cycle is going to be filled with stories about the men (or woman) who could possibly be the next President of the United States. It is, in some ways, the longest job interview anyone in the country will go through trying to get a promotion.
There are a few important notes to make about the kickoff of the race:
- President Barack Obama is now, officially, a lame duck
The expression “lame duck” presidency generally means that a President who is on his way out of office has little power over the political process. Rather, he is sidelined as the political class shuffles to find a new champion to get behind. It says nothing good or bad about Obama, it’s the inevitable fate of a two-term incumbent.
Though most commentators would say that the lame duck term officially begins after the last mid-term election of a President’s term, Obama has seemingly bucked this trend and has pursued several aggressive policy initiatives despite losing control of the Senate for the Democrats. In one sense, Obama has a freer hand to dictate his more liberal agenda as he occupies the only political branch of government that can be counted on to enact progressive policy.
However, prepare to see a shift away from Obama on the national policy level. Republicans, more than just criticizing Obama (as they are wont to do), now will need to offer the “if it was me in that job” alternative. Each of the Republicans running for the Presidency will have to offer concrete ways in which he will separate himself from the current President. Moreover, he will have to differentiate himself from his colleagues running for the same office. On top of all of that, he will also have to go after whoever rises in the Democrat primaries in order to tarnish that person’s future branding.
Speaking of the Democrats, their nominee, likely-but-not-100%, Hillary Clinton, has to juggle support for Obama with her own moderate branding. While she cannot be seen as a dissident within the Democrat ranks, if Hillary wants to appeal to the over-50% of Americans who disapprove of Barack Obama, she cannot be seen as a mere continuation of the current Administration. To that end, Clinton must deftly work at defining Obama’s last two years as influential-but-not-binding on her political ambitions.
- A larger field means a lot more money
Let’s briefly take a look at when candidates got into the Race for the White House
First in 2012:
Mitt Romney: June 2, 2011
Ron Paul: May 13, 2011
Newt Gingrich: May 11, 2011
Rick Santorun: June 6, 2011
Rick Perry: August 13, 2011
John Huntsman: June 21, 2011
Michele Bachmann: June 27, 2011
And what about for 2008?
John McCain: April 25, 2007
Rudy Giuliani: February 15, 2007
Duncan Hunter: January 25, 2007
Mike Huckabee: January 27, 2007
Ron Paul: March 12, 2007
Mitt Romney: February 13, 2007
Fred Thompson: September 5, 2007
A larger field generally seems to attract candidate declarations earlier. This makes sense from the fact that candidates want as much time in the spotlight before they are overshadowed by other names jumping into the race. Also, it makes sense to declare and get official fundraising underway to be able to show impressive reports after the first and second quarter of donations.
2016 is different from the previous two races because of the changing landscape of unlimited corporate donations to political action committees and other advocacy groups. When a candidate officially jumps in the race, he’s no longer able to bring in huge amounts of money for affiliated groups. Thus, a candidate has more power to bring in money for his bid for the White House when he’s not running than when he is running. It’s a bit of political theater, but it’s the current climate.
However, as Governor Rick Perry experienced in 2012 and Fred Thompson saw in 2008, waiting to enter the race until later in the cycle means that you have a major uphill battle to fight. Certainly in the 2016 race, Jeb Bush, who is seen as a fundraising machine, understands this reality and will announce his official candidacy in late spring or early summer.
- “Official Announcements” really don’t matter
Let’s be clear, for the Federal Election Commission and under the law, official declarations of candidacy for the nation’s highest office are critically important. However, practically, it’s the equivalent of changing your Facebook status to “in a relationship” despite the fact that all your friends and family know you have had a girl/boyfriend for months. The people whose names have been floating around and who have been making appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t just flirting with a run for the White House, they’re in a committed relationship with the idea. You better believe the second they see some numbers that they have the slightest outside chance at the Presidency (or at least some political benefit), they are running.
So, in reality, we know most of the people who are going to be running for President even without their official declarations. Moreover, because of the structure of campaign finance laws and SuperPACs (as well as advocacy groups), candidates don’t just jump in to the race and start from square-one in terms of money and networks. Rather, they enter with sophisticated operations and tons of cash with their eyes set on running a major business for the next year.
- Politics is a business and business is good
The integration of the 24-hour news cycle and social media platforms into the daily life of the majority of Americans makes political branding into a big business on the cutting edge of an evolving society. Pulling together marketing strategies as well as financial management and law, the modern run for the White House rewards innovation and style. Especially in the context of the wide disparity between generational media, politicians truly seeking a national presence and reaching both young and old voters across economic and cultural lines need impressive organizations.
When the downfall of an entire operation can come as easily as hitting send on a poorly-worded tweet, getting caught saying something unflattering on a hot mic, or flubbing your talking points in front of a national audience, every campaign is constantly on the edge of a knife. The exhilaration of the constant fight for the top spot (and the reality that, in the words of the Highlander “there can be only one”) means that innovation and branding messages must be dynamic and forward-thinking.
So with the announcement by Senator Ted Cruz that he is officially running for President of the United States, the “shadow primary” begins to wind down and candidates now must “put up or shut up.” While there will be inevitable surprises, the official start of the campaign season is more a symbolic milestone than a practical starting gun.