Monday, January 31, 2011

First of the Last Calls

Does Mike Pence count as the first presidential candidate of the 2012 cycle to drop out of the race?

Before 1972, it's hard to identify the universe of presidential nomination candidates, because there was no required public action for candidates up to the convention. Yes, after the Progressive era, there were some presidential primaries, but even then, it was possible for an absolutely bona fide candidate to never actually have his name entered into nomination; he might have been holding back, waiting for the convention to deadlock, only to see someone else selected on an early ballot.

In the modern era, it was a lot easier to spot real candidates: campaign finance rules, along with the necessity of entering primaries including especially the New Hampshire primary, made it essentially impossible to run for president in the election year without taking formal action.

However, as party elites learned how to determine nominees in the 1980s and 1990s, it became trickier again. Nowadays, much of the action in presidential nominations takes place more-or-less behind the scenes, and well before the year of the nomination. Endorsements by politicians and party-aligned groups, staff and activist recruitment, and other such activities begin, realistically, about the same time that a party's previous nominee concedes defeat (or, in the case of a term-limited president, even earlier; Republicans probably started running for 2008 before the 2004 election, and Al Gore, at least, began the 2000 race before November 1996).

As a result, it's become common for politicians to begin doing the things that candidates for the nomination will do, and then drop out well before the voters get involved in the Iowa caucuses. Sometimes, those candidates formally announce that they're in: Pete Wilson in 1996, Dan Quayle and Liddy Dole in 2000. Sometimes, they won't. Campaign announcements are a tactic (it gets a flurry of publicity, and may convince some potential supporters to take the plunge), not a requirement, at least not until campaign finance laws and the need to file for primaries kick in.

Notice that losing is never that simple. Sure, Joe Biden, for example, dropped out after losing in Iowa in 2008. But that's not "losing" the nomination in any kind of formal sense -- that doesn't really happen until the convention, no matter how certain it is long before that. And so dropping out after losing in Iowa doesn't seem at all different in principle to me from dropping out after losing the Ames straw poll (on the GOP side), or dropping out after realizing you will lose the Ames straw poll, or dropping out after realizing that you're just not attracting any support as you campaign three years before the election.

So, did Mike Pence run for president? Did Mark Warner and Evan Bayh run in 2008? Did Mario Cuomo run in 1992? Are Sarah Palin and other unannounced politicians running for president right now? Granted, this is a question which is, in large sense, academic. But it does raise questions that are presumably of great interest to practitioners and citizens: At what point in the four-year electoral cycle to nominations "really" get made? What sort of candidates win nominations? Who should the press cover?

My own sense of these things is that most, and perhaps all, of those mentioned above did in fact run for president. But I have no idea how to construct a proper set of criteria to distinguish "running" from "considering." Perhaps, in the current era, the dichotomy between candidates and noncandidates just breaks down, but I think it's worth attempting to salvage.


  1. a spin-off question I had from reading this post and from watching Pence in the news: Do you think that folks "run for President" in the way you're describing purely as a method of raising their name recognition?

    I have heard speculation (from cynical and antagonistic liberals) that Palin and Huckabee are pushing the idea of themselves as candidates in order to boost television ratings and book sales. And Pence is probably in a stronger position now to run for Governor of Indiana, or to run for President more seriously in 2016 after his more than a year long flirtation with running.

    Are such motivations ever the primary goal of running, in your opinion? Could that explain why guys like Huntsman and Thune are "running?" In order to boost their profiles and prepare for more serious attempts later?

  2. What about fundraising with a proper candidate committee?

  3. Since we're talking about 2012 Primaries anyway, can you talk about John Huntsman? As in...can you tell me what I'm missing here, 'cause it just seems like a silly, silly idea.

  4. I have nothing to add to what everyone is saying about Huntsman. He's not going to be the GOP nominee. If he runs, he'll be wiped out once the voting starts, or earlier. Perhaps he's floating his name for an effect such as the one Brendan suggested (above); perhaps it's all media speculation that he's just slow to quiet; perhaps he's deluded. I have no idea.

  5. Thanks, JB; that's all pretty much what I was thinking, I was just looking for a way I might be wrong.

  6. I don't think there's any one metric to go about operationalizing running for president versus considering a run for president. However, there has to be some tipping point that is crossed (and varies from nomination race to nomination race -- across years and parties) that could prove instructive. The best I can come up with are prospective candidate visits to early states and prospective candidate PAC spending on candidates for office in those same early states. These are imperfect, to be sure, but it get us closer than the eroded public financing system will get us these days.

    ...and neither has really gotten an adequate look in the literature in this context. I still don't necessarily think it gets at considering versus running, but it is worth exploring.

  7. Prospective candidates in races like this one may want to keep their options open for as long as it takes them to make a wager on the incumbent president's reelection chances. For older candidates like Gingrich, who is approaching his seventies, that may not matter since they may assume they're facing their last shot anyway. Huntsman and Pence are scarcely older than Obama and could even be viable by 2020, when they'll both be early 60-ish. (If Obama loses reelection, the next open race for Republicans would probably be 2020.) Another thing to consider: they may be vying for a veep spot.

  8. @Colby: I've also heard speculation that Huntsman is thinking of jumping into the primary contest Orrin Hatch is sure to face anyway.

  9. I'd have a hard time considering anybody who didn't contest either the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary as an actual candidate for President. If you don't make it as far as Fred Thompson did in 2008, you don't count!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?