Thursday, October 6, 2011

"Running" for President

The flip side of my understanding that folks such as Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Haley Barbour, and John Thune ran for president during this cycle and lost is that just because you declare you are running for president doesn't really mean you're, well, running for president. Take, for example, Herman Cain, who is currently enjoying a nonsensical polling surge at the inconvenient point in which he was apparently planning to take a month off to sell a book. Is he really a candidate for president? I mean, if he knows that it's really just a come-on to build his brand, and knows that he has no chance or even interest in getting nominated, is he a candidate? What about Newt Gingrich? Does it matter whether they actually know that that's what they're up to?

Of course, the problem from our point of view is that there's no real way to know the true intent of these folks, and so any list of candidates should include Cain and Gingrich. I'd probably draw the line at Donald Trump, because he so transparently wasn't a "real" candidate and had a short built-in expiration date, but I suppose I'd have no problem with anyone who wants to list him, too. What all that does, however, is simplify the Sarah Palin question. We don't have to figure out whether she was using the process to enrich herself all along or if she was genuinely undecided about entering the primaries and caucuses and trying to get the nomination. All we have to do is see whether what she's up to is what presidential candidates do. And there, we would find that she's been giving speeches, and visiting early primary and caucus states, and otherwise doing candidate-like things -- especially in 2009 and 2010, during the early parts of the campaign, but still through this year.

Why any of this matters is because if we're to figure out how the nomination process works -- what the key decisions and decision-makers are, who has influence, who has veto power, and all the other questions -- then it helps quite a bit to know who the candidates were. If in fact Palin, Christie and the rest were winnowed out just as sure as Tim Pawlenty was winnowed out and as the candidates who drag themselves to Iowa and then leave after losing their are winnowed out, well, then we can study who is doing the winnowing and how.


  1. Do you think that huntsman is running for veep candidate, betting on Obama beating his running mate and making him a front-runner for the '16 nomination? I know you've said before that you don't know why Huntsman is running... Could that be what he's thinking? It seems like Romney wouldn't pick him, but maybe Perry?

  2. But what about Fred Thompson in 2007/8? There you have somebody who formed an exploratory committee in June, then formally declared in September.
    But he really didn't do the things that real candidates do, like campaign in IA and NH. He did media things (like Palin!) He had a big bus (like Palin!) He had staff (like Palin!) He had a 527 (like Palin!) In fact, if you were unaware of the formation of the exploratory and real committees, Palin and Thompson would look totally identical. Trump is not dissimilar; he spoke to CPAC. He gave press conferences about politics. He has books with stupid proposals. He mentioned running in the past.

    I think that the measure of "doing things that presidential candidates do" isn't quite there, because it overlaps with "doing things that media whores would do" and it excludes people that refuse to accept that is how it works. Palin HASN'T been doing any of the things that successful candidates do, but that very well could have been because she thought she was above the rules (or didn't understand them). I think that your measure commits type I error: it labels some folks as candidates when they aren't; they're just being talked about (I'd put Christie in this box, and I'm unsure on Palin because she's just that dumb and vain).

  3. BTW, if folks have been having problems posting comments like I have, try Firefox. I couldn't post a thing in IE.

  4. Matt: I think the lack of Fred Thompson taking a regular pundit spot on FOX or any other political job - in fact he went back into acting - suggests that to the extent he ran, he was running to win. (I see him hawking for one of those 'reverse mortgage' outfits on TV, and I smile everytime he reassures the audience by reminding them that this is a "GOVERNMENT INSURED PROGRAM" - Thompson's such a dirty socialist hippie...)

    Before I started reading JB, I thought that people ran for president either to make a name for themselves, to advance a specific issue into the political debate, or to actually become president. I really never considered that never-declared candidates existed as Jonathan explains it. Same with understanding more about the 'invisible primary', the actual political science aspects of the campaign.

    "if we're to figure out how the nomination process works -- what the key decisions and decision-makers are, who has influence, who has veto power, and all the other questions"

    JB: Do you mean that you're trying to find answers to how the amorphous nominating process works, or would you say that much of what you write about is 'settled' political science that you're trying to explain to us horserace watchers?

  5. I agree with JS about Thompson. From what I recall seeing, he was a half-hearted candidate to be sure, but I don't know what else you would call it.

    On JS's's a bit complicated. There is disagreement within political science about the system in general, with folks such as Cohen et al. and myself and other party network scholars emphasizing the importance of parties. But there's also an older strand of researchers who saw the process as an interaction between candidates, voters, and the media, with parties essentially not part of the process at all. My reaction to all of that (and Cohen et al. too) is that the earlier research fit the early reform years (1972, 1976, and perhaps 1980) but that by at least 1988 the parties had re-asserted control. IMO, we've basically won that argument, but...there's still legit disagreement about exactly how things work...e.g. to what extent are voters and the media still independent and important actors.

    And then beyond that are plenty of important questions we haven't answered yet. So: even if everyone agreed about how important what I call "expanded" parties are in the process, there's still plenty of questions about how they do it, and what the actual internal splits are within the two major parties, and plenty of other stuff.

    So: if I'm writing as carefully as I want to (which I try hard to stick with, but it's not easy always while also trying to write clearly), when I say something definitively, it's what I consider settled political science (although even then others might disagree that it's settled). For things where I believe the political science is disputed, I try to include proper qualifications. And then there's some stuff here that's more or less my informed interpretation or even speculation based on the political science.

    I hope that all made sense...

  6. That's clear, thanks (and on second reading, I didn't mean to make a left-handed compliment of "that you're trying to explain to us", heh.)

    I come to your blog as a political junkie of sorts, but for example I wouldn't know which Cohen you mean. As far as political science goes, I took an introductory course as an elective about the time I was choosing John Anderson over Ronald Reagan and some peanut guy at the ballot box. But while I generally agree with your opinions, what I learn here about the process is something I don't get elsewhere on my daily reading list. Thanks.

  7. Definitely didn't read it in any way negative, and sorry about obscure references...sometimes my choice is joining in the comments conversation quickly or not at all, alas. But thanks for reading!


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