Candidates Seeking Employment
An interesting little article in The New York Times caught my attention last week. The piece notes that while the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination is still only in its preliminary stages, among the most frequently mentioned candidates for the office, almost none currently holds down some form of elective office. To be sure, a number of them like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney aren’t exactly struggling to generate income. But the author, Matt Bai, notes that you have to go back over 25 years to former Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984 to find another major party candidate who clinched the nomination while not holding some other elective office.
It is of course possible that with over two years to go until the next nominating convention, the eventual 2012 Republican nominee will be someone from the ranks of current elected officials who has not yet generated a lot of media buzz, but it is an interesting curiosity nonetheless that the current GOP field is at least preliminarily shaping up in this way. Bai is correct that part of the explanation stems from the anti-incumbent fervor sweeping the activist conservative base of the Republican Party. There has always been a premium on presidential candidates running as outsiders, and Bai notes that the feeling is now so intense within the GOP that being part of the elected governing elite is largely incompatible with running for office.
But I also think that the nature of running for president has been fundamentally altered in recent years by changes in technology and the ways in which citizens learn about and follow politics. It is true that as Bai suggests the demands on a candidate's time are such that running for president has become a full-time job in its own right. Just think back on the many Congressional votes that both then-Senator Obama and Senator John McCain skipped during their respective campaigns. But I think that the end goal of all this activity has changed. The invisible primary is not just about building name recognition through fundraising and grassroots organization anymore.
Being taken seriously as a credible nominee now requires potential candidates to maintain a national media profile that requires endless feeding. This means (co)writing a book, giving lots of political speeches, being at the beckon call of cable news (perhaps even hosting your own show), and generating constant media attention in the blogs and elsewhere by opining on every major issue facing the current president. Sure, part of the job is building grassroots support state-by-state, but increasingly candidates accomplish that by focusing on building a national media persona that transcends both regular elective work and the traditionally decentralized nature of our electoral processes. We will have to wait for future presidential election cycles to assess whether this is a quirk of the current political environment or a longer-lasting transformation in how we select presidential nominees.
Note: I'll be away tomorrow, but back posting on Wednesday. -Dean

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