Anyone inclined to give me flak for suggesting the 2016 presidential nominating contest is already underway should redirect their ire towards my friend Jonathan Bernstein. He thinks it’s pretty much already over, at least on the Democratic side:
In this presidential election cycle, the Democratic side looks pretty settled already. Unless Clinton drops out or encounters unexpected turbulence, it’s already pretty late to enter the nomination contest except for the very heaviest of heavyweights. The Republican side, on the other hand, still seems fluid. In addition to candidates such as Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Rick Perry, who are actively campaigning, there is a large number of quasi-candidates — Mike Pence, John Kasich, Rob Portman — straddling the line between almost in the race and really in. I suspect that a candidate who hasn’t done some preliminary work would have difficulty catching up to the pack at this point, but it’s probably not too late for a plausible candidate to start from scratch. However, the window is closing. At some point in the next several months, Republican party actors are going to move from window-shopping to committing.
Now I should add that Jonathan is a particularly strong believer in the power of party elites in nomination contests (though he has a pretty broad definition of “elites,” including, for example, major interest groups). So he sets a pretty high threshold for “fresh faces” who have multiple “auditions” to pull off with various elites to become vaguely viable, aside from the mechanical work of raising money and beginning to put together a campaign infrastructure. That’s particularly true, he thinks, when elites are pre-committed to a front-runner.
I largely agree. Just yesterday I got into a bit of an argument on Twitter with someone who said the basics for a Democratic challenge to HRC were in place because Martin O’Malley had already spent time in Iowa helping raise money for local Democrats and meeting with former Obama activists. I replied that Iowans expect national pols to raise money for them as an entitlement. For that matter, activists there expect to meet with potential candidates repeatedly. O’Malley is paying the first of many entry fees for a future presidential race, not setting up a campaign in any meaningful sense.
I continue to think that people imagining there’s plenty of time for a challenge to HRC are mesmerized by what happened to her in Iowa in 2008. But as noted here earlier, there was nothing normal about Iowa in 2008. John Edwards, whom everyone has understandably forgotten about, was a viable, well-known candidate with a preexisting Iowa organization he regularly tended. He had also very carefully staked out ideological territory on Clinton’s vulnerable left flank. And Obama was a completely unique candidate with universal and very positive name ID from a neighboring state. He also benefited more than we may have understood at the time from Iowans’ desire to show that the lack of diversity they were always being criticized for in attacks on the primacy of the Caucuses wouldn’t inhibit them from voting for an African-American.
In any event, 2016 isn’t likely to be anything like 2008–at least on the Democratic side. On the Republican side, it could well be another demolition derby; even Jonathan thinks there’s time for a candidate to “start from scratch.” But make no mistake, windows will be closing soon.