At 11:18 P.M. Eastern Time on November 6th, NBC called the 2012 Presidential race for Barack Obama. But before Obama had even delivered his victory speech, the 2016 race had already begun. Republicans contenders from all over the country weighed in on why Romney had lost, the future of their party, immigration reform, and every other national issue under the sun. What was striking about these statements was their heterogeneity. The day before, the disciplined Republican Party was all rowing together, parroting Romney’s talking points on all the issues. But the day after, it was a different story, with 2016 contenders and their surrogates trying out new ideas and positioning themselves as the future leader of the party.
If you’ve been paying attention to Presidential politics for the last two years, you know that both candidates and their surrogates have been saying exactly the same thing, every single day, for a long time. The political apparatus of this country was paralyzed. Congress limped along without accomplishing anything, Obama worried about how his actions could be construed by swing voters, and Romney hammered away at the President with the same old talking points.
And if you’ve been pay attention to polling, you know how little all those speeches mattered in the end. From the summer until Election Day, the polls barely moved. Obama remained stubbornly popular among his core demographics and had a comfortable margin in plenty of swing states for the final months of the campaign. In June, Romney’s only hope was a systematic national bias in the polls, and it was the same story on Election Day. Even the boost from Romney’s outstanding performance in the first debate evaporated after a few weeks, and it was never enough to make him the favorite. Historically, polling is accurate and people have made up their minds weeks and months before Election Day.
So am I saying that the last six months of the campaign don’t matter? No, but I am saying that they are boring. Once both candidates are widely known, polls are stubborn things. Modern candidates are so scripted and guarded that they never stray from their talking points, reducing the chance that a major gaffe will move the polls. Why did The Onion post a fake op-ed by Obama in favor of reparations for descendants of slaves? The joke was that a candidate would never take a bold new stance during a campaign. Truly, all the sound and the fury of late stage Presidential campaigns—the breathless debate over who won the day, wall-to-wall coverage of non-events, Drudge’s siren—signifies nothing. There is a gigantic mismatch between demand for campaign news vs. actual significant news. So the news coverage consists entirely of ginned-up controversy, uniformed analysis of poll numbers, and talking-head “debates” with the intellectual depth of sports talk radio. Needless to say, all of this fake news is a waste of time.
Political insiders used to have a rule of thumb: ordinary voters tune into the election after Labor Day. The 2012 race is a clear repudiation of that, because Obama’s early summer gambit of spending every dollar on hand to define Romney as a heartless corporate raider was so successful. But the broader point is true: most voters don’t tune into the race until a few months before Election Day. This is unfortunate, because what voters want is an unvarnished look into who the candidates truly are, and an earnest debate on the issues facing our country. The debates get such high ratings because they break this trend. The candidates are forced by the questions to stray from their talking points, giving voters a peak at their true personality.
Fellow citizens, do the opposite of what the crowd does! Only pay attention to the race until Summer 2016, then tune out. At that point, the candidates will have settled on their talking points, and unless the polls are very close, you’ll have a good idea of the eventual winner. From now until then, dozens of contenders, in both parties, will be trying out completely new ideas with voters, and having a genuine debate about the future direction of this country. Some of these ideas will crash and burn, some will become part of a candidate’s platform, and a select few will become law. During this time, campaigns are shoestring operations, without Secret Service protection, and candidates have unscripted interactions with ordinary voters. A real issue debate happens between candidates, and primary voters make their preferences known. You can watch candidates learn about the issues by talking to voters, talking to experts, and finally stake out a position.
The 2016 race will be particularly interesting because the demographics of this country are changing fast, and both parties need to adapt or risk going the way of the Federalist Party after the War of 1812. The Republican Party is suddenly leaderless. They never really warmed to Romney and have repudiated him after his “gifts” comments about minority voters. Someone will step up and fill that void. Just like the Republicans, the Democrats will have a wide-open primary. Although both Vice-President Biden and Secretary Clinton have great name recognition among Democratic primary voters, plenty of us are looking for a fresk new face to lead the party. Look for prominent governors and senators to weigh in on national issues, take “vacations” to Iowa, and sound out big-money donors over the next few months.
But once the primaries are over and the parties have settled on their nominees, talking points will ossify and the race will get boring. At that point, I say turn off MSNBC, turn on Netflix, and just wait the election out.