If there’s one simple lesson from past presidential elections I wish reporters and pundits could learn, it’s this: Stop declaring candidacies dead before the primary even starts! Mistakes during the invisible primary can doom a campaign. But they usually don’t.
The current burial that has me annoyed is the one for Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who received terrible reviews for his handling of immigration reform this year. Rubio, up to that point, had been considered by The Great Mentioner as a very possible nominee. Now, however, you can’t shake a stick without coming across mentions of his early demise.
I have no idea whether Rubio will be running for president once the Iowa caucuses roll around, let alone whether he’ll be a strong competitor.
What I do know is that the press is far too quick to write off presidential-nomination candidates who encounter setbacks. Perhaps the classic case is their premature burial of John McCain in summer 2007 after he ran through a lot of money early and encountered difficulties with conservatives over the same issue that recently tripped Rubio up, immigration. But other examples aren’t hard to find. Bill Clinton was given up for dead so completely that he was able to spin a second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary into a conventional-wisdom shattering “comeback kid” event.
Those two examples are perhaps the most dramatic, but they’re hardly the only ones. Mitt Romney wasn’t ever quite fully buried by the press during the 2012 cycle, but plenty of reporters fell for a myth that he couldn’t possibly win because of health-care reform, or because he couldn’t crack a ceiling that never existed, or some other reason. Even Barack Obama went through a phase, in late summer 2007, in which the press declared him toast because he hadn’t caught fire yet. In fact, the epic 2008 Democratic nomination fight featured several premature burials, including one for Hillary Clinton immediately after Iowa.
Some may recall the last rites performed for George H.W. Bush after a third-place finish in Iowa, Walter Mondale after losing a shocker in New Hampshire, and even Ronald Reagan after losing in Iowa in 1980 as other back-from-the-dead nominees. Those last three cases all happened after an actual primary or caucus loss, but go back into the coverage and it’s not hard to find bad weeks (or months, or even longer) which misled the political press.
And that’s only counting winners (well, except for Hillary Clinton). Plenty of other candidates revived after being counted out, even if they fell short eventually—just in 2012, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum both pulled that trick off. I’d even argue that several candidates who never revived at all, including Rick Perry and Tim Pawlenty last time around, may well have been perfectly alive when the press first buried them.
This is not at all a plea for the press to ignore evidence of what’s happening in the invisible primary. The nomination contests have been going on for some time now, and it’s reasonable to assume that some candidates are doing better than others. Endorsements, fundraising success, staff hires: those are real evidence of success, just as failure to secure those scarce resources is a sign of a campaign that could be doing better. It’s entirely reasonable, for example, for the press to describe Hillary Clinton as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, given the evidence that many important party actors are already rallying to her side.
Too often, however, pundits leave the evidence behind, and instead wind up just talking up their own self-created conventional wisdom.
So what could we say about Marco Rubio at this point? By the objective evidence, he appears to be a viable candidate on two counts: he has conventional credentials for a nominee and is well within the party’s mainstream on most questions of public policy. As with many such candidates, he does differ with important party factions on one or more policy issue, but it’s relatively unlikely that immigration-reform opponents have an unquestioned veto against candidates who differ from them (unlike, say, abortion opponents in the GOP). Beyond that, it’s hard to say very much, at least until endorsements start dropping and candidates begin reporting their fundraising totals. And even then, as the McCain example shows, it’s easy to overinterpret setbacks and bumps in the road.
There’s plenty of time to let the process play out without everyone feeling obligated to predict the outcome every few hours. The best thing reporters can do is to unearth as much evidence as they can; the best thing pundits can do is to make sense of that evidence. Predictions? They can be fun, but they rarely inform and the pressure to make them when they aren’t warranted can easily lead to spreading misinformation. Save it for the real horse races.
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