In Defense of 2016 Speculation

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Over at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf mocks the breathless 2016 speculation with a post "gearing up for the 2048 presidential election." It's genuinely funny:

Although it is still early, Mitt Romney, who has 16 grandchildren, is leading among the patriarchs of America's dynastic political families, in part due to the present childlessness of George P. Bush and Chelsea Clinton, whose presence in articles on this subject is an apparent journalistic convention. Starting families now could give the hypothetical grandchildren of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton a head start on the theoretical grandchildren of Barack Obama, whose daughters are years away from having children if they decide to procreate at all.

I sympathize with the (implicit) frustration here. It's only been a month since the presidential election, and Washington journalists are already obsessing over the 2016 field. This despite the fact that there are serious issues the country needs to deal with—climate change, mass unemployment, and an impending hit of austerity.

With that said, I think some 2016 writing is justified. In general, journalists spend too much time focusing on the voting primaries, and too little time exploring the "invisible primary," where prospective candidates court donors, meet with key players, build constituencies, and look for support within the party.

The problem with this misallocation of time and resources is that the invisible primary is important. Whoever "wins"—that is, whoever seems to be racking up important endorsements and fundraisers—is likely to become the nominee. If journalists had noticed the extent to which Mitt Romney had wrapped up the GOP establishment in 2010 and 2011, they might have spent less time wondering if Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich could have won the nomination.

It might be a little annoying, but it's important for political journalists to begin the process of examining candidates, who they're appealing to, how they're positioning themselves, and what coalitions they're building. There's only two years before primary season begins in earnest, and now is a good time to get a head start.

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