If a Candidate Goes to Iowa and No Reporter Pays Attention, Has the Presidential Campaign Begun?

There's a ritual we go through around this time, in which reporters and commentators start writing about the next presidential campaign, but while making sure to alert their readers that they feel kind of guilty about it. It's absurd to talk about this stuff when the actual election is still two and a half years away, and now that we've admitted that, let's go ahead and dive deep into who are the leading candidates to be Hillary Clinton's field director! After the midterm elections in November, the obligatory mea culpas, which were never all that sincere to begin with, will begin to disappear from the articles.

I say they weren't sincere because those of us who do this for a living love writing about presidential campaigns, no matter how far away the next one is. It's our thing. That, in fact, was number 6 on a 7-point listicle I wrote all the way back in August of last year, explaining why there's so much coverage of the presidential campaign so early.

And today, Alex Seitz-Wald of the National Journal tells us that it isn't just conventional wisdom; if you examine the volume of coverage from earlier years, you see that each successive presidential campaign featured a higher quantity of coverage at the stage we're at now. But Alex says that if you're wondering who's to blame, you should point your finger at the candidates:

Indeed, the rules of the game—and especially campaign finance—have changed so much that candidates can't sit on the sidelines the way they once could, so reporters pay attention.

Ron Brown, chairman of the Democratic National Committee in the early 1990s, once pushed back against CNN host Bernard Shaw's assertion that his party was conceding the 1992 election to George H.W. Bush. "I'm perfectly pleased with the situation. And I'm glad there are no candidates out there now. I think the public can't tolerate a three-year campaign. I think candidates get stale, the public gets bored, people make unnecessary mistakes," he said.

That was July 1990. If Brown's comments were applied to the 2016 election cycle, he would be speaking four months from now and he would sound wildly out of touch. His comments, for instance, would have come a full 18 months after a couple of Hillary Clinton superfans formed Ready for Hillary, the grassroots super PAC building support for a potential Clinton candidacy. And it would be seven months after some of the biggest donors and best strategists in the Democratic Party organized themselves in a shadow campaign-in-waiting.

"The media coverage is absolutely warranted," says Lichtman, the historian. "The candidates are talking to donors. They're out in Iowa. They're establishing their brands."

I'm going to disagree here. When Rand Paul holds a fundraiser or Ted Cruz gives a speech in Iowa, is it news? Well, it can be. Those events are, in fact, early preparations for a presidential campaign that will accelerate in coming months. But they aren't so vital, so important, so urgent that they absolutely demand coverage. Reporters could cover them, or not. It really depends on whether there's anything more important going on. If there's a natural disaster or an invasion or a Supreme Court decision with far-reaching implications, the media have no choice: they have to cover it. But these early campaign preparations exist in the realm where reporters can choose to treat them as news, but are under no obligation to do so. And the early coverage might be truly fascinating and insightful, or it might be mindless and dull, just like the coverage a week before election day.

So if you think that early campaign coverage is an affront to your eyeballs, go ahead and blame the media. They have free will, and they've made a choice to talk about it. Of course, you can also take the much more reasonable position that this is a perfectly legitimate topic of conversation, and if it doesn't interest you, you too have free will, and you can turn the page, click on something else, or change the channel.

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