When you see an article about the 2016 presidential race, your first reaction is probably, "Oh c'mon. It's three years away! Do we have to start talking about this already?" The first votes in Iowa and New Hampshire won't be cast for over two years, and even those politicians who are all but certain to run are doing only the barest minimum to prepare. So what is there to talk about? Not much, but that won't stop us. Here's a New York Times story about Chris Christie quietly building a re-election campaign that can be quickly repurposed for a presidential run, and here's a column about why Jeb Bush should run in 2016, both from Sunday's paper. Here's a Washington Post story about the potential presidential campaigns of Christie and Rand Paul. If your appetite has been whetted, you can go over to Politico's Hillary Clinton section and read any of the eight gazillion articles about her potential 2016 campaign. The Times already has a reporter assigned full-time to cover Clinton's not-yet-candidacy; the reporter says her mandate is to "own" the Hillary 2016 beat.
There's no question that this is nuts. But have some sympathy for those of us who do this for a living. We just can't help ourselves.
Why? The reasons are many, but let me lay out just a few.
1. It's Easy
Talking about the presidential campaign is much easier than some of the other things we do. At this point it's all speculation, and anybody can speculate. It takes neither time nor much effort. Even if you want to do some real reporting on a campaign that doesn't yet exist, you can get away with just asking a few other people to do their own speculating, and you've got yourself a story. That's a problem if it's all you do, but don't you have days on your job when you take a simpler path toward five o'clock? If you're making widgets it's called "efficiency," and reporters should be allowed to seek it out at least some of the time.
2. Campaigns Are Shiny Objects
The nice thing about the campaign is that even before it starts it's always new, or at least sort of new, and "new" is the basis of "news." Somebody took a poll, some politician made the latest utterance in the bizarre I'm-not-even-thinking-about-running dance, another one went to the Iowa state fair and gazed approvingly upon the Butter Cow in all its star-spangled glory, and presto, you've got yourself another story.
Sure, it sounds absurd when I put it like that. But presidential campaigns offer a constant churn of events and perspectives that greases the wheels of political commentary. I've been doing this blogging/column-writing thing for about a decade, and let me tell you, my job gets a lot easier once a presidential campaign gets rolling.
One of the principal challenges is finding things to write about—not just meaningful events or situations, but meaningful events or situations about which you as a writer have something interesting to say that might in some small way contribute to your readers' understanding of the world. But at the height of a campaign, something new happens every day. Even if it's ridiculous on its own terms (how many of those trumped-up controversies from 2012 have you already forgotten?), chances are you'll be able to wring something more significant out of it by placing it in a historical context or otherwise determining What It Says About Us.
3. Campaigns Are about All the Things
Campaigns are about so many things: voters, policies, evolving demography, culture, psychology, media, technology, and almost anything else you can think of. There are only so many angles from which you can view, say, a new FDA regulation on labeling requirements for fermented beet root drinks. But you'll never run out of ways to look at a campaign.
4. Reporters Like Personalities, and Elections Are Drowning in Them
More than anything else—and more than a race for any other office—a presidential campaign is about personalities, and reporters and opinion writers alike love talking about personality. Sometimes you get a wacky character like Sarah Palin who can inspire untold volumes of poetic prose, but even someone as fundamentally dull as Mitt Romney can be the wellspring of an endless number of articles about "character." Every human being is an infinitely complex organism; once you get a bunch of them who are all crazy enough to believe they are so extraordinary that they should lead the other 300 million of us, you'll never run out of things to say about them.
It's a competition, a contest, a clash, a conflict. Conflict is where all drama begins—army versus army, man versus whale, plucky teenage girl versus totalitarian government forcing her to battle other plucky teens to the death. There are plenty of times when reporters take stories that are about something else and turn them into a conflict between individuals, but the campaign is a conflict between individuals. That puts everything about it within an inherently dramatic frame.
6. Campaigns Are Our Jam
This is our thing. People who cover politics do it because they find politics interesting, and nobody who covers politics doesn't find campaigns interesting. Asking political reporters not to write about the presidential campaign is like asking sports reporters to stop talking about the upcoming playoffs of whatever sport they cover. That's when things get really fun!
7. Elections Matter
It matters—to all of us, whether we're paying attention or not. After a while, it isn't hard to get tired of the latest god-awful congressional crisis and conclude that it'll go through the same motions as the ones that came before and make you even more depressed about our government. But every presidential campaign is different, and no matter what, it will have a profound effect on our country's future. You don't have to believe that "This is the most important election of our lifetimes!", as people say every time, to understand that every presidential election is nevertheless extraordinarily important. The last time people said it didn't matter who got elected, George W. Bush went to the Oval Office, and you no doubt recall how that worked out. It always matters, and it always will.
So it's OK if you decide that you don't give a damn whether some "Democratic strategist" thinks Hillary Clinton will run, or whether Ted Cruz wowed some evangelicals at a church in Des Moines, or whether Chris Christie raised a bunch of money. You can refuse to care for another year or two, and that'd be fine. But have some sympathy for those of us who write about politics for a living. We want to turn away from the siren song of the presidential campaign. But we can only resist for so long.