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It's Not Too Early to Obsess Over 2016

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Think the perpetual campaign feels more perpetual this time around than in the past? Political scientist Jordan Ragusa (over at Rule 22) confirms that something new is happening: Early news coverage of the presidential horse race has been expanding steadily, and has spiked in this cycle.

Ragusa suggests this coverage indicates that the election cycle itself is starting earlier. I don’t think so. It is just that there is more reporting on it than in the past, in many places that didn't even exist four years ago as well as in, say, the New York Times. (By Ragusa's measure, the Times has had twice as much coverage at this stage in the contest as it did in 1999, a year out from the 2000 election.)  

Here’s the quick history. Before 1972, the national conventions chose the nominee, and the main job of the candidates was to woo the relatively small number of people who were delegates or had influence over them. While prospective candidates built ties to party leaders in the various states over many years in some cases, there was little point in active campaigning until the election year.

Electoral rules were rewritten after the 1968 election, and the delegates were then chosen in primaries and caucuses. The goal was to win as many of those contests as possible. The best strategy was to concentrate resources on the first caucuses, beginning in Iowa and New Hampshire as early as possible.

But the process matured in the 1980s, and Iowa and New Hampshire have steadily declined in importance as independent influences.  No one has really won a nomination by camping out in Iowa since Jimmy Carter captured it in 1976, even though many have tried. What changed? The parties realized that leaving the nominations to tiny electorates in atypical states -- and to the news media's interpretation of what those voters were “saying” -- meant that the parties had little control over their own presidential candidates.

So party actors -- the politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, donors and activists, and party-aligned groups and media -- did something about it. By beginning their competition and their efforts at coordination well before the Iowa caucuses, they found they could almost eliminate random effects and media influence, and regain control.  

They do this by directing important resources (money, campaign skills, volunteer hours, positive media attention) toward their favored candidates. Public endorsements are important not only because they generate positive publicity, but also because they are a way for far-flung party networks to communicate.

The process is messy because the parties are now less hierarchical (so we can’t rely on the party chairmen, for example, to tell us what is happening) as well as more permeable (so new groups can enter the party and have a chance to affect outcomes).

There’s no cheat sheet to gauge the relative clout in the Republican Party of, say, a midlevel talk-radio host compared with one billionaire donor. Or of 100 Iowa home-schooling activists in contrast to House Speaker John Boehner. Or a local Tea Party organizer versus a Republican county chairman in a Sunbelt exurb. When all those folks aren't on the same page, the nomination process tests their strength against one another.

Sometimes the party finishes deciding well before the Iowa caucuses, as both parties did in 2000 when George W. Bush and Al Gore were consensus candidates. In other cycles, they have narrowed it down to two or three candidates. Sometimes, party actors aren’t sure about a candidate, and use primaries and caucuses to test them. The invisible primary (that is, the actions taken by party actors) never stops, even after voters get involved, until the party finally decides.

Since this new system evolved gradually in the 1980s and 1990s, without the rule changes of the past to signal a dramatic shift, many reporters and even some party insiders didn’t see it happening. Now the media is fully engaged. And that's good because the policies of the president who will be inaugurated in 2017 are being decided now. 

  1. This doesn't mean candidates can skip Iowa and New Hampshire. Party actors expect candidates to contest them as part of demonstrating that they are serious contenders, and sometimes use the results to assess a candidate's electoral skills. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Jonathan Bernstein at

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Katy Roberts at