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Jeb Bush and the Endless Campaign

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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Jeb Bush will finally make it official today (see here, for how I think he’s doing: struggling, but still solidly in the top tier with Scott Walker and Marco Rubio).

Granted, the former Florida governor has been a candidate for a long time. He made clear he was running seven months ago. Nine months before that, he was already doing the things a candidate at that stage needs to do. That dates his campaign to some time before March 2014. He probably was quietly moving forward before then: The New York Times had him “weighing financial and family considerations” on Nov. 22, 2012. I’d mark that as the date when he began running for 2016.

This annoys some people. First, putting off his official announcement (along with other choices he has made) gives him advantages under campaign-finance law. And many people just find it irritating that the nomination process begins before the ashes grow cold on the previous election. Or, for that matter, before that; Hillary Clinton appears to have been running for the next available open Democratic nomination since well before 2012.

The long period in which the candidates are running but pretend they aren’t doesn’t bother me at all, whether the coyness is intended to exploit campaign-finance law or just to allow them to save face if they bow out early. If you don’t like the laws about money in politics, change them. If you don’t like white lies … well, politics is full of far more harmful pretense.

The very long campaign is another story.

In one sense, it’s just a weird artifact of the U.S. system. In parliamentary systems, the parties always have leaders, who are the presumed candidates for prime minister in the next elections, so those “nominations” happen years in advance, though they can always be overturned.

In another sense, however, it represents an apparent failure of reform. One of the biggest problems anti-war activists identified in 1968 was that when they got involved in late 1967 and early 1968, as the intensity of anti-war sentiment increased, they found out that many delegates had already been chosen. That seemed unfair: Shouldn’t the process unfold close enough to the election to allow for the effects of late-breaking policy challenges? How could the will of the party be heard if everyone stopped listening months, or even years, in advance?

This realization led to reform and a new nominating system in 1972. The reform commission was charged with making nomination politics “open, timely, and representative.” Of those three, “timely” is seemingly the clear flop. Sure, the Republican Party nomination process is still relatively unsettled, but Hillary Clinton apparently wrapped up the Democratic side long ago.

Does it matter?

I don't think so. In fact, there’s a good case to be made that the current four-year process should score pretty high when it comes to being "timely." 

Because nomination politics is continuous -- slipping below the surface for about two years, and then becoming more and more visible as the primaries and caucuses approach -- it allows for continuously adjusting party coalitions. It forces (or at least strongly encourages) candidates to address the issues of the day. So candidates now are pushed to talk about trade, but they were also pressured to take positions on immigration in 2013 and 2014. That’s good for the parties because it forces them to keep updating themselves between elections – and because it makes it more likely that winning candidates will be bound to the party platform on as wide a variety of issues as possible.  

That’s only true if the party can change its mind closer to the election, and therefore dump its apparent candidate. It can. The fact that the formal process of choosing delegates won’t begin until February of the election year means that if a new issue emerges, it’s still not too late to change.

It’s also why concerns about frontloading -- moving up the beginning of the process and packing most of the decision-making at the start -- are quite properly focused on the primaries and caucuses, and not on the years of maneuvering before that. That’s because it’s the primaries and caucuses that really lock in the party.

Granted, the endless campaign is insufferable to people outside the parties, who have little involvement until their state’s primary comes around or, in plenty of cases, until after the nominees are chosen and the general election approaches. Too bad. Presidential nominations are a supremely important business. If that annoys those who choose not to be involved, they can always change the channel.

  1. And remember: none of the candidates, “official” or not, really know yet whether they’ll be running in 2016. I’m sure Tim Pawlenty in March 2011 thought he would be running in January 2012, but it didn’t work out that way.

  2. Note that as long as the system allows parties to change their minds, even an apparent nominee will still be under pressure to conform with changing party positions. 

  3. Technically, a candidate who “won” the nomination in the primaries could still drop out up until the convention or even be defeated there. But the mechanisms in place under reform make that far less likely than it was before 1972, because the conventions are made up primarily of delegates loyal to the candidates, especially on the Democratic side.

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

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net