Do presidential campaign announcements matter?
That question comes up because the metaphorical starting gun has been fired, and 2016 candidates are jostling for position as they announce they’re off and running. Ted Cruz was first on March 23, followed by Rand Paul on April 7. Hillary Rodham Clinton declared her candidacy on Sunday in a video that featured lots of voters. Marco Rubio followed on Monday with a Miami speech.
But let’s get real: All of these people have been running for president for some time. They’ve been courting donors, wooing party officials, and vetting staff. They’ve spent days and days strategizing with consultants and approving position papers. They’re not beginning new campaigns. They’re continuing existing ones.
Given that, why pretend they’re starting a political journey they actually began at some point in 2014? Many voters – if not most – know otherwise. Thus announcements risk feeding a general sense that official stuff doesn’t reflect what’s really happening in campaigns.
“The gap between formal statements and informal realities perhaps strains credibility with citizens,” writes Marquette assistant professor Julia Azari today in an interesting post on the substance of announcements at the Mischiefs of Faction political science blog.
That’s likely true. And in the long run, no candidate won a nomination due to the effort put into their official announcement. Just ask President (not!) Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor whose 2012 campaign rollout was an elaborate affair that involved a stroll across a New Jersey field with the Statue of Liberty in the background, and lots of flags.
It was a flop. His campaign deteriorated from there.
Still, official campaign announcements are a ritual, and like all rituals, they have strange powers derived from history and usage.
For one thing, they’re a way for candidates to announce their general themes, in media circumstances over which they have almost complete control. Whether those themes are useful or not, or fit the candidate, will be told in coming months. That’s what will help swing the campaign. But consider Texas Senator Cruz: He announced with a speech at conservative Liberty University in Virginia, not in his home state. As Matt Bai of Yahoo News points out, that means Cruz intends to run on ideological conservative values.
“That’s probably the path that best suits both his temperament and the political reality,” writes Mr. Bai.
Mrs. Clinton did not even appear in her announcement video until near its end. The voters quickly profiled in the bulk of the film announce that the former secretary of State intends to try and portray herself as the champion of the average person. Will that work for her? We’ll sure get a chance to see.
Presidential campaign announcements also have practical effects. They’re like pushing a button, in terms of campaign finance law. Official candidates have to abide by donor limits for contributions to their campaign accounts. They’re not supposed to coordinate any longer with super PACs that support them. And so on.
They force candidates and their supporters to focus. With the game truly on, media scrutiny of every move will only increase. That makes the consequences of a subsequent misstep greater.
But their most useful attribute, for candidates, may be a simple one: attention. For one day at least, all eyes of the political world are on them. It’s like a birthday, or a wedding, or an anniversary celebration. You’re the star.
And the next day normal life reemerges.