Are We There Yet?

Forget November, the media says; the real race is four years out

Not long ago, the political and media cognoscenti maintained a strict code of conduct: Never—except in the privacy of a late-night barstool, after all the recorders have been turned off and the stories filed—should the next presidential election be speculated upon before the current one concludes. Eventually, after the last of the ballots were counted, some poor pundit would find himself on cable news, and with the newly completed campaign season no longer able to stomach more blather, he would gamely look ahead to the campaign four years hence.

And the world, it seemed, would emit a loud groan. Too soon! We are politics-sick! No more horse-race frivolity!

Not so in 2012.

Instead, the race four years from now is taking up so much oxygen that at times it looks as if it could crowd out the one five months from now. All the way back in March, The Fix, The Washington Post’s well-respected political blog, ran a feature called “Sweet 2016,” which allowed readers to vote round-robin style on whom they wanted to—or who they thought would—win in an election nearly five years away, choosing among such local luminaries as Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), not to mention figures from farther afield, like Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren (who, it should be noted, may be the first person in history to be seriously floated for the presidency while trailing in her inaugural political endeavor), current GOP heartthrob Marco Rubio, former GOP heartthrob Bobby Jindal and (because the third Bush is a charm, right?) Ol’ Jeb.

And much like the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, for which fan voting in big cities such as New York means an inordinate number of Yankees and Mets in the lineup, so Cuomo bested Clinton in the final round of the Democratic tournament bracket, then vanquished Rubio to cut down the nets.

This exercise was given fuller flower last month when the New York Daily News devoted a full-page story to a poll of New York City Democrats on whether they prefer Clinton to Cuomo (the answer: Clinton, by a lot), although most pollsters concede that even their 2012 state polls remain too far in advance to be predictive. Politico has logged hundreds of articles and blog posts on the subject already. The New York Times has gotten in on the act, too, laying out the front-runners’—if such a term can exist when no one is running—paths to victory. (Full disclosure/confession: This reporter, too, has gotten in on the act, once comparing what the respective political paths of Cuomo and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley mean for the future of the Democratic Party. The purpose here is to diagnose, not condemn.)

And much of the speculation dates back far earlier, back to last year when the Republicans were crossing the cornfields of Iowa. Imagine if in the previous presidential cycle such speculation had been allowed to flower: In 2003-2004, Barack Obama would have been simply a state legislator from Illinois, there was no YouTube, no Facebook and the next election seemed destined to turn on who was best to take on terrorism and defend the nation from gay marriage.

Political veterans, both on the campaign and media side, say that there are several reasons why the distant future has seemed so present. First, it must be said that as presidential elections go—national events that H.L. Mencken once described as “better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in”—this one has been more like a ragged carnival come to town, with a first communion and a suspended sentence thrown in. The primary season was obviously nonexistent on the Democratic side, and the Republican side yielded only one candidate who could plausibility be considered a nominee, especially after Tim Pawlenty dropped out and Rick Perry was unable to remember that he wanted to shutter the Department of Energy.

Strategists on both sides of the aisle privately concede that the show isn’t going to get any better now that the general election has begun in earnest—even as polls show Obama and Mitt Romney to be essentially tied, and even as the economy continues to sputter—and could grow worse depending on what happens in Europe and the Middle East. Through some combination of the incumbent’s advantage, Obama’s continued high likability rating in the face of dismal political news, and the belief that Romney is a flawed candidate who can easily be painted as out-of-touch, there is a grudging but persistent sense that this election will not be the November nail-biter that the last several have been. In fact, Perry has already publicly mentioned a possible 2016 run, apparently forgetting such a run would be inconvenient if Romney actually wins.

“It’s two things,” said Curt Smith, a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and now a lecturer at the University of Rochester. “One, even Democrats who will support Obama will do so with the scales having fallen from their eyes. You can do away with ‘the change you want to believe in.’ And two, it’s the same with Republicans, who are not mesmerized with the ‘Charisma Kid’ Mitt Romney and would support Mother Goose if the Republicans nominated her. Each side, in their hearts, wishes someone else were running.”

(Smith noted that his own pick for 2016 was Rubio.)

If it is hard to generate the excitement this time, part of the reason is that there may still be a political hangover from 2008. That election featured the first serious black candidate, the first serious female candidate, an ex-senator’s love child and an Alaskan fashion plate-cum-frontierswoman. That’s not even bringing up Joe the Plumber, Jeremiah Wright, The Weather Underground, an unwed teenage mother, an ex-prisoner of war, a former Law and Order star and Rudy Giuliani.

Back then, Barack Obama was the biggest ticket in town, drawing as many as 100,000 people to rallies late in the campaign. This time around, the president was unable to fill an 18,000-seat arena to kick off his run.

It is not just pundits, however, who are looking past 2012. On the GOP side, at least, a host of pols made the same calculation—that this year’s climate wasn’t right—and thus decided to take a pass in favor of a go in 2016. What this meant, beyond making life easier for incumbents (and duller for the rest of us) was that 2016 actually could turn into a replay of 2008 in terms of the level of excitement and interest. Add to the fact that a lot of the top-tier Republicans who decided against a run this time around did so because they had been newly elected as part of the Tea Party wave in 2009-2010, and 2016 really does seem likely to live up to Mencken’s exacting standards.

Consider just those who turned down pleas to run in 2012. Chris Christie is every videographer’s favorite. Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, two young, Asian-American southern governors, are favorites of a party frequently decried for being older and whiter than the rest of the nation. Marco Rubio has been called “our Obama” by conservatives ever since he was in the Florida Legislature. And there are also senators such as New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Rounding out the list are those who dipped a toe in 2012, only to wait until the water was warmer: Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, Mitch Daniels and Rob Portman. That’s a lot of names.

The Democratic side looks comparatively leaner, but by 2016 the bench will have had eight years to grow. If Vice President Joe Biden runs, he would clear the field, but otherwise voters may be treated to an epic Empire State battle between an icon and a popular governor, while a host of Southern state and heartland pols wait in the wings—O’Malley, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Brian Schweitzer of Montana.

And with the field getting crowded, would-be contenders have realized that they need to start laying the groundwork or risk being left behind.

“With the great exception of Secretary Clinton and Gov. Cuomo, you do have people on that list who are talking about running, who have appeared at fundraisers and on the cocktail circuit, and who are saying, ‘Yes, I want to put a team together,’” said Tracy Sefl, a veteran of the 2004 presidential campaign and a top Democratic political consultant in Washington, D.C. “We—consumers of the news and creators of the news—are not a patient people.”

(Asked her own pick for 2016, Sefl responded, “I have always thought governors bring important qualities to bear on national office. I love Gov. Cuomo, and I love Gov. O’Malley.”)

But even if 2016 didn’t give the media something to look forward to in the dreary days of this campaign, they (we) would probably go ahead and do it anyway. For years, we have been warned against a time when the political press will be entirely consumed with process over policy, and, at last, that day seems to have arrived. The 24-hour cable networks, the proliferation of Web outlets and the traditional press pool have created a maw of content demand, one that outpaces the current campaign’s ability to fill it.

“It’s idle speculation designed to fill a huge vacuum that never would have made it into print or on the air in the days before blogs and cable news stations,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “Anything anyone can come up with to fill a little air time gets on the air. If you are looking for a reason, that’s it.”

Be that as it may, we can’t wait for the 2020 campaign between Chelsea Clinton, Malia Obama, Tareq Salahi and Todd Palin. Runners, to your marks!