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The invisible primary – number one

Not as important as the invisible primary…. DonkeyHotey, CC BY-SA

What’s the best predictor of which candidate will win the presidential nomination. The winner of the Iowa caucus? The winner of the New Hampshire primary?

Actually neither is as good a predictor as the winner of what political scientists call “the invisible primary” – the year or so before a single primary or caucus vote is cast.

Iowa and New Hampshire - important but not decisive

A fast start in Iowa or New Hampshire is important. A candidate with a poor showing in both states is in trouble.

As I wrote in the Mass Media Election years ago, “there’s no time for losers.” Voters aren’t interested, donors aren’t interested, and reporters aren’t interested in a candidate who finishes at the back of the pack.

Yet, more often than not, the winner in Iowa has lost in New Hampshire.

Since 1980, of the twelve open nominating races —- meaning those without an incumbent president seeking reelection -— only John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000 won both contests. In 1992, the eventual Democratic nominee, Bill Clinton, lost both, though he ran well enough in the opening states to retain a position as a credible candidate.

So, although a degree of success in Iowa and New Hampshire is a must, neither contest by itself is predictive of the nominee.

The better predictor of who will win nomination is how well the candidates position themselves in the year leading up to the Iowa caucus. This period —- “the invisible primary” -— is when the candidates try to put in place the ingredients for a winning campaign.

Name recognition crucial ingredient

Name recognition is one of those elements. Unless voters know of a candidate, they’re not going to back that candidate. Out of mind translates into out of luck for a presidential hopeful.

It’s hard for a candidate who lacks name recognition to acquire it. When George H W Bush ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 1980, he campaigned long and hard before Iowa. Yet, an Eagleton Institute poll, taken shortly before Iowa, found that only 8% of voters said they were “aware” of him while 53% said they thought his name sounded “familiar.” Nearly 40 percent said they’d never heard of him.

Candidates who start the campaign with poor name recognition are doubly disadvantaged because they inevitably end up at the bottom of the pre-campaign polls.
The news media cue off the polls, focusing their reporting on those who are at or near the top, creating a classic Catch-22. You need press coverage to acquire name recognition, but if you don’t have name recognition, it’s hard to get press coverage.

At the start of the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney, as a result of having run four years earlier, had the highest name recognition among the Republican contenders. Rick Santorum, who would win in Iowa, had one of the lowest.

In the six months leading up to the Iowa caucuses. Romney got close to ten times the news coverage of Santorum.

A recognizable smile. Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA

Not surprisingly, in the final national polls before Iowa, Romney was far ahead of Santorum as the preferred nominee among Republican voters.

National poll standing just before Iowa is a strong indicator of eventual success. Thirteen of the 16 nominees since 1980 have been at the top in the final pre-Iowa polls.

The only top-ranked candidates who lost the nomination were Democrat Gary Hart in 1988, who got derailed by a sex scandal; Democrat Howard Dean in 2004, who, though he still led in the final polls, had begun to slip in the month before Iowa; and Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2008, whose lead had been steadily shrinking in the months before Iowa.

Name recognition is critical. It helps a candidate withstand a setback in Iowa or New Hampshire and enables the candidate to pick up votes on the margin.

The fundraising metric

Fundraising is also a key part of the invisible primary. It takes a huge amount of money to mount a successful national nominating campaign -— estimates of the minimum run upwards of US$50 million.

Predictably, in the year before the Iowa caucus, candidates devote considerable time to fundraising, with varying degrees of success.

In 2011, for example, Santorum raised less than $5 million during the pre-Iowa period while Romney pulled in $60 million -— he would eventually raise and spend more than $100 million on his nominating campaign.

The news media, as they do with the polls, see money as an indicator of which candidates they should take seriously. And, as with the polls, money and media go together. The more press coverage a candidate gets, the easier it is for the candidate to raise additional money.

Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign illustrates the point. Even though Obama, a relative unknown at the time, trailed badly in the early polls to his main Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, he astonished pundits by raising $26 million in the first quarter of 2007.

A great fundraiser. Steven Jurvetson Flikr, CC BY-SA

As a result, his news coverage shot up, boosting both his poll standing and his fundraising efforts. By the time the Iowa caucus rolled around, Obama had raised $102 million dollars, roughly what Clinton was able to raise.

So why is early money in large amounts so important?

Well, it enables the candidate to spend heavily in the first contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, while also buying early TV advertising in the Super Tuesday states. Personally, a candidate can only be in one state at a time. Money allows the candidate to have a presence in a lot of states at once.

The candidate who wins the money game in the year before the Iowa caucus is the odds-on-favorite to get the party nomination. Of the sixteen presidential nominees since 1980, the only clear exceptions are Dean in 2004 and Romney when he first ran in 2008.

Making the invisible primary visible

Now I’m not suggesting that the “invisible primary” counts for everything in a nominating race. A candidate must still campaign effectively when the voting gets underway. But nominating races are not won by candidates who are poorly positioned at the start.

In 2012, for example, Santorum had almost no money and very little name recognition upon which to capitalize on his victory in Iowa. He was so underfunded, in fact, that his staff failed to meet the deadlines to get him on Virginia’s ballot and to have a full slate of delegates in Illinois and Ohio.

In the months ahead, I am going to be writing a series of columns on the status of the invisible primary, looking at how the various candidates are faring in terms of poll standing, fundraising, and media coverage.

In the last column, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, I will assess the likely outcome of the invisible primary on the nominating races.

The past is not always a guide to the present but, more than any other indicator, the invisible primary holds the key to the candidates’ eventual success.

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