For most of 2012, President Obama has been running in the Democratic primary. I know that seems odd given that he's essentially running unopposed. Though don't tell that to West Virginia Democrats, who cast nearly half of their votes for Keith Judd, an inmate currently serving time in a Texarkana, Texas, prison. Judd received 41 percent of the vote. In 1968, Eugene McCarthy received 42 percent of the vote and forced incumbent Lyndon Johnson from the race.
But that's not what I'm talking about. It's important to remember that primaries serve other functions than just picking the nominee. Primaries force party bosses, activists and strategists to test their messaging, update their databases and, most especially, get the party's fundraising apparatus going.
During the real Republican primary, all of that stuff was going on behind the curtain, but everyone was busy watching the actual contest. The Republicans didn't need to fake anything in order to switch on the party machinery. They had a primary season that made a wacky Mexican soap opera seem like "Masterpiece Theatre" by comparison. Republicans, for good and ill, were paying a lot of attention. And so was the press corps. There were enough GOP debates alone to program a new cable network.
Meanwhile, Obama was politically sidelined. Sure, he got attention; presidents always do. But the rank and file wasn't engaging in the contest enough.
Nearly everything we've seen from Obama in the last five months has been an attempt to re-create the institutional benefits of a primary season without having an actual opponent.
Peddling "stop the war on women" propaganda, visiting college campuses with enough frequency to get on the meal plan, making the "Buffett Rule" into the centerpiece of his domestic policy, trying to bribe students with breaks on their student loans, inserting himself into the Trayvon Martin case: These were all efforts to get the base of the Democratic Party re-engaged with the presidential race.
And to raise cash, of course. There's a "money primary" for incumbents, too, as evidenced by Obama's unprecedented fundraising efforts. Indeed, according to data compiled by Brendan J. Doherty for his new book, "The Rise of the President's Permanent Campaign," Obama has had more re-election fundraising events than all the previous incumbent presidents since Richard Nixon -- combined.