The next president of the United States of America may not be what we need. We need a real leader who will bring real solutions to the challenges facing our economic infrastructure and national security. We will get the candidate who can best manage the nomination process, party politics and public perception.
Too many presidential candidates fail to truly grasp the process, party and perception dynamics. Many credible candidates from both major parties have faltered because they failed at one or more of these critical pillars of caucus and primary success. A candidates’ message must resonate with the likely voters in the key early states, but staying on message is not enough to win a state and the party’s nomination.
The process for selecting the presidential nominee from the two major political parties is unlike any other election held in the U.S. Nearly every other election at the state and local levels requires the voter to simply register to vote, go to the appropriate poll on Election Day and cast a ballot for his favorite candidate. The candidate with the majority of votes wins. The process for selecting the Democratic or Republican nominee and, ultimately, the president is a yearlong endeavor that tests the candidate’s campaigning stamina, party acceptance and popularity.
Though the order of the states’ presidential preference caucuses and primaries changes every four years, three states – Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina – have kicked off the process in recent elections. Due to the media’s horserace-style coverage of the nominating process, a candidate must finish well in these three states to show that his message and perceived leadership style resonates with a cross section of American voters. Success in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina garners media coverage, an edge in fundraising and increased support in the later primary contests.
The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus can be understood as a neighborhood political gathering. Party leaders, issue activists and others interested in selecting their party’s nominee gather in one of the state’s 2,000 voting precincts to discuss their party’s platform, select delegates to the ensuing county, state and national conventions and vote for their preferred presidential nominee. Because the caucus meeting can last for hours, those who attend are generally the state’s most active party, issue and organization leaders. Perhaps 20 presidential contenders from both parties will converge on Iowa over the next year, meeting as many voters face-to-face as possible and securing commitments from key political figures. The candidates who win the state’s Democratic and Republican caucuses will have to invest millions of dollars in field staff, grassroots turnout efforts and radio, television, print and direct mail media. A very similar dynamic exists in New Hampshire, another sparsely populated state where voters expect to meet the candidate before giving him their vote.
Though the Democratic and Republican parties hold caucuses or primaries in every state, the race will likely be down to one or possibly two candidates in each party after February 5, 2008. The Democrats will hold primaries in eight states that day, and the Republicans will hold primaries in 10. The candidates who fail to place high in the first three nominating contests will have a scant chance of performing well on February 5, and the candidate with the most states won by then will have nearly all the momentum and media coverage on his side.
Part of managing the nominating process includes managing relationships with the political party establishments in each early state. The media’s talking heads, political pundits and even some likely candidates often refer to the necessity of “appealing to the party base” of likely caucus or primary voters, but the base of likely voters is not a monolith. The successful presidential nominees must recognize the dichotomy of opinions and priorities held by the voters in the key early states.
Given the sheer number of candidates seeking the Democratic and Republican nominations, managing the public’s perception of a candidate is as critical as managing the process. History is the best teacher of the importance of managing perception. In 2004, Howard Dean was that year’s rock star in the Democratic Party. He formed an unparalleled nationwide grassroots network of activists who pledged their time and money to his candidacy. Dean was the fresh face on the Democratic block, and early on looked like a legitimate contender for his party’s nomination. Then came the scream.
Following his disappointing third place showing in Iowa, Dean unleashed his now famous “I Have a Scream” speech on America. The media and Internet sites replayed his speech ad nauseam. He scared the bejeezus out of voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina and forced mothers to bring their children in off the streets. Howard Dean, the once and future darling of the unhinged left, was finished as a presidential candidate.
Many in the media will attempt to select the two candidates through their styles of coverage, bias and spin. The public must not allow that to happen. The informed voter will focus on substance and real leadership characteristics, and not just on which candidate can best manage the “three P’s” of process, party politics and public perception.
There is always hope that whoever becomes the next president will possess the leadership mettle we need, and not just the leadership – or lack thereof – that we get. History has a way of providing America with the leadership she requires at her most critical junctures. Perhaps that leader will emerge in 2008 from the arduous presidential process.
Let’s hope the next president we need is in the race.