POLITICS

2016ers Are Launching Campaigns Left And Right, And Political Reporters Are On It

04/08/2015 06:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015
MICHAEL B. THOMAS via Getty Images

It's campaign-launch season, and our country's political reporters are on the scene, giving you the analysis you need. "Hey, a thing seems to be happening!" they are saying. "We should find out some stuff, about this thing," they add. And so we now have, not one, but two lengthy explorations of Presidential Candidates Giving Speeches And Stuff, in The Washington Post and Politico.

In The Washington Post, Robert Costa and Philip Rucker take on the heady matter of "how presidential hopefuls try to create magic with campaign launch events." The short answer is, they do it the same way you would throw a surprise birthday party for your great-aunt Marjorie, except at the end of it, secretive donors nod and give you dark money. Basically, hired guns choose a date and a venue, and then add what brand marketers call "zazz." So I think we can all agree that this is magical.

This is all stuff you could have surmised simply by being alive, though, so the bulk of Costa and Rucker's article is spent demonstrating just how many campaign events the two men can remember, and who they can get on the phone to talk about those events. The answer, it turns out, is: a lot! Obscure names, too -- we're talking B-sides, not just hit singles. Why, they even get former John Edwards aide John Davis into the piece to suggest that Hillary Clinton "launch" her campaign at a diner. "That could serve as an anchor to reintroduce herself yet again," Davis says. And let's be honest, it would probably be a lot easier to reintroduce Clinton to America than it would be to reintroduce Edwards.

Eventually, Costa and Rucker grow confident enough in their knowledge that they get into the game themselves:

Could New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie begin his bid this summer on a Jersey Shore boardwalk rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy?

Might former Texas governor Rick Perry stage an announcement in his childhood home of Paint Creek, highlighting his rural, impoverished roots, or in a military setting as an homage to his time in the Air Force?

Will Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, campaigning as a suburban Midwestern everyman, wear one of his treasured Kohl’s shirts or ride in on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle?

Could they? Might they? Will they? The answer is probably: Yes, unless no. At any rate, Costa and Rucker's spitballing sure gives the impression that anyone could be in charge of this campaign-launching stuff if they really wanted to.

But Politico's Todd Purdum would probably disagree, at least judging by his recent story, whose headline asks a question -- "Do splashy campaign kickoffs matter?" -- that the sub-hed then answers: "Yes, say the experts." ("You only get one chance to make a first impression," the sub-hed continues, in what I'll guess is an unintentional echo of an old shampoo commercial. Fun fact -- Politico could also have gone with "Because you're worth it.")

Purdum explains that a successful campaign event involves a lot more than picking a scenic locale and sticking your candidate on a motorcycle. There's actually a deeper, hidden set of signs and signals that are handpicked to evoke very specific ideas and put the launch in a larger thematic context.

Purdum supplies plenty of examples. He notes that Ted Cruz's decision to begin his campaign at Liberty University served as "an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual campaign he will wage for the conservative soul of the GOP." Rand Paul's launch event, meanwhile, featured an "intergenerational audience and notable black figures on the stage," a sign of the Kentucky senator's intent to build a newer, more inclusive base than other candidates'. And Clinton, Purdum suggests, will have to put an important thematic stamp on her own launch event, one that demonstrates "that the most familiar analog figure in either party still has some fresh digital moves to bust." (The concept of "busting a move," by the way, was at its funky freshest in the late spring of 1989, so this might not be as heavy a lift for Clinton as many are making it out to be.)

So who, then, are the "experts" Purdum speaks with to convince us of the theory that these events "matter?" Well, they are:

1. "Carter Eskew, a veteran Democratic media strategist."

2. "Bill Carrick, a longtime Democratic strategist in Los Angeles."

3. Ted Van Dyk, a former aide to Hubert Humphrey.

So, if you were hoping that "experts" meant, say, some political scientists like Lynn Vavreck or Brendan Nyhan, doing a deep, scholarly analysis of how voters have responded, over time, to campaign pageantry, I'm afraid you are bereft. Instead, you get a former Humphrey adviser and two guys whose lives depend on convincing would-be electoral candidates to give them large sums of money for their secret guru knowledge. What would you expect them to say about this? Surely not Oh, you know, these things are all mostly ephemeral nonsense!

Actually, Van Dyk's involvement in this piece is my favorite thing about it. Per Purdum:

The most chaotic announcement season in modern times was probably 1968. President Lyndon B. Johnson did not drop out of the race until March 31, and the April 4 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King froze other prospective candidates in place. Vice President Hubert Humphrey finally declared on April 27, in a luncheon speech at Washington’s Shoreham Hotel written largely by Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz and edited by Humphrey aide Ted Van Dyk. [...]

But Humphrey could not manage to extricate himself from Johnson’s unpopular Vietnam policy -- or even win the unstinting support of the president himself. The traumas of that year -- Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California primary in June -- and his own sense of loyalty kept Humphrey from doing what today’s candidates take such pains to do: Stake out his own identity and claim to his party’s support early enough to make a difference. He won the nomination but lost the White House to Richard M. Nixon.

“These many years later,” Van Dyk added, “it still hurts to recall the events of 1968.”

It's sort of hilarious that in the same piece that stresses the need for Hillary Clinton to scrape off the barnacles of a long career in order to show that she's still got some cutting-edge, modern "moves" to "bust," you get some walking historical relic's dusty observation: 1968 -- wow, man... I don't know.

In the end, we may not have answered the question "Do campaign kickoffs matter?" But the answer to a different question -- do articles like these matter? -- is, I feel, just about within our reach.

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