In case you missed it, the 2016 Republican presidential nomination contest has already begun. Of course, it's been running in the background for some time. But what made it official? Earlier this month, Ohio Senator Rob Portman announced that he will not be running. This indicates that the invisible primary is open and has already claimed its first victim. But just what did he lose?
This whole area of politics is decidedly murky, but incredibly important. The reason this phase is called the invisible primary is not only because no visible voting occurs, but also because it's very hard for people outside the process to observe. Right now in the Republican Party, the names of at least a dozen senators, representatives, and governors are being bandied about among party elites: activists, donors, officeholders, media figures, and party officials. Pretty much none of the candidates have actually declared that they're running for president, and quite a few of them never will, but they're running nonetheless. They do so by meeting with those party insiders, holding fundraisers, giving speeches at party functions, making friends in key early contest states like Iowa and New Hampshire, and trying to generate good press for themselves. In short, they're trying to impress party elites and win over adversaries.
The reason this part of presidential politics is so important is because this is where much of the decision over who our next president will be is taking place.
The reason they do all this is because those party elites end up determining how much money candidates can raise and how many endorsements they get. This combination of money and endorsements ends up being vitally important for winning actual caucuses and primaries in early 2016. Yes, voters and caucus-goers get the final say, but their minds are largely made up for them by the resources that the elites can bring to bear on a race.
More importantly, those elites end up forcing many candidates out of the race long before actual voting begins. It's usually not a terribly vicious process; candidates meet with elites and ask for support, and if enough key elites tell them no, they usually get the message. This is what convinced most Republican presidential candidates to drop out early and back George W. Bush in 2000. It's what convinced Al Gore to drop out in 2004 and John Kerry to do the same in 2008. And it's what convinced Rob Portman to drop earlier this month. Over the next year, we'll see quite a few of these Republican candidates suddenly announcing that they're not running, which will be their way of saying that they were competing in the invisible primary and lost.
The reason this part of presidential politics is so important is because this is where much of the decision over who our next president will be is taking place. Dozens of candidates are being reduced to just a handful. And unlike in the general November elections, small things can actually matter at this stage. Rick Perry's poor performance in early 2012 debates helped to kill off his candidacy that year. Hillary Clinton's decision to ignore caucus states was a key reason she lost the delegate race to Barack Obama in 2008.
The regrettable part, though, is that this is the part of the race that (understandably) gets the least attention. Most voters don't know there's a presidential race already in process, and they wouldn't particularly care if they did. They'll start paying attention some time in the late summer of 2016, and by then all the important choices (except the last one) will have been made.
It's no wonder then that so many people are so disillusioned with politics. It's like if, say, you largely ignored the entire 2013 NFL season, but suddenly you heard a lot of people talking about the Broncos, and so you started caring and paying attention just in time to see them get clobbered in the Superbowl. You'd say, "Why did I even care about these bozos? Why should I even care about this sport?," not really aware of the amazing season they'd had up until then. (This may or may not have happened to me.)
The exciting part of the presidential race is now. It's worth tuning in.