Commentary: The Visibility of the Presidential Primary Race Falsely Emboldens Candidates | KBIA

Commentary: The Visibility of the Presidential Primary Race Falsely Emboldens Candidates

May 14, 2019

On today’s episode of Talking Politics, Terry Smith, a political science professor at Columbia College, joins us to discuss the shift in the way candidates participate in presidential primaries. You can read his full commentary below. Also on today’s episdoe, KBIA’s Will Robinson gives us a look at Cowboys at the Capitol, a day when members of the Missouri Cattleman’s Association walk the Capitol halls to advocate for agriculture-related issues.

Terry Smith's Commentary:

In 1968 vice president Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination for president without winning a single primary election. Today winning a major party nomination without winning a primary would not only be unthinkable, it would be impossible.

Most states now hold presidential primaries. But it won’t be for another ten months that we will have a political event that actually selects a delegate to a nominating convention.

It doesn’t feel like that, does it? If it feels like we are deep into real presidential election politics, it’s because we are. This is the season of the Invisible Primary, where candidates are raising money, lining up endorsements, and doing what they can to raise their poll numbers so they can qualify for the upcoming debates.

And now, because there are new technologies and new formats, there are even more metrics for pundits to ponder. Now the first day of fundraising is closely watched, not just total in the coffer. Also, Google searches are counted. And for CNN’s new town halls the metric is viewership.

It is instructive to recall how the invisible primary played out in 2016. There were seventeen Republican contestants – I use this word intentionally instead of “candidates” – and at first no one took Donald Trump seriously. Former governor Jeb Bush was sort of the anointed one and he raised a lot of money and had a great resume. Once he and the others hit the Trump buzz saw conventional credentials became irrelevant. Trump won the Republican invisible primary by keeping his opponents on the wrong foot and with a billion dollars in free media. In his view, if any publicity is good publicity, why buy ads when the media are showcasing you as the lead story on the nightly news?

In the Democratic Party Clinton won the invisible primary but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Establishment Democrats were caught giving her inappropriate assistance and while she getting endorsements and piling up cash Bernie Sanders was winning the hearts of lots of voters who stayed home on Election Day, and as we know, it took only 77,000 of them to give Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and thus the election, to Trump.

In 2019, a full one and a half years before the election, more than twenty Democrats are competing. The invisible primary is supposed to winnow the field, and eventually it will, but now it is fragmenting the Democratic Party and causing endorsers and funders to hang back.

The invisible primary used to discourage candidates who couldn’t get traction. Now it falsely emboldens them because of all the visibility they get, especially through social media.

Former vice president Joe Biden’s entry has provided some temporary clarity and we’ll see soon enough how robust the establishment wing of the Democratic Party is. On the Republican side the Trump renomination is not threatened by the likes of former Massachusetts governor William Weld or Maryland governor Larry Hogan. It will take a collapse of the Trump presidency to reawaken the comatose spirits of the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan.

Talking Politics is hosted by Jamie Hobbs