Rise of the Insta-Candidate

What happened to the idea that running for President required enormous lead time to build the kind of name recognition necessary to dominate the evening news?
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If you wanted to run for President, you used to do it like this.

Start early. Well before you announced, stand up a well-oiled political machine to dole out checks and campaign visits to local pols in Iowa and New Hampshire. Camp out almost exclusively in those two states. Snap up every last political operative to manage every detail of your operation. And then, announce you're running, preferably no later than January of the year before the election. Stay largely behind the scenes at fundraisers for the better part of the year. And then hope for your big break after a heavy dollop of retail politicking in the snows in those aforementioned early primary states.

It seemed like every election got started earlier and earlier, and cost more and more. Until 2012.

After the ginormous campaign of 2008, 2012 seems like a much more subdued affair. We won't know until October what the candidates raised in the third quarter, but given the sagging economy, it seems that President Obama's fundraising total may begin to dispel the myth of 2012 as the year of the billion dollar candidate. Something quite different is rising in its place. Meet the Insta-Candidate.

We're well into September, and Sarah Palin's assurances that "there's still time" for a new candidate (read: her) to enter the GOP race are still taken seriously. Even with filing deadlines looming, the idea of a primary challenge to Barack Obama isn't being laughed at.

Rick Perry entered the GOP race on August 13th and is still very much the frontrunner in the polls. If he wins, that would make him the latest-starting major party nominee since Bill Clinton announced on October 3, 1991 -- another year when the opposition party didn't begin to believe it could win until it was almost too late.

So, what happened to the idea that running for President required enormous lead time to build the kind of name recognition necessary to dominate the evening news?

For one thing, the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle. It is now far easier for a lesser known candidate to find an audience and from there, suck out all the (media) oxygen in a room. Part of what differentiated Palin from the other potential vice presidential nominees in 2008 was the small but cult-like following she had generated on a network of blogs and conservative pundits (which I profiled in 2007). In a weekend, she went from being known by possibly less than 10,000 people outside her home state to political superstardom. No one needed to explain the Palin phenomenon to Republican base voters. They instantly got it.

Likewise, Perry was not terribly well known among Republican voters prior to 2010. His canny and aggressive campaign style, and his early pivot to Tea Party conservatism, most certainly earned him extra points among Fox News watchers. His come-from-behind primary defeat of establishment GOP Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison became a metaphor for the early rise of the Tea Party movement in 2010.

By all accounts, Perry was not even thinking of running for President until the spring. His closest political confidantes had all departed for the Newt Gingrich campaign. Once Gingrich imploded, and Perry got his band back together, it become surprisingly easy to build a frontrunning Republican primary campaign.

The old formula also called for camping out in Iowa and New Hampshire, almost exclusively. While this is not entirely an ill-advised approach, early state dominance is now undermined by the nationalization of the primary process through cable and Twitter. In years past, Michele Bachmann would have languished in single digits until enough retail politicking in a small space could have catapulted her to a strong first or second in Iowa. This is when she could have expected her first mentions on the evening news, and the real national media coverage to begin. Since only Iowa and New Hampshire cared enough to "vet" the candidates in previous elections, their influence was outsized in a country starved for in-depth political coverage. Now, anyone anywhere can perform their own vetting with a few tweets. We don't need the early states (as much) to tell us who the real players are.

Bachmania 2012 now seems to have come and gone. Conservative primary voters very quickly sized up and just as quickly dismissed Bachmann, who now seems on her way back to single digit land (leaving room for Palin?). And before her, who could forget GOP frontrunner Donald Trump?

Social media and obsessive 24/7 celebrity-style campaign coverage creates a market for once obscure candidates to be judged by the primary electorate much faster than in years past.

And nor is it the "fringe" candidates that this trend helps. Barack Obama was seen as a late starter in 2008, not even professing interest in a run until October 2006. Though he had several other notable advantages, this later start allowed him to dodge early questions and doubts that could have kept his improbable campaign from getting started in the first place.

If Rick Perry continues to sit atop GOP primary polls, watch for a new Presidential campaign script to be written: smaller and later-starting campaigns that use the Internet and ubiquitous media coverage to scale faster.

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