The Perception Primary

Republican presidential candidates arrive on stage for the Republican presidential debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Lo
Republican presidential candidates arrive on stage for the Republican presidential debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. From left are: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; real estate magnate Donald Trump; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul; and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

By now, the field of candidates seeking the presidency in 2016 is deep. Very, very deep. A total of 17 Republicans and five Democrats have declared their intent to run for president in 2016. On the Republican side, this is the first wide-open primary contest since 1996, but with twice the number of major candidates. On the Democratic side, despite a recent surge in momentum by Bernie Sanders, the looming inevitability of Hillary Clinton's nomination offers few surprises. Yet, even with the first primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire still more than six months away, every major candidate that is expected to run has declared their intent to do so. Ted Cruz, the first to declare, announced his bid in late March, while the most recent, John Kasich, announced two weeks ago. The past few months have seen a cacophonous uproar of head declarations, from "It's time to reclaim the Constitution" (from whom?) to "Let's make America great again!", each leaving a noticeably smaller splash than the last. From the familiar names (Bush, Clinton, Paul, Trump) to the not-so-familiar (who the hell is Ben Carson or Lincoln Chaffee?), each candidate struggles to separate from the herd and distinguish themselves from the "also-rans." In this endeavor to differentiate, public perception reigns supreme.

As each presidential contest begins earlier than the last, the outsized importance of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary is inflated even further. Just ignore, for the time being, why on Earth there are two different systems of choosing party candidates. The first two contests of the national primary calendar, the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary are lauded as national "screeners" so the rest of the country doesn't have to bother with second-rate candidates. Winning (or losing) in Iowa or New Hampshire can catapult an underdog candidate to the front of the pack, or decimate a front-runner's chances of surviving Super Tuesday. It has become somewhat of a rite of passage among presidential candidates to kick off their campaigns by traveling to Iowa or New Hampshire -- most notably, Hillary Clinton took a road trip from New York to Iowa in a van nicknamed "Scooby". With six months to go until the first Iowa caucus on February 1st, 2016, the field of presidential candidates has been well established.

Over the next six months, each candidate will attempt to shape their own public image in Iowa and New Hampshire in such a way that will help them win these first two contests. Whether that be as an "average Joe" or a statesman , each candidate treads a fine line between establishing themselves as a viable nominee on the national stage and appealing to the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire -- states that are decidedly white, rural, and small, yet hold immense sway over how national elections are shaped. The next six months before Iowa is a long time to be spent obsessing over two states that are relatively un-representative of the entire nation -- indeed, from the time of the Democratic and Republican national conventions in July 2016 to the general election in November, each candidate will have only five months to become elected president. More time will be spent ruminating over who leads the polls in New Hampshire and Iowa than will be spent on the general election.

The largely white, rural and middle-income states of New Hampshire and Iowa have an almost uncanny ability to bring a candidate down to the level of an "average Joe." As countless politicians -- from Sarah Palin and Obama to H-Dawg, Ted Cruz, or Chris Christie -- keep on trying to remind us, despite the national spotlight, they're just regular folks. Relatable, down-to-Earth folksy folks that can't stop using the word "folks". Rhetorical state gem aside, over the next six months each candidate will religiously pander to the decidedly un-representative -- yet somehow "average American" -- populations of New Hampshire and Iowa in an attempt to climb to the top of national polls. Donald Trump- a candidate whom, despite an outright racist announcement speech, leads the Republican field in national polls -- is a testament to the impact that polls have on the national spotlight. The self-fulfilling prophecy of Trump's candidacy is realized as each new crazy antic of his boosts media attention, which in turn adds to his strength in polls and further increases the national attention. At this point in a presidential campaign, many second-tier candidates that lack the comfortable bump afforded by name recognition fight to define themselves from the rest of the also-rans by gaining fractional increases in the polls For the crowded Republican field, polling numbers played an immediately relevant role in determining the ten (out of sixteen) Republican candidates that were allowed to debate in the first GOP debate hosted by Fox on August 6th.

The public's perception of a candidate is a powerful and oftentimes deadly tool for presidential campaigns. Memorable gaffes -- from Howard Dean's infamous scream to Rick Perry's debate fumble, and everything in between -- have the power to sink a promising candidacy. John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign lies testament to the fact that, if it sticks, a smear campaign devoted to painting the opposition as a "flip-flopper" or any number of politically lethal descriptors can define a candidate in the public's eye. We rarely remember candidates' positions on the issues, nor their complex voting records or histories in public office. What we do remember is how a candidate looks on TV (as Nixon in 1960 was so acutely aware), or the handful of descriptors and slogans that define their candidacy. Obama was the candidate of "Change" in 2008, and John McCain the "Maverick." The depth of a candidate's positions, beliefs and history are all flattened into a brand image that can be easily digestible by the public. The public's perception of a candidate -- as a flip-flopper or as a Socialist, as a nervous wreck or as a statesman -- matters more in elections than those substantive characteristics and beliefs which define the president that candidate will become.