May 7, 2013

The pollsters at Quinnipiac are preparing their first Iowa polling for 2016, and will release the results in a few weeks. If you think that’s too soon — and everyone but the most extreme political junkies thinks that — you’re right! But it’s not too soon to be thinking about and working for the 2016 presidential nomination contest, because now is when it’s really possible to push the candidates on policy, which is what’s really important.

What does polling tell us, nearly three years out from the Iowa caucuses? Almost nothing. It tells us name recognition, which we also know from common sense. (Lots of voters know who Hillary Clinton is; hardly anyone knows who Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is.) And it might possibly tell us a bit more about who is popular and who isn’t, but it’s far too early for that to be especially predictive of what will happen on a cold night in January or February 2016. My advice? Ignore those polls!

But that doesn’t mean that it’s too early to pay attention to the nomination battles. After all, the candidates are actively running now. Sometimes, that means actually organizing a full campaign, as we saw with Rand Paul last week. Mostly, however, it’s about impressing party actors and donors, and putting oneself in a position to be viable once the calendar turns to 2015 and 2016.

A large part of that is finding good issues to run on. And that’s where what happens now matters. Candidates — potential candidates — are looking around to determine which stances all party candidates must take, and are also looking for good issues to help differentiate themselves from the pack. What party actors — everything from think tankers to activists — can do, at this point, is to push the candidates to adopt their pet issues and make them central to the campaign.

It really does matter. Candidates tend to do in office what they said they would do on the campaign trail, but the more central an issue is to their candidacy, the more likely they are to follow through. It’s no coincidence that Barack Obama pushed hard on health care reform; not only was that important to his own campaign, but the topic and, with variations, the basic architecture of the Affordable Care Act were central to all of the major Democratic candidates. This focus was by design; activists and health care wonks pushed them to adopt those ideas.

It’s very hard for ordinary people to influence presidents, who have to be responsive to an entire nation and have years of built-up constraints. But it’s a lot easier to influence candidates for presidential nominations, especially early in the process.

So forget those early polls. Pay attention to policy. For once, that really is the most important thing going on in presidential politics right now.

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