The Iceberg Theory of presidential politics

August 21, 2013

January 1, 2016 is 863 days away. But, judging from the headlines blaring across news websites and cable channels this August you might think it was next month.


Iceberg!

"Ready for Hillary?" asked a chyron on MSNBC. Ted Cruz's renunciation of his Canadian citizenship launched a thousand -- most of them by the Fix -- blog posts on his 2016 motivations. The Wall Street Journal penned a piece making clear that Joe Biden was prepared to run for president in 2016 whether or not Clinton does.

The flurry of coverage has spawned a more meta stream of stories and blog posts that focus on whether things are starting earlier than they ever have before and whether said early start is a good or a bad thing.

All of which brings us to The Fix's Iceberg Theory of American presidential politics. Here it is in a sentence: Like an iceberg, the bulk of a presidential race happens underwater, er, out of sight of the average person. (Proper tribute must be paid here. Mark Halperin/David Chalian's "Invisible Primary" is the natural progenitor of our Iceberg Theory.)

Now, for the longer explanation.

Most regular people -- even those living in states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that play an outsized role in picking presidents -- are paying absolutely no attention to what the people who will run in three years time for the nation's highest office are doing right now. Like, no attention.

That lack of interest/care tends to drive a narrative that what happens now simply does not matter in the grand scheme of the 2016 race. That's wrong. Simply because the average 2016 voter isn't aware of what's happening among the men and women who will run doesn't mean that the activities happening now don't matter.

The storyline for each of the candidates is built out of sight of the average voter, years in advance of the iceberg popping above the surface for everyone to see.

It was during the 2006 midterm elections that buzz started to build around then freshman Sen. Barack Obama, who was drawing massive crowds everywhere he went to stump or raise money for Democratic candidates.

It was in his 1998 re-election race in Texas that George W. Bush built and honed the "compassionate conservative" message that he rode to the Republican nomination and the presidency in 2000.

On the other side of the equation, it was in 2006 when then Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh was cast as a vanilla centrist, a characterization that played a major part in his decision not to run for president in 2008. Joe Biden battled the perception that he was not serious enough to be the nominee throughout the 2008 race -- a sense built from years of too honest/impolitic comments.

Fast forward to present day. Is Marco Rubio a conservative who can broaden the party's reach to electorally critical Hispanics or a moderate in conservative's clothing? Is Chris Christie a blunt talking problem solver or a bullying blowhard? Is Rand Paul a danger to the GOP or its savior? Is Hillary Clinton the inevitable nominee or the same flawed politician that Obama exposed during the 2008 primary?

All of these questions will be answered -- or come damn close to being answered -- before a single vote is cast and, in many cases, before a "normal" person even begins to think about the presidential race in 2016.

And, it's not just "narratives" that get formed years in advance of actual votes. Building a national fundraising operation that can collect tens -- if not hundreds -- of millions of dollars of money takes lots of time.  Constructing a political team that has the right combination of experience, new insight and a belief in putting the candidate first at all times can be the work of a political lifetime. Courting key activists in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina or Nevada is an absolutely arduous process where times visited/time spent can make all the difference.

Ignoring the iceberg nature of the presidential race then can have huge negative consequences.  In 2008, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee became the momentum candidate after winning the Iowa caucuses but, because he and his team either didn't understand or ignored the iceberg aspects of the presidential process, he was unable to build on that momentum in New Hampshire where he finished a distant third.  After a runner-up showing in South Carolina, Huckabee's chances at the nomination vanished.

Smart candidates -- and their campaigns -- understand that the bulk of the work that goes into winning the presidential nomination happens below the surface, well out of sight of a single voter. Momentum still matters -- a lot -- but without a structure to take advantage of that momentum it can peter out. And, if the primary fight drags out -- ala the 2008 Democratic primary or the 2012 Republican fight -- what a candidate and his/her campaign team did years before when no regular people were watching can be the difference between winning and losing.

If you remember one thing about the presidential race then, remember this: It's an iceberg. What's going on below the surface can -- and almost always does -- make you or break you.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Scott Clement · August 21, 2013