Blame the media — and Donald Trump
By William S. Bike
It’s 20 months until the presidential election, and already Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, and Marianne Williamson have declared their candidacies — with Ron DeSantis and Joe Biden ready to jump in at any moment.
In the old days, presidential campaigns didn’t start this early. The whole reason for the party conventions that began in the 19th Century is that there weren’t national campaigns until the party actually picked its candidate. There might be a New England candidate, a Southern candidate, and a Midwestern candidate, so the convention was for deciding which of those would be the party’s nominee. So sometimes the convention would decide on somebody who hadn’t even been running to be the party’s presidential nominee. For example, in 1880 Congressman and non-candidate James Garfield gave a great speech at the Republican convention and the party figured, “Why not?” and made him its presidential nominee. And then he even got elected.
By the mid 20th Century, once we had TV and radio, candidates could run national campaigns before the convention because the media gave them an opportunity for publicity. But almost nobody declared until the actual year of the election. For example, as late as the 1968 presidential election cycle, Robert F. Kennedy didn’t even announce he was running until March 16, 1968 — after the New Hampshire primary. Yet by June, only three months later, he pretty much had the Democratic nomination wrapped up.
Since the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, with 24-hour cable TV news and social media, candidates have been declaring the year before the election, and the 24-hour media, desperate for news to fill the time, has eaten it up. The long campaign is a modern construct.
We often knew that people were running for years, but that didn’t mean they declared. Everybody knew that Ronald Reagan would run again after he lost the Republican nomination to Gerald Ford in 1976, and everybody knew Hillary Clinton would run again after she lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama in 2008. But that didn’t mean they actually declared.