A Tale of Two Brackets
It is an axiom in presidential politics that national polls are meaningless (ask Rudy Giuliani) -- the states select party nominees, and the states elect the president. However, since large slices of the political establishment buy into national polls, a candidate's standing there affects his or her ability to raise money and gain attention that can be translated into votes in the critical early primaries.
The national polls fall into something larger and deeper, though. The rank a candidate holds in national polls is far less important than which of two brackets the candidate falls into: Bracket 1) the top three who net double digits, and Bracket 2) everybody else.
The 2008 primaries in both parties offer numerous examples of candidates who came in first in national polls but failed to win the nomination, or in some cases, win a single primary. But if a candidate falls into Bracket 1, he or she is a contender, and if the candidate falls into Bracket 2, getting into Bracket 1 is almost impossible. Frequently, coverage of the polls will cut Bracket 2 off entirely.
A Bracket 2 candidate could announce a plan guaranteed to keep Americans safe, cut taxes, make social security solvent and produce 10% GDP growth for a decade, with empirical proof that it was so, and no one would ever know about it. The media would respond with a collective yawn because, after all, the candidate "doesn't have a chance." The same candidate could only hope for 2-3 minutes speaking time in primary debates, while frontrunners eat up a disproportionate share of questions and air time. The candidate's Bracket 2 status becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as he/she fails to raise money, gain name recognition or communicate ideas -- all the things necessary to grow the candidate's support.
None of this is earth shattering news, of course. But what's interesting is a candidate's "bracket" is determined long before anyone votes, and indeed before a candidacy is even declared. What separates Brackets 1 and 2 is what I call the presidential "permission threshold."
What is the permission threshold?
When a potential donor, state organizer, precinct captain, or voter is approached to support a candidate – even the one with whom he/she is most ideologically compatible – he/she automatically (and perhaps subconsciously) tests that candidate for “social proof”: a measure of others’ behavior that informs our own.
Beyond the occasional iconoclast, most people, particularly those “first movers” with whom a candidate builds his/her initial support, won’t get behind a candidate that hasn’t already been presented to them as a realistic presidential contender. Therefore, a candidate must first reach a point of national credibility that gives others “permission” to support him.
Ask someone to get behind a candidate who has crossed the threshold, and they've probably already considered it. They'll be open to receiving more information, attending an event, and can eventually be persuaded to give money, volunteer or vote for that candidate. That candidate will find himself/herself in Bracket 1 in most polls. Approach that person with a candidate who, by any objective measure, should be the perfect candidate, but hasn't crossed the threshold, and they'll politely demure. Most of the time, that candidate is permanently relegated to Bracket 2.
The Brackets, of course, represent a chicken-and-egg issue. The brackets represent either support or lack thereof, and those brackets are the cause of further support -- or lack thereof. This is because the candidates crossed the permission threshold or failed to do so before they were candidates.
When is the permission threshold crossed?
2012 candidates are in the process of crossing the threshold as you read this. In January of 2011, candidates in both brackets will announce their exploratory committees, and at that point polls will be taken and potential supporters will begin choosing candidates. The candidate's fate -- at least in the context of the permission threshold -- is largely already sealed. The threshold can still be crossed, but at that time, with polls and the attendant discrepancies in media attention, it will be very difficult to do so.
Therefore, potential 2012 candidates need to cross the permission threshold in 2010. This may sound like tricky business, since the candidate isn't yet a candidate, but a candidate crosses the permission threshold ultimately, not by his/her own actions, but by those of others.
How does a candidate cross the threshold?
Ideally, candidates' credibility would be determined by their ideas, experience, and readiness for the office of the presidency. Unfortunately, it just isn't so. This is a process game and in this critical early stage when only political junkies are watching closely, candidates are judged on their ability to run a campaign and to win.
This early judgment takes place almost exclusively among the so-called "Gang of 500": journalists, politicians, commentators, political operatives, lobbyists, attorneys and other arbiters of conventional wisdom.
Once conventional wisdom determines that one is a credible candidate for president, stories begin informing the public of his/her background, political and fundraising prowess, and ideological credentials. Speeches to party dinners, trips around the country (especially to early primary states) and the activities of the candidate's PAC are treated as news, and new policy statements are injected into the national debate. Anytime the candidate is interviewed or appears on the Sunday morning shows, the candidate is asked if he/she is going to run for president, each time responding "Well, David, I'm just focused on helping our candidates win in 2010 right now." Of course, near year's end the answer may be amended to say the candidate is "considering it."
By the time the candidate forms an exploratory committee, it's merely confirmation of a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile, candidates who did not cross the threshold in 2010 will announce their candidacies, and will merit little more than a sentence on cable networks' news tickers for the day. This (and the similar place of honor on the ticker when they drop out) will be the extent of their coverage in the national media.
So, if Joe Politician is considering running for president in 2012, he should get a good night's sleep tonight, and get started on crossing the permission threshold before the end of 2010.
Potential 2012 candidates who have crossed the permission threshold: Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich
Potential candidates who have not yet crossed the threshold: Mitch Daniels, Mike Pence, John Thune, John Huntsman
Tim Pawlenty is currently standing at the threshold, working very hard to cross it.