Does it seem like presidential campaigns are starting a lot earlier than they did when we baby boomers were young? Yes it does, because yes they are. Which means already, candidates are being measured by their chances of winning. Would Joe Biden be a no-brainer for the Democrat nomination if he decides to run? Is a former governor like Colorado’s John Hickenlooper hopelessly obscured by bigger names? BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs has covered half-a-dozen presidential campaigns, and he has some thoughts about how wise it is to predict anything about this race, this soon.
Already, more than a year-and-a-half from the next presidential election and almost a year ahead of the first consequential state contests, politicians and pundits are proffering predictions about who’s up and who’s not in the crowded field of Democrat candidates.
Which makes me laugh. They should know better. As I once learned myself. The hard way.
Way back in 1991, as a correspondent for ABC News, Good Morning America asked me to fly around the country and spend a couple of days with each of the five Democrats vying to oppose Republican President George H.W. Bush in his campaign for re-election. I would do a five-minute profile of each.
That’s when I got out of the prediction business.
The five would-be nominees were Senators Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Tom Harkin of Iowa, former Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, former (and future) governor Jerry Brown of California, and a guy from Arkansas by the name of Bill Clinton.
My camera crew and I connected with Clinton in Seattle, at a National Governors Conference. The other four candidates already had enjoyed lots of days in the sun as national figures, but Clinton was an unknown. So when we showed up to put a television network’s national spotlight on him for a couple of days, at a point early in the campaign when no one else had, he was overjoyed.
So much so that he focused on me like a laser beam. You might remember, that’s what people used to say about Bill Clinton, that he could make you feel like you were the most important person in the room. For those two days in Seattle, that’s how he treated me.
Which made me think he was as phony as a three-dollar bill. I’d already covered presidential candidates in 1972, and 1976, and then after returning home from a decade overseas, in 1988, so I thought I knew when a politician was transparent. The voters would see through it. They’d never buy it.
That’s why, when I’d completed my swing around the U.S. and took all the video to ABC’s headquarters in New York, and lots of colleagues at the Mother Ship, knowing I’d spent time with all five candidates, asked me, “So who’s going to get the nomination?”, my answer to one and all was, “I don’t know, too early to tell.” But then I added, “The one guy you can count out is the guy from Arkansas, the governor, Clinton.”
As it turns out, what I’d found phony about Bill Clinton turned out to be genuine. Not that this was the first time I’d made a bad prediction.
That was much earlier, in 1972, when I was one of the “boys on the bus,” ABC’s producer on the campaign of Senator George McGovern, who was trying to unseat President Richard Nixon. I think we traveled to almost all 50 states — that was McGovern’s unsound strategy to take the White House — and as with other campaigns I subsequently covered, by and large we’d land in a city, speed in a police-escorted motorcade to an event center, the candidate would address an adoring crowd, then we’d speed in a motorcade back to the airport, fly to another city, and repeat the whole thing over again. Three, sometimes four cities in a single day.
To be sure, in every campaign there are protests and demonstrations along the way, but truth be known, when you’re exposed to so many fans and so few critics, it’s easy to conclude that just about the whole world loves whichever candidate you’re with. On election day in ‘72, Nixon creamed McGovern, but it hadn’t been clear in the fever of the campaign trail. I remember reading a day or two after the election that one New York socialite was floored by the outcome, saying “I just can’t believe it, I don’t know anyone who voted for Nixon.” She wasn’t alone.
Then came 1975, in the run-up to the ’76 race between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. I’d gotten to know Ford a little bit because I’d covered parts of his vice presidency. (For those with bad memories, President Richard Nixon appointed House Minority Leader Ford in 1973 to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had resigned in disgrace.) But the first time I laid eyes on Carter was when we traveled to Iowa well ahead of the caucuses to see what this obscure governor from a southern state was up to.
What he was up to was wearing blue jeans and plaid shirts. He always had a suit handy too… which he carried himself in a plastic suit bag. He slept in supporters’ sofa beds. He was the epitome of humble. And he spoke with that funny twang.
In my own mind — thankfully I wasn’t into public predictions yet like the one about Clinton— I wrote Carter off. Voters across America just wouldn’t go for an unsophisticated peanut farmer from Georgia, especially when they already had a folksy enough choice in Ford.
Of course damned near everybody should have gotten out of the prediction business in the election two years ago. I mean, Donald Trump?!? A New York developer in silk suits whose record of success was decidedly dubious? A reality TV star whose vocabulary was decidedly deficient? True, Hillary Clinton trounced Trump in the popular vote, but he figured out the path to victory and took it to the White House.
Almost no one saw it coming. Almost everyone was wrong.
Modern political history mirrors those mistakes. Going into their first televised debate in 1960, just six weeks before the election, Richard Nixon led John F. Kennedy in the polls. Coming out of the debate, Nixon was behind. The rest is history.
That’s why today, when anyone handicaps the almost dozen-and-a-half Democrats who have thrown their hats in the ring, I laugh. Sure, already there are superstars attracting big attention and raising big money, while others— like Colorado’s Hickenlooper and a few others — are polling at about one-percent.
But don’t count anyone out. Not yet. Ahead of us lie speeches and ads and debates and gaffes galore. Which can turn a superstar into a has-been and a small fry into a front runner. If you haven’t learned that by now, you haven’t been paying attention.