The rush to handicap 2016: let’s not

"Dr. Politics" advice—avoid horse-race journalism, but bring on the well-reported profiles

Dear Dr. Politics,

I am writing about a problem that has become as annoying as stores playing Christmas carols while they are still selling Halloween candy.

Three days after the election, Politico was already out with a major story emblazoned with this headline: “2016 Election: Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush?” Even though Politico seems obsessed with jumping the calendar three years to the Iowa caucuses, they are far from the only offender. The day after Thanksgiving, The New York Times ballyhooed on the front page its own Jeb-mulling-2016 article. The Times piece even featured a classic zero-news-here quote from a Bush adviser, “It’s neither a ‘no’ nor a ‘yes’—it’s a ‘wait and see.’”

I am not a prude about these things. I know baseball has its venerable Hot Stove League and gossip about the Oscars is a year-round industry. But Barack Obama hasn’t even been inaugurated—and we’re already frenetically handicapping the race to succeed him. Dr. Politics, what are the rules here? Doesn’t it make sense to wait, at least, until the 2014 congressional elections are over? Or should I simply be grateful that the media is not speculating about 2020…yet?

(Sign me) Politicked Out in Plattsburgh

Dear PO-ed,

Dr. Politics has a dream. For the next two or even three years, campaign reporters and TV pundits would respond to every question about the 2016 presidential race with the same unvarying answer, “I don’t know. It’s too soon to tell.” The response would be the same whether the question was asked on camera on Morning Joe or posed late at night, after a few glasses of wine, at a dinner party. Some things in life are unknowable—and good political journalists should respect the limits of their ability to divine the future.

Saying, “I don’t know,” on national television, of course, is tantamount to wearing a sandwich board with the legend, “Don’t Invite Me Back.” Fearless speculation about Hillary Clinton’s future (even the The New Yorker’s David Remnick has gotten into the act) or Marco Rubio’s political trajectory is what 21st century political journalism is all about. So to make sure that no careers are destroyed (or, even worse, no campaign reporters are exiled to cover policy issues), everyone has to hang together. My dream requires an ”I am Spartacus” moment, built around a collective refusal to peddle premature political predictions.

Also to be resisted is the temptation to divide the possible 2016 contenders into tiers. Reporters may believe that they are merely trying to create order out of the chaos of multi-candidate fields, but this tier-building exercise inevitably leaves tears on the pillow. Who should have been a bottom-tier candidate in the 2012 GOP race? The often-belittled Rick Santorum, who proved to be Mitt Romney’s strongest opponent, or the over-hyped Tim Pawlenty, whose candidacy died at the Iowa Straw Poll? From George McGovern and Jimmy Carter in the 1970s to Howard Dean in the 2004 Democratic race, the press corps is invariably surprised when a derided long shot comes riding to the front of the pack.

Please don’t misunderstand Dr. Politics. I am not suggesting that the media should refrain from writing about the initial presidential stirrings as would-be candidates act on the assumption that an early 2016 start is essential unless you are named Clinton or Bush. It is genuine if minor news when a presidential aspirant meets with political bundlers or selflessly flies to Iowa to raise money for 2014 state senate candidates.

The trick here is restraint. There is no need to cover these incremental steps with the panting eagerness of the press pack pursuing Sarah Palin in 2010. Exaggerating the importance of early campaign stories, by the way, is a problem that pre-dates the 24-hour news cycle. In The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse recounts how legendary Times reporter Johnny Apple made his reputation with page-one scoops built around irrelevant endorsements by now-forgotten figures like California Democratic Senator John Tunney. Yes, long before Politico embraced the evanescent, “Tunney Endorsement of Muskie in 1972 Race Is Reported Near” was considered breakthrough political news in December 1971.

For all the obvious annoyance with too-much-too-soon 2016 coverage, there is a type of political story that should be written early and often. Candidate profiles can be far more insightful if the reporter gets out there before the media hordes. Not only is it possible to get access when Bobby Jindal or Martin O’Malley is not pursued by 40 other reporters, but also the anecdotes about these ambitious governors are apt to be fresher when long-friends and political enemies are not recycling the same quotes they gave to The Washington Post or BuzzFeed. In addition, several possible 2016 contenders like Andrew Cuomo and Mark Warner will be running for reelection in 2014, thereby enhancing the news value of early profiles.

(Dr. Politics should mention that, under a pseudonym, “Walter Shapiro,” I wrote a book on the early skirmishing for the 2004 Democratic nomination called One-Car Caravan. My logic for such early-bird journalism was that the candidates would be the same people two years before the election that they would be in the fall of 2004. The difference was that by getting out there in 2002, I could spend an entire day with John Kerry or Howard Dean without another reporter in sight. Of course, this arduous advance work did not prevent me from fatally misjudging John Edwards but that was another type of problem).

So, sadly, Politicked Out in Plattsburgh, to say that there is an off-season in presidential politics any more is like saying the Christmas selling season still kicks off when Santa is sighted at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

The relevant standard for all 2016 articles is whether they tell you something fresh about the character, background, or policy views of possible presidential contenders. If it is just horse-race journalism, then you can freely ignore it until the leaves take on their 2015 autumnal hues in Iowa and New Hampshire. But if the story is an insightful profile about a 2016 White House dreamer, then Dr. Politics says with no embarrassment, “Bring it on.”

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD. Tags: ,