Less than 24 hours after Rep. Peter King first suggested he was interested in running for president in 2016, the outspoken New York Republican was mic’d up and staring into a morning television live shot.
King had wanted a bigger platform for his hawkish take on foreign policy—especially as his ideological GOP rival, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, garnered ever more attention for his dovish and libertarian pronouncements. For King, floating his own name as a presidential hopeful turned out to be just the trick. “I’m not doing this just to stop Rand Paul, believe me,” King says. “But I do believe we need a strong national defense policy.”
In the months before his July presidential musings, King had averaged fewer than one Sunday show appearance a month. Afterward? He was a magnet for TV bookers, spinning through the studios of CNN, ABC, CBS, and Fox News on four straight Sundays—the last of which pitted King opposite Paul. He was on NBC’s Meet the Press last week.
The King media boomlet is the latest proof that having your name in the presidential hopper is one of the most valuable currencies in American politics. It creates an influx of media attention and a potential national base for campaign cash. Being asked “the question” is of value, even if you’ve planted the query yourself or answered it without being asked in the first place. “There’s almost no downside to feeding the beginning of the beginning of the conversation,” says veteran Republican strategist Mike Murphy. “When the media switches into who-is-running mode, like they are right now, it costs you nothing to throw one of your logs onto their bonfire.”
It’s why so many politicians are testing the presidential waters these days—with visits to the key early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. They get a national megaphone for the price of a plane ticket and a press release. Off went former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., touring the Iowa State Fairgrounds, corn dog in hand, last month. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose 2012 GOP bid flopped badly, announced he’s mulling 2016 and heading back to Iowa this fall. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, visited this summer and made a show of renouncing his Canadian citizenship. He’s headed back again to headline an Iowa Republican Party fundraiser in October. Even Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat without any discernible national following, traveled to the leadoff-caucus state to speak to party locals this summer. “It’s nice to be on the list,” said Klobuchar of the 2016 chatter during her Iowa visit, as if that wasn’t the point.
“You should never say never in this business,” failed 2004 Democratic candidate Howard Dean told CNN this summer. No surprise: He’s keeping the door ajar for 2016.
No House member has ascended directly to the White House since James Garfield in 1880. But Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, is nonetheless talking up a presidential run, having visited New Hampshire and South Carolina this summer. The timing of his trial balloon coincided nicely with his “Stop Amnesty” tour—doubling up on coverage.
The 2012 presidential campaign gave Republicans an unusual incentive to run. Virtually every declared GOP candidate, from Rep. Michele Bachmann to pizza magnate Herman Cain to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, graced the top of the polls at some point. And even the losers can end up winning: Gingrich is the new cohost of CNN’s Crossfire. The 2008 GOP runner-up, Mike Huckabee (who hasn’t “ruled it out” for 2016), got a show on Fox News.
The money game, too, encourages serial presidential explorations. Steve King, for instance, watched last cycle as Bachmann’s campaign helped her leapfrog him as the go-to voice for angry tea partiers—and the recipient of their campaign contributions. She raised more than $25 million last cycle; he raised $3.7 million.
In the age of super PACs, every candidate is one rich patron away from being a contender. The 2012 GOP primary descended at times into a proxy war between billionaire benefactors: Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife poured $20 million into a pro-Gingrich super PAC, while investor Foster Friess spent $2 million on a group backing Rick Santorum (who recently visited Iowa and, predictably, is hinting about 2016). “I think 2012 set the example that, with one or two wealthy guys who want to fund you—why the heck not?” says Matt Strawn, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party during the 2012 caucuses.
There is an almost inverse relationship between how hard a politician works to be mentioned for 2016 and how serious a candidate he or she is. Hillary Rodham Clinton will be asked “the question” no matter what she does. Rand Paul doesn’t have to say he’s running; it’s presumed. Same for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Brown, on the other hand, actually had to show up in Iowa after he’d passed on more-winnable Senate and gubernatorial races in Massachusetts. For Peter King, hinting at higher office has become something of a pastime. He toyed with Senate bids in 2000, 2004, and 2010, and, briefly, a presidential run in 2012. He never ran, but he always got the publicity.
The candidacy charade can go on only so long. Eventually politicians have to set up committees, raise money, and hire political operatives. Until then, it’s flirting season. “It’s like an eighth-grade kid saying he wants to be an astronaut,” Murphy says. “Great! Let’s see who actually shows up at NASA for training.”