Why Everyone Is Running for President

It used to make sense to play coy about your ambitions, but not anymore.

Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., talks to fellow Republicans at the Carroll County Lobster Bake, Sept. 7, 2013, in Wolfeboro, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
Sept. 12, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

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.”

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