At the advent of the 1980 presidential race, George H.W. Bush was scoring so low in polls that he called his campaign plane “Asterisk One.”
Jeb, his second son to run for president, won’t face such long odds when he declares his candidacy on Monday.
Other candidates will, however, and breaking through may not be as possible as it was in 1980, when Bush beat Ronald Reagan in Iowa and claimed the “Big Mo.” He didn’t win the nomination, but got on the ticket, and was elected president in his own right in 1988.
Part of the trouble for asterisk candidates this year is that there are so many of them. The first GOP debate on Fox News will be limited to the top 10 in an average of the five most recent polls before the Aug. 6 event. Backlash from lower-polling prospects, as well as some voters, may be behind Fox adding a separate “forum” on Aug. 6 for those who do not make the cut, but poll at least 1 percent. But the forum will be in the afternoon, not in prime time. (CNN will host the second debate, and will similarly split the field, but both of its events will run in prime time.)
The reason for tiered debates is understandable: Even a 10-candidate cutoff will make most sound bites nibbles. The trouble is that an asterisk candidate with impressive experience but low name recognition (say, former congressman and current Ohio Gov. John Kasich) might not make it. Donald Trump might.
What’s more, the early nationalization of the race could subvert Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s unique style of retail politics, and replace it with wholesale national saturation strategies. Critics of the outsized role these small, relatively homogenous states have had may say change is overdue. But the earnest, honest way those states’ voters evaluate candidates up close has historically worked.
And more than ever, Big Mo might mean big money. “The whole way the sequential primary process, for all its faults and problems, was designed was to let people who weren’t well-known before the campaign season began come to public attention, gain followers, and attract money,” said Diana Mutz, director of the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications. Mutz, author of “In Your Face Politics: The Consequences of Uncivil Media,” added that the media landscape may alter candidate behavior, too. “It’s very hard, given the huge amounts of media out there, to get attention. It creates the incentive for publicity stunts.”
So presidential decorum may actually make it harder to get elected.
“It creates all sorts of odd dynamics and perverse incentives to do something dramatic,” said David S. Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs at the City University of New York. Birdsell, a political debate expert, added that the impact may extend beyond the extensive field of primary hopefuls.
“The real risk for the GOP — and this is [Republican Party Chair] Reince Priebus’ nightmare — is you will have an incoherent process with candidates who are deeply polarizing, especially for a general election electorate, and they want to desperately avoid that,” Birdsell said. “That’s one of the wild cards here. Do you present a Republican Party that is relatively better attuned to the national voter median?”
It’s a wild card for the news media, too. Sure, there are always debates about debates, be it candidate inclusion, moderators or format. The news media dutifully report on these quadrennial controversies. But this time it’s causing them.
“There are some real questions we have to ask when we talk about the media taking that top role,” said Birdsell. “It’s a little problematic for a media organization, and uncomfortable at the very least, to say ‘This candidate is plausible and this candidate is not.’ ”
And, added Birdsell, it might reinforce assumptions about media bias. “It’s interesting in that it really feeds a particularly Republican narrative historically about an overweening media trying to decide elections for us.”
This week, 56 key New Hampshire Republicans suggested two equal debates, with top-polling candidates split between them. Their plan seems reasonable. What’s unreasonable is excluding candidates before voters can vet them. Sure, not all asterisks have a chance. But then again, one might become president. Again.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.