period comprises the two year span from the last presidential election
to the mid-term congressional elections. In general, one can
two groups of presidential prospects: the active pre-candidates
and the coy and noncommittal.
The 2000 campaign essentially began on November 6, 1996, the day after President Clinton was re-elected. As 1997 progressed, a number of presidential hopefuls began building networks, courting activists, and testing messages. About two dozen prominent individuals were mentioned in media speculation as possible 2000 presidential candidates, including at least 20 Republicans and five or six Democrats. By November 1998, there were no formally declared major candidates, although two prospects had established exploratory committees.
A second group of pre-candidates are more noncommittal, stating that they want to "keep the door open" or are "too busy to think about it now." Some of these individuals are genuinely undecided about a run, wanting to see the shape of the political landscape after the midterm elections. Thus if Democrats had regained control of the House in November 1998 or if Republicans had dramatically increased their majority, some hopefuls might have been either encouraged or dissuaded. Likewise, for potential presidential candidates who faced re-election in 1998, it would not have been prudent to start chasing a presidential dream and put their current positions at risk. Other prospects may be considering a run but not want to get in "campaign mode" two or three years out from an election. Some on the speculation list probably do not even have presidential ambitions, but may enjoy and encourage the talk because it bolsters marketability and media coverage. Finally, there is also a B-list. A number of officials and others are engaged in early jockeying to be considered for the vice-presidential nod.
Reaching a Decision
Each potential candidate needs to determine if he, or she, has the requisite fire in the belly to pursue a presidential race, can raise enough funds to put forth a credible effort, and can win, or at least shape the debate. The pre-campaign period provides a time to make that determination. Aside from a few thousand party activists and pundits around the country are who are paying close attention, most Americans, facing more immediate concerns, pay little heed during the pre-campaign period. Likewise, while news organizations may occasionally run stories that have a 2000 presidential campaign angle or a paragraph here and there on presidential race implications or even just use of the "likely presidential candidate" label, the glare of the media spotlight is elsewhere.
The lack of
a race that is still one or two years away is probably a healthy sign.
At such an early stage of the process the waters are murky and
like a pond with koi flashing about. Careful study can provide
insights, but there are a lot of meaningless polls and speculation and
the "big fish" may be hard to spot.
Copyright 1998, 1999 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.