Making Sense of The 'Invisible' 2016 Primary

Image: Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks to the media after visiting Integra Biosciences during a campaign stop in Hudson, New Hampshire
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks to the media after visiting Integra Biosciences during a campaign stop in Hudson, New Hampshire March 13, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY HEALTH POLITICS)SHANNON STAPLETON / Reuters

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Yes, the 2016 presidential campaign already has been off and running for weeks now.

But come next month, the candidates will start to “officially” announce their campaigns and form their presidential fundraising committees.

Call it the true beginning to the “Invisible Primary” – the period of intense jockeying for position (when it comes to money, endorsements and stature) before the voting even takes place in next year’s presidential nominating contests.

Below are four things to keep in mind as the Invisible Primary gets underway. And here’s one heads up: Endorsements matter much more than the polls and money race.

Take the early horserace polls with a grain of salt

He or she who leads in the early polling doesn’t always win, though it certainly helps to be in double digits.

Eight years ago, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani were ahead in their respective party fields, according to the March 2007 NBC/WSJ poll. Neither candidate, or course, ended up winning the nomination.

  • Dem field: Clinton 40 percent, Barack Obama 28 percent, John Edwards 15 percent.
  • GOP field: Giuliani 38 percent, John McCain 24 percent, Mitt Romney 8 percent. (Ultimate winners in bold.)

On the other hand, four years ago, Romney led in the Feb. 2011 NBC/WSJ poll among the Republican candidates who decided to run.

  • GOP field: Romney 21 percent, Newt Gingrich 13 percent, Ron Paul 6 percent, Tim Pawlenty 3 percent, Rick Santorum 2 percent, Jon Huntsman 1 percent. (Note: Santorum – despite his early 2 percent -- finished second to Romney in the 2012 GOP horserace.)

The same is true for the early general-election polling, too.

According to the March 2007 NBC/WSJ poll, Rudy Giuliani led both Hillary Clinton (47-42 percent) and Barack Obama (45-39 percent) in hypothetical general-election matchups.

And in the Feb. 2011 NBC/WSJ poll, Obama led Romney by nine points, 49 percent to 40 percent. Obama’s actual margin of victory over Romney was four points, 51 percent to 47 percent.

Money can buy you love – but not always the presidential nomination

Just like in the polling, the early top fundraisers from each party in the 2008 race didn’t win the nomination.

But in other times, the early fundraising leader did win the party’s nomination.

Note: In the Super PAC era – where a single wealthy donor can help prop up an underfinanced candidate, a la what happened to Gingrich and Santorum in 2012 – the campaign money race could matter less than it used to.

Debates don’t matter – until they do

In the 2008 and 2012 races, the respective presidential fields took part in 20 or more debates each – so almost 100 hours total of questions and verbal jousting.

And just a handful of exchanges influenced the overall contests. But those handful of times ended up mattering.

In an Oct. 2007 debate before the final sprint until the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton got tripped up on a question about drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants, which turned into days of bad press for her.

Rick Perry’s “Oops” moment in a CNBC debate in Nov.2011 essentially ended his chances of going toe-to-toe with Romney. (His earlier declaration at an August Orlando debate that opponents of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants don’t “have a heart” had already broken his early momentum with GOP voters.)

In the run up to South Carolina’s 2012 primary, Newt Gingrich denouncing the media in a debate helped catapult him to victory in that contest.

And Mitt Romney besting Gingrich in debates before Florida’s primary took away Gingrich’s momentum and contributed to his own victory in the Sunshine State.

Endorsements are the best predictor of whether there will be a competitive primary season or not

More than polls, money or the debates, endorsements – from sitting governors, senators and members of Congress – help determine if the perceived frontrunner is going to breeze through the primary season. Or if the frontrunner is going to face the political fight of his/her life.

  • By March 2000, George W. Bush had endorsements from a whopping 41 GOP senators, 175 House member and 27 governors – so more than half of the party’s elected officials. And, of course, outside of his stumble in New Hampshire, Bush easily won the Republican Party’s nomination that year.
  • In contrast, by early 2008, Hillary Clinton won endorsements from 10 Democratic senators, 67 House members and eight governors. Those were more endorsements than Barack Obama had, but Clinton’s haul represented less than half of the party. Translation: The entire party wasn’t unified around her.
  • And by March 2012, Mitt Romney had endorsements from 15 GOP senators, 65 House members and nine governors – again, less than half of the party. Romney ultimately won the Republican Party’s nomination. But it wasn’t easy for him, even against underfunded and undermanned opposition.

“In the 1980-2004 primaries, a candidate’s share of endorsements during the invisible primary was associated with how many delegates that candidate won in the party convention months later,” political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck write in their book, The Gamble. “Why endorsements matter in this way is still unclear, but they are certainly a prominent and important signal about candidates’ standing with the party and ultimately whether a candidate can be the party’s standard-bearer.”

So what does this endorsement pattern tell us about 2016 – at least so far? Well, nearly 60 percent of Democratic senators already have backed a Hillary Clinton run, according to CNN.

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