This weekend in Little Rock, Bill Clinton and an all-star cast of political alumni will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his formal entry into the 1992 presidential race. But the candidate decision that did the most to bequeath Clinton the Democratic nomination did not occur until December 20, 1991. That was when New York Governor Mario Cuomo decided not to board the chartered plane waiting at the Albany airport to whisk him to New Hampshire to file his last-minute papers to enter the first primary.
That’s right—Cuomo got to wait until late in the Christmas shopping season to decide whether to run for president. Despite the frustration of the press corps at his Hamlet on the Hudson act, Cuomo’s prospects in the February 18 New Hampshire primary were bright. As Jack Germond and Jules Witcover wrote in their chronicle of the 1992 campaign, Mad as Hell, “Mario Cuomo was not Bruce Babbitt forced to ride a bicycle across Iowa in 1987 trying to win a little press attention … Cuomo was a national figure whose campaign from the start inevitably would draw heavy television network and newspaper coverage.”
What gives this Cuomo retrospective currency is the conventional wisdom that it is already too late for Chris Christie, Sarah Palin, or even the eternally dithering Rudy Giuliani to enter the GOP race. Somehow 60 days to the New Hampshire primary was long enough back in 1992, when social media referred to chatty local TV anchors. But in an age of Fox News (launched in 1996), Facebook, Internet fund-raising, and non-stop political coverage, the new political orthodoxy is that 100 days is insufficient for a candidate unless you are Napoleon mounting a comeback. Why is it that faster-than-ever political communication automatically dictates an elongated campaign season?
This is not a brief for Christie, Giuliani, or (gasp!) Palin. But what is exasperating is the ease with which the campaign press corps assumes that because something has not happened recently, it cannot happen again in human existence. The New York Yankees had not lost a game in which they led 7-0 in the eighth inning since 1953—until Wednesday night. That is a statistical universe of more than 9,000 baseball games. In contrast, since 1992, the Republicans and Democrats have each had three contested battles for their presidential nomination.
There is certainly an opening for another top-tier GOP contender. The press is already showing signs of boredom with the Mitt Romney versus Rick Perry smack-downs—especially if they drag on until April or May. GOP voters give off a whiff of dissatisfaction with both Perry’s competence and Romney’s chameleon history. With the erratic Newt Gingrich again scoring in double-digits in national polls and pizza magnate Herman Cain suddenly getting a burst of attention, a none-of-the-above narrative is gaining traction in the Republican Party.
The practical arguments against a late-entry GOP contender are not nearly as formidable as many political insiders claim. Perry’s stumbling debate performances have given rise to the iron law that any new GOP candidate has to be a cross between Demosthenes and Ronald Reagan. But Perry’s real problem is his pre-existing reputation as Bush Lite—and his struggles with debate questions on topics like Pakistan reinforce that image. If glib mastery of debating based on years of campaign experience were the litmus test for winning the GOP race, then Romney would have lapped the field long ago.
Giuliani has, of course, debated many times, even though about the only memorable aspects of his 2008 face-offs were his enthusiastic support for water-boarding and his ability to say “9/11” three times in the same sentence. No matter when she entered the race, Palin would be over-matched on a debate stage even if her coaches were Lincoln and Douglas.
Running for New Jersey governor in 2009, Christie was, at best, an uneven debater. In fact, Paul Mulshine, a conservative columnist for the Newark Star Ledger, called one of his debates “dismal.” But Christie—unlike Perry and certainly Romney—also has the kind of off-the-cuff sense of humor that might allow him to stand out on a cluttered 10-candidate debate stage. Debates are not necessarily about long hours with briefing books and endless practice sessions with campaign image-makers. Gingrich and Cain have fared well in the GOP debates even if their preparation probably amounts to little more than a few extra hours of sleep and some jotted notes on a legal pad.
In the past, money was the most daunting obstacle for a late-starting candidate without the personal bankroll of a Steve Forbes. Christie comes equipped with a cheering section of wealthy GOP fundraisers dissatisfied with both Romney and Perry. Yes, it takes time to raise money since $2,500 donors (the maximum individual contribution to a candidate for the nomination) generally demand a handshake and a photo commemorating it in exchange for their cash. But the Citizens United Supreme Court decision has allowed Super-PACs to run independent campaigns in support of candidates while accepting unlimited donations. What that potentially means is that Christie and maybe Giuliani could depend on Super-Pacs (funded with six-digit contributions) to run TV spots on their behalf while the candidates are setting up more traditional fund-raising operations.
There is an illusion that starting early prepares a candidate to craft deft responses to attacks on weak spots in his political record or his personal life. In truth, almost every campaign scrambles when it is on the firing line. Months of campaigning did not prevent Barack Obama from flailing in 2008 when Jeremiah Wright’s sermons suddenly dominated the headlines. Back in the fall of 2000, George W. Bush, the embodiment of a tightly scripted candidate, was blindsided when the press unearthed a drunk-driving arrest in Maine. If he enters the GOP race, Christie will undoubtedly have some rocky moments, but it is questionable whether starting early would have made that much difference in how the fledgling New Jersey governor responds.
Admittedly, the leisurely courting of party insiders is impossible when you enter the race little more than three months before the Iowa caucuses. But the Iowa caucuses—the contest where conservative activists boast the most sway—may be best left to second-tier candidates with unlimited time on their hands like Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain. All late-deciding New Hampshire voters really crave are lengthy Q-and-A sessions with the candidates in high-school gyms. That is how John McCain won the primary in 2000 and how both Hillary Clinton and Obama campaigned in 2008. And that route is certainly open to Christie in the months ahead.
Make no mistake, some deadlines matter in presidential politics like the precise dates for getting on primary ballots. Although the entire GOP primary calendar is in flux, the best guess is that the deadline for filing for the Florida primary will be Halloween, with other early states like New Hampshire following soon after. While Henry Cabot Lodge did win the 1964 New Hampshire GOP primary on a write-in vote, resorting to that pencil-based strategy would be a daunting price for, say, Christie to pay for his indecisiveness.
The enduring truth is that weird things can happen when voters are dissatisfied with the choices they are offered in the presidential primaries. Late in the 1976 primary season, Democrats yearning for an establishment nominee like Hubert Humphrey tried to organize an ABC (Anybody But Carter) movement. As a result of these machinations, Jimmy Carter lost 10 primaries in May and June to Frank Church and Jerry Brown, two candidates who only began actively campaigning with the first crocuses of spring. The stop-Carter effort ultimately foundered, but it is an enduring reminder of the power of buyer’s remorse in presidential politics.
Every signal suggests that politics this year is as unsettled as the overall national mood. Jump-starting a campaign was certainly not a panacea for Tim Pawlenty, who might actually be an intriguing figure in the GOP race if he had entered it about now. Some year some candidate is going to reinvent the rules about starting early, which really only date back to George McGovern in 1972 and Carter in 1976.
In a 21st century media age—when images can be forged in minutes—it may matter less when you get in the presidential race than what you do when you get there. Sometimes I think that the Republicans just might nominate the first conservative who rescues a kitten from a tree while the Fox News cameras are rolling.
Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter @waltershapiroPD.