The biggest 2024 candidate news this January featured three arresting announcement videos by charismatic figures with compelling life stories and national followings. The only thing strange was that Katie Porter, Adam Schiff, and Ruben Gallego are merely running for the Senate. Normally, the January of the year after a midterm election would instead mark the start of presidential hat-in-the-ring season.
But not this year. While the trio of Senate candidates may collectively embody the future of the Democratic Party, the disproportionate focus on Congress is akin to walking into a casino with the lights flashing, buzzers going off, and waiters rushing around with drinks only to discover that all the action is around a single table dedicated to beer pong.
And after years of loud grumbling over the nonstop nature of the perpetual presidential campaign, both journalists and voters should let out a collective sigh of relief that they don’t need to obsess over presidential primary polls or think about the oratorical level of GOP stump speeches in Iowa until hopefully May or June, or even later.
The quiet on the Democratic side is understandable since Joe Biden is widely assumed to launch his reelection campaign sometime after the February 7 State of the Union Address. The only glimmers of uncertainty about his intentions hover around Biden’s recent eightieth birthday and the embarrassing out-of-nowhere contretemps over strangely materializing classified documents. Up to now, there have been no hints that Biden, if he runs, would be challenged for the nomination (unless you consider Marianne Williamson a serious threat).
The Republicans, of course, do have one declared presidential contender. Donald Trump’s low-energy and meandering mid-November kickoff speech (even Fox News repeatedly cut away) was the only presidential announcement in memory largely inspired by hopes of forestalling a federal indictment by being an active candidate. After more than two months of dynamic inaction, mostly spent brooding at Mar-a-Lago, Trump finally took his nostalgia tour on the road last weekend to South Carolina and New Hampshire.
Normally, presidential challengers daring to take on a dominant, albeit somewhat diminished, figure such as Trump want to formally declare their candidacies as early as possible to raise money and elevate their national profiles. But 2023 is a year when GOP White House dreamers are literally trying to make themselves small by emulating the Seven Dwarfs, a dismissive term brandished by political reporters since the 1980s to describe an unimpressive political field.
No Republican presidential contender wants to be the first to take on Trump for fear of being the sole target of vicious epithets and belittling social media posts. So all the GOP wannabes are waiting for Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who will be tied up with a legislative session until early May. It’s like a silent movie in which a character with the girth of Oliver Hardy blocks a doorway and five or six frightened clerks hide behind his bulky presence for protection from a gunman. It’s an odd tactic, since cowering behind DeSantis does not exactly offer the look of courageous leadership.
There has never been a universally accepted perfect moment to launch a presidential campaign. As Theodore White dramatically recounted in The Making of the President 1960, the initial planning meeting of the John Kennedy president campaign took place in late October 1959. Bill Clinton, who probably reveled in the act of campaigning more than any modern politician, waited until October 1991 to launch his race for president. But since then, American politics has continually sped up with each subsequent election cycle in the twenty-first century. By this point in 2019, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg were all actively campaigning for president.
In recent years, GOP candidates have tended to launch their campaigns a tad later than their Democratic counterparts. Ted Cruz was the first major Republican out of the box in 2015, declaring his faith “in the promise of America” in late March. Trump, who embodied the threat to America, waited until mid-June 2015 to descend the escalator at Trump Tower. That was the same month when Jeb Bush, brother of one president and son of another, staked out his presumed role as the GOP front-runner.
Bush illustrated one of the reasons why Republicans tend to believe they do not need an early start to run for president. GOP candidates have become increasingly dependent on nominally independent super PACs to wage their campaign ad wars, which means that they do not have to devote as much time to fundraising. The hapless Jeb in 2016 blew through a $118 million super PAC and another $130 million in direct candidate spending without winning a single state.
Still, the silence of the timid on the GOP side is unusual.
CNN polling analyst Harry Enten estimates that the size of the presidential field in both parties may be the smallest since 1984, when Ronald Reagan was unopposed for renomination and former Vice President Walter Mondale was primarily challenged by Gary Hart, John Glenn, Alan Cranston, and Jesse Jackson. This time around, Biden may not prompt a serious challenger and the GOP field could be as narrow as Trump and DeSantis plus a smattering of the likes of Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pompeo.
There is no evidence that the voters are short-changed by a late-starting presidential campaign with fewer candidates than normal. It is hard to make a case that democracy was enhanced in 2020 because Democrats had the option of considering long shots Tulsi Gabbard, Williamson, and John Delaney. And for the most part, voters in early primary states only begin to give politics serious attention in the fall of the odd-numbered year. The Journalistic Industrial Complex craves active candidates in February, but it is hard to believe that anyone outside the Morning Joe green room feels the same sense of urgency.
Democrats may worry that a last-minute Biden decision not to run based on his age or wanting to go out on a high note would leave an alternate nominee with little time to establish his or her identity for the voters. That’s nonsense. A contested Democratic presidential race would dominate media coverage for more than a year until the convention. By the standards of most other democratic nations around the world—whose election seasons can sometimes last as short as a month or two—the American presidential race is so endless that it makes an ultramarathon seem like a wind sprint.
As for the Republicans, the longer they cower behind the starting block, the less time Americans will have to endure bile, conspiracy theories, wackadoodle economic proposals, and hatemongering as the GOP contenders vie to out-Trump Trump. At a time when politics is constantly in our faces, it would be glorious to enjoy a quiet spring. Take your time, Ron DeSantis. Take your time.