Forget the Retail Politicking: Presidents Are Made Wholesale

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The charm of the primary-state glad-handing shouldn't obscure television's power in shaping presidential preferences

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All presidential politics is wholesale. Every four years, the media parachutes into Middle America. There are reports of fried butter sticks or fried Twinkies. We watch on television as pols flips burgers or trudge through the snow glad-handing voters. Pundits gauge how well pols sell salt of the earth. And we are told this retail politicking is the stuff that can make or break presidential wannabes.

It's not. Wholesale politics pays more dividends even inside the early primary proving grounds -- Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Herman Cain rose from political obscurity, in mid August, to lead Iowa by the close of October. Yet he only visited Iowa once over that period.

Mitt Romney has remained among the top contenders in Iowa despite rarely visiting the state himself. Newt Gingrich is the candidate du jour, though he lost key staff months back. Gingrich climbed ahead nationally, as he did in Iowa, because staffing was beside the point. Gingrich sold on television. Meanwhile, Rick Santorum recently completed an old-fashioned barnstorm of Iowa's 99 counties; his poor poll numbers have not budged. (It's worth noting, as the Hawkeye hype ramps up, that winners of the Iowa caucuses failed to win their parties' nominations from 1984 to 1996.)

Debates have rarely mattered more in a modern primary contest. But the debates ultimately exemplify the larger lesson of every cycle: presidents are made wholesale.

Retail candidates make good characters. But they often do not win.

Rick Perry rose and plummeted in Iowa, as he did nationally, despite his relative absence from Iowa. The press fixated on the personable Perry when he was on top, though he ascended before campaigning in key primary states. Once he was on top, the Associated Press, in a typical story, reported that Perry's "charm has been on full display in Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters demand a personal approach and judge candidates in part on their pizazz." Or at least Iowans say they do.

Charisma does count. On television. Cain's charm translated on the tube. Cain's launch was also aided by his 9-9-9 tax plan. Catchy numerical plans are as suited to mass marketing a politician as they are to selling pizza. And Gingrich's rise to the top of every poll that matters has been fueled by his nationally televised debate performances.

The rise of the television age, particularly cable news, broadly coincided with the modern primary system. Jimmy Carter cemented Iowa's importance in 1976. Yet Carter notably placed a distant second behind "uncommitted" that year. The lesson of Carter was not that winning Iowa counts. It was that winning the expectations game counts. Self-proclaimed "comeback kid" Bill Clinton proved that same point with his second place finish in New Hampshire in 1992.

Retail politics has long been the sideshow of the Big Show. In the month ahead, we will read assessments of Republicans' voter mobilizing operation. Romney had the best operation in 2008. He invested $10 million in Iowa. And he still lost.

Retail candidates make good characters. Characters make good stories, good television drama. But they often do not win.

Joe Biden was the premier Democratic retail salesman of 2008. He camped in Iowa. Yet Biden won less than one percent of the Iowa vote. Biden earned the great consolation prize because the professorial Hyde Park candidate needed some Scranton on the ticket (read: on television), even with historic winds at his back.

Barack Obama won the presidency. And Obama is no retail pol. This is why President Obama struggles to convey the spirit of these hard times. Candidate Obama was best in televised debates or speaking before thousands. He soared, critically, because the product also fit the audience. He was the first modern Democrat to win college-educated whites and blacks in the primary. Obama also monopolized the most powerful of political brands: change. Obama was mass marketed as a wholesale elixir. Choose the change you desire. Obama will cure it.

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David Paul Kuhn is the Chief Political Correspondent for RealClearPolitics and the author of The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma.

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