The 2016 presidential campaign is officially upon us, and we're already seeing stories every day on each candidate's path to victory, fundraising successes, and efforts to nail down endorsements. We'll see stories on the endless polls out of Iowa, New Hampshire, and the swing states. And the cycle will repeat itself over and over and over and over again for the next 18 months.
Sprinkled throughout this coverage will be stories critical of political journalism. The critics will accuse the political press of being unserious and having tunnel vision — of focusing too much on the process and the horse race and less on the positions the candidates actually take and the solutions they propose to the nation's myriad problems.
Such criticisms are sometimes fair and true. But they also miss the real problem with many articles about political campaigns: These "process" stories often focus on the wrong process.
In 2008, Barack Obama waged an exceptional Democratic primary campaign against a supposedly "inevitable" Hillary Clinton. Early on, the stories focused on Obama's charisma and appeal to a new coalition of Democratic voters. But Obama's political skills were only a small part of why he ultimately won. It was his strategy of competing in and winning early caucus states — places like Colorado, Idaho, Kansas and Minnesota — that allowed him to rack up delegates. Despite Clinton victories in many bigger states like New York and New Jersey, she could never quite catch up to Obama.
You probably remember reading all sorts of articles about the delegate count and Obama's small-state caucus strategy. But these process stories came very late in the primary process. Most political journalists missed the story and only wrote about it after it was clear the Obama campaign had done something clever.
In 2012, Obama caught GOP challenger Mitt Romney by surprise in another way. While the television airwaves were filled with thousands of negative campaign ads, Obama was waging a very different campaign on Facebook.
The Obama team realized that reaching the young voters critical to his re-election would be nearly impossible through traditional robocalls because most young people don't have landlines and it's illegal to call their cell phones. But the Obama campaign could reach nearly all of the young people in America through Facebook. Democratic strategists also realized that Romney had a minimal presence on Facebook, so they could run a mostly positive campaign about Obama with very little competition from their opponent.
There were dozens of stories in 2012 predicting lower turnout among young voters because of the negative tone of the race. Obama disproved them all, largely because he was able to run an entirely positive campaign specifically for younger voters. His strategy had gone unnoticed by the Romney campaign — and most political journalists. But it was a key part of their victory. And most Americans didn't hear about it until it was all but finished.
So what's the big story this year that the political press will miss?
The 2016 political landscape is filled with new opportunities for these presidential candidates. It might be a new communication technology or new ways of raising money. It could be building a new coalition of voters by exploiting changing voter demographics. If the last two elections are any indication, we might not know until it's over.
The way campaigns are run can be an important factor into who ultimately wins the presidential election. Don't immediately dismiss all process stories you see over the next 18 months. Just question whether you're getting the right ones.