Bernie Sanders’ announcement in Vermont? Eh. Rick Santorum’s kickoff outside of Pittsburgh? Meh. Rand Paul’s launch event in Louisville? Whatever.
With a few exceptions – Marco Rubio’s well-placed Miami event, to name one – it’s hard to get excited about the recent crop of campaign rollouts by the current 2016 contenders. And the household-name candidates in each party, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, haven’t even held live events to kickstart their candidacies yet.
Red, white, and blue bunting-lined campaign launch events may be as American as apple pie, but they’re not what they used to be. In this election cycle, few have been memorable; some may even have set back the candidates they were designed to introduce.
Take Paul’s kickoff event last month. The junior senator from Kentucky, called "the most interesting man in American politics" on an October 2014 cover of Time, held a humdrum event in Louisville last month that was anything but. He’s polling behind Bush, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in national polls.
Also at the bottom end of GOP polls is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who debuted his 2016 push with an event at Liberty University in an attempt to appeal to religious and social conservatives in his party’s base. Yet that event resulted in the media writing stories about how annoyed students were required – talk about a captive audience – to attend the address or face a fine. Probably not the coverage he was hoping for.
On the Democratic side, Sanders’ launch event in Burlington, Vermont, was hardly memorable as well, and early campaigns stops have resulted in stories about how he’s failing to attract crowds under the retirement age.
Of course, none have topped the gold standard in flubbing the presidential rollout: former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman’s 2012 announcement in Liberty State Park in New Jersey, about as far away from his base in both geography and tone as one could get.
The jury’s still out on former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s Saturday address, though you can be sure it’ll be closely watched due to recent unrest in his home city.
I’d critique the live launch events of Mike Huckabee, George Pataki and others, but I can’t remember anything about them.
The reality is that like many aspects of election politics, technology is taking over the game. Santorum’s jab at Clinton on his website was much more memorable than his in-person announcement, and just the latest example of candidates using error pages to get a pointed joke across.
Carly Fiorina’s announcement interviews probably didn’t do much for voters, but her #domaingate joke on Meet the Press won her laughs. Hillary Clinton has announced she’s running for president twice, both in 2008 and 2012, with highly anticipated videos rolled out on the Web, but she’s yet to hold a major campaign event. And longshot GOP candidate George Pataki’s debut video, painting him as a moderate candidate with strong leadership skills in the face of tragedy, was much more memorable than his in-person launch.
So why do it? Candidates who aren’t named Clinton or Bush need to introduce themselves to the American public writ large. Others need what they hope will be a friendly media cycle or two to remind voters that they’re still out there. Live-streaming can bring more potential supporters into the political process. And, of course, there’s the fundraising push that takes place with each announcement, which keeps the lights on and the bus fueled up.
But like the Obama for America teams proved in 2008 and again in 2012 with digital initiatives that pushed their candidate over the top, today’s political battleground is as much online as it is in the swing states. There are a lot of calendar pages between now and November 2016, but whatever candidate can bring together digital savvy and retail political skills will at least set the right tone for the start of his or her campaign.