Reading the Candidates

Reading the Candidates

George W. Bush became president in part because people thought he was his father. This isn’t to say that people voted for the younger Bush because they expected he would continue the “kinder, gentler” conservatism the elder Bush had once endorsed. Rather, it’s to recall that some people literally thought the man seeking the White House in 2000 was the ex-president. Three days before the South Carolina primary, one Republican voter, speaking to a New York Times reporter, declared himself a “Bush supporter,” yet showed puzzlement at references to an unnamed father. “Oh!” the twenty-three-year-old William Lee finally said. “You mean it’s George Bush’s son who is running this time? It’s not President Bush again? Is that right?”

It’s doubtful that by the time of the 2000 primaries there were many voters still as confused as Mr. Lee. But in 1999, when candidates were first jockeying for poll position, the Texas governor rapidly climbed to the top, and the chief reason was name recognition—including, pollsters said, cases of mistaken identity. Then, with a lead in the polls, a virtuous cycle took hold—virtuous, at least, for Bush. Eyeing the polls, donors judged him the front-runner and lavished him with funds, allowing him to mount the kind of intensive, high-profile campaign that could add to or shore up his support. Bush, to be sure, needed some attractive qualities to sustain his popularity, and many voters, for reasons still obscure to me, found those traits in him. But that early lead was key to victory.

As a rule, name recognition matters most these days in determining who gets the head start in party nomination races—and often in who gets the nomination. Joe Lieberman began the 2004 race in first place because voters knew him as Al Gore’s running mate from 2000, though in his case, name alone couldn’t carry him through. Hillary Clinton’s early advantage this year came from having spent the last fifteen years in the headlines. A host of other recent candidates for office have gained instant viability thanks not to substantial political achievement but to star power, family ties, or other forms of fame: Bob Casey, Jr., and Jesse Jackson, Jr.; Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Franken; Heath Shuler and Steve Largent; Fred Grandy and Sonny Bono; Elizabeth Dole and Mary Bono; and many, many others.

The newest way to vault from routine political notability into the stratosphere of presidential prospects is to write a book. In 1996, Colin Powell, having retired from military and government service, toured the country to flog his memoir, My American Journey. In the process he ignited a “Draft Powell” movement that might have swept him to the White House had he been willing to break with the Republican Party. (Dwight Eisenhower’s best-selling 1948 memoir Crusade in Europe had similarly spurred his presidential run, but Ike hardly needed the boost from the book.) In 199...

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