As of today, 1,079 presidential candidates have filed with the Federal Election Commission. And you thought the 17 Republicans covered by major media was a lot! Among those registered are Rocky Balboa, AKA The Prophet, Frosty Chicken, Buddy the Cat – even Underage Candidate. Also listed were candidates Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro; maybe they could form a ticket?
Of course, these candidates and some who will seek minor third party nominations in the general election – like the Libertarian or Green Party – are largely ignored as the debates begin and as the jockeying for name recognition ratchets up.
But make no mistake: This is going to be a long campaign on both the Democratic and Republican side. The hype we have seen for so-called outsider candidates, like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Bernie Sanders, may last for a while, or at least until voting starts. Heck, it may last all the way to the party conventions.
But here is the funny thing about presidential elections, especially with funding restrictions blown apart: It is not all about Iowa and New Hampshire. In the entire month of February, there are four contests – those two states plus South Carolina and Nevada. That’s four states in four weeks.
All primary and caucus states aren’t finalized, but it looks as if Super Tuesday, March 1, will see at least 11 states decided. A host of key southern states, plus Texas, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Colorado, will have primaries or caucuses. In the following two weeks, big states like Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Illinois and Missouri will select delegates. We go all the way to June 7, when six states are slated to vote, including the big states of California and New Jersey.
The point is this: Be careful reading too much into one or two states’ polls. Be careful not to treat this contest as who is up or who is down at any particular moment. Campaign 2016 will be a long slog.
[READ: The Blemish on 2016]
Voters are just beginning to pay attention, and most of the candidates have yet to be really tested. According to a new CNN poll of Republicans, 75 percent say they are backing a candidate because of his or her view on the issues, while only 16 percent say experience. I would venture to say that a fairly small minority is aware of the candidates’ positions on the issues, especially those of poll leader Donald Trump or the runner-up Ben Carson.
In addition to the debates, the public appearances, the fundraising and the press coverage, candidates have to pay serious attention to delegates, filing deadlines and choosing their slates. This is where the long slog comes in, and where time is critical. According to an analysis by Elaine Kamarck and Ashley Gabriele at Brookings, if a candidate misses Democratic primary deadlines, he or she can lose 500 delegate votes by the end of November, more than 1,000 by the end of December, 600 by mid-January and about 850 by the second week in February. Since a Democrat needs nearly 2,250 delegate votes to win, missing deadlines, even early ones, is costly. The same principles are true for the Republicans.
[READ: Fiorina’s Rise Has Just Begun]
It is hard to imagine, but in 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama netted more delegates by winning the Idaho caucuses than Hillary Clinton did by winning the New Jersey primary. At the end of the day, this can turn out to be a serious numbers game.
It is true that in politics we do tend to be drawn to the shiny objects, the flash, the headlines, but there is the hard, day-in and day-out campaigning that goes on for months and relies on organized perseverance. Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican, was dead as the nominee in the summer of 2007, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was the front-runner going into the winter of 2004. This is a long game, and we are just getting out of the gate.