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Byline: Reid Wilson

CONCORD, N.H.–It is a bitterly cold night in late January. Radio weather reports call the temperature, which hovers around zero degrees and will drop into negative territory in an hour or so, “unbearably cold.C[yen] In a conference-center ballroom a mile north of the state capital, about 75 Republican activists are eating bacon-wrapped scallops and mini-quiches. They are here to see a man who might be the next president of the United States of America. But there is no presidential candidate in sight.

Well, Tim Pawlenty is here.

Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor and son of a truck driver, is ostensibly here as part of a nationwide book tour, but everyone in the room is wise to his purpose. They seem to enjoy watching Pawlenty perform the awkward dance of the noncandidate that requires would-be presidential hopefuls to try to impress activists and woo potential backers with their moves while officially pretending that they’re not on the dance floor at all. The performance is part of what journalist and author Arthur Hadley described in the title of his 1976 book The Invisible Primary.

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Hadley used the phrase to characterize the courtship ritual between presidential candidates and national and local power brokers in the months before the public tunes into the race. Historically, the invisible primary has been the stage of the race that maximizes the influence of the party elites, well before the actual primaries and caucuses when voters speak the loudest. As Pawlenty’s travels indicate, the contenders still focus enormous energy on corralling that elite support. But the world around this competition has transformed since Hadley chronicled it.

Thanks to the proliferation of political media, the constant demand for new developments in a 24-hour news cycle, and the booming industry of political consultants, every twist and turn in the presidential nominating contest is examined, tweeted, blogged, pored over, written about, and dissected. The candidates are debating each other and appearing on national broadcast and cable television more than ever. The invisible primary, in short, is out in the open, and that has fundamentally changed its nature. No longer a process that begins in Iowa, New Hampshire, and the boardrooms where large fundraisers congregate, it is now a national affair that invites far more scrutiny–from the media and from activists in all 50 states.

This new environment is especially changing the roles of Iowa and New Hampshire, which historically have provided the principal stages on which the invisible primary unfolded. Activists in both states have always displayed a kind of fatalism, happy with their function as gatekeepers to the presidential-nominating system but convinced that, in the end, another state will someday steal the stage. So far, though, no other state has successfully encroached on their positions at the head of the line.

But even so, in 2012, Iowa and New Hampshire could be somewhat overshadowed as a national populist conservative movement assumes a more prominent role, and as candidates for the GOP nomination compete for exposure on the Fox News Channel and other outlets with big audiences among Republican activists. Despite those new dynamics, however, the results in Iowa and New Hampshire next winter will reverberate powerA fully through the rest of the nominating calendar. What’s changing is the way these two critical states reach their decisions.

The United States has not yet completely moved to a national presidential primary, but we are close enough that national influences will almost certainly have a big impact on the early nominating states, increasing the premium on money and national stature and reducing the importance of what makes those two states unique–individual voter contact.

All of this has reshaped the dynamics of the competition.

The model of a dark horse burrowing into Iowa and New Hampshire on a shoestring budget, impressing the key local officials and then rocketing to the top of the field after an upset in one of those early states–the model for candidates such as George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush–may be largely obsolete. To a much greater extent, a candidate today may need a national profile to succeed locally in Iowa and New Hampshire. Every Republican candidate is fighting a two-front war–one to stockpile support in the crucial first states, the other to build the national profile that will help attract that support in the first place.

“The significance of the invisible primary is not that it affects any voters, because it doesn’t,C[yen] said Howard Dean, the former Democratic presidential candidate and party chairman. “But it does affect what the national media is saying about you; and, of course, people in Iowa and New Hampshire are watching the national media just like everybody else. And that makes a difference.C[yen]

THE OPENING ACT

Pawlenty, who left office last month after two terms as governor, is not an official candidate, legally speaking. In fact, he is not even formally exploring a run for the presidency. To do so, legally speaking, would require him to file forms with the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service. Practically speaking, even exploring a run demands an announcement speech; a tour of early primary and caucus states; a rollout of a campaign narrative; and an organization to set up those trips, craft that narrative, and raise the money to pay for it all.

For all the talk about Mitt Romney, Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, John Thune, and any of the other contenders on whom the media has conferred the status of Legitimate Presidential Candidate, none has filed papers giving notice that he or she will seek office. They demure, insisting that the decision is months away and that they must talk it over first with their families (on a recent dog walk, Pawlenty’s daughter told him she did not want him to “embarrass the family,C[yen] he said).

The modern system of jockeying before the first votes are cast, the invisible primary, has been described in any number of American political classics: Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960; Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, about the 1988 campaign; Michael Lewis’s Trail Fever, on the 1996 race; and Dana Milbank’s Smashmouth, covering the 2000 contest. Game Change, by John Heilmann and Mark Halperin, is the latest addition to the library.

As chronicled by Hadley, the invisible primary tests a candidate’s performance against six criteria.

  •  Psychology: Is the candidate ready, both for the campaign and for the ultimate reward–the presidency?
  •  Staff: Can the candidate attract those who will help him or her win the nomination?
  •  Strategy: Can the candidate develop the long-range vision that guides a campaign to victory?
  •  Money: Can a candidate raise the money needed to compete in a national campaign?
  •  Media: Can the candidate convince the press that he or she is serious enough to warrant coverage–and then successfully handle that coverage?
  •  Constituency-building: Can the candidate attract the support from key party factions required to construct a winning coalition?

All of these dimensions remain relevant today. The psychology of running is an often-overlooked factor because it takes place long before a candidate earns legitimacy. A candidate has to look in the mirror and see the next president of the United States looking back, and then has to consider whether running is worth giving up such a large portion of his or her life. For some candidates, it’s the last decision about their employment that they will ever make.

“Running is the easy part. If you get it, you’re talking about all-consuming. Do you want to give 10 years of your life? Because you have to be prepared to do that,C[yen] Barbour, the Mississippi governor, told me in November. “You have to be prepared to run, win, and serve two terms. Whether you end up succeeding or not, you have to be prepared to do that, and that’s a very big commitment. You know, I’m 63 years old. So I’d spend the rest of my useful life essentially doing nothing but this. There’s a lot to think about, because if you do it, you owe the country to be in whole hog.C[yen]

Whether one can attract the necessary staff is always a question, too. Romney, who is considered virtually certain to seek the nomination again in 2012 after falling short in 2008, has already answered part of that question. He has most of the upper echelon of his campaign team in place. Beth Myers and Eric Fehrnstrom, two longtime aides, will continue in key management and communications roles. Former Republican National Committee Political Director Rich Beeson will serve the same role in the campaign. Romney’s operatives have signed up a pollster, Public Opinion Strategies, and observers estimate that three-quarters of his 2008 staff will be back in some capacity or another.

Romney makes for an excellent example of the importance of strategy, as well, though mostly as a model to avoid. In 2008, he tried to outspend the field, dumping millions of dollars of his own money into Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada; he also split his time between the four early-voting states. But he came in second in three of them, and even though he won Nevada by an overwhelming margin, he couldn’t build enough momentum.

This year, Romney’s strategists have had preliminary discussions about skipping Iowa, where the social conservatives who dominate the electorate have been cold to his potential candidacy. He has made no decision, but it could make sense for Romney to begin his campaign on the demographically and ideologically friendlier, if still frozen, turf of New Hampshire. Romney’s team must also decide whether to continue portraying the candidate as a hard-core social conservative or to play up his credentials as a turnaround artist who can work the same magic on the nation’s economy as he did on Domino’s, Staples, and the Salt Lake City Olympics.

The importance of fundraising has grown since 1976. When Hadley wrote, money could follow success: A candidate could translate strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire into donations that would carry him through the remainder of the contest. Now, the relationship more often works in reverse: Candidates who raise large sums acquire a legitimacy that helps them attract votes in the early states.

“People in Iowa and New Hampshire are watching the national media just like everybody else. And that makes a difference.C[yen] –Howard Dean

In 2008, for instance, Barack Obama’s prodigious fundraising helped establish him as a serious competitor to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who benefited from much more establishment support early on. Once Obama and Clinton established their blistering fundraising pace, even as well-funded a candidate as John Edwards struggled to stay inthe game.

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Similarly, before the 2004 primary season, Dean was a no-name Vermont governor, one of the few Democrats to dare speak out against the war in Iraq. He was viewed as a long-shot candidate until his antiwar message caught fire and his donations skyrocketed through late 2003.

“We did a lot of groundwork, but the thing that really moved us up in the invisible primary was money,C[yen] Dean said. “We just blew people away in that summer by raising more money than John Kerry and John Edwards, and that totally flipped everybody. And what happens is, the media starts talking about you a lot more. It’s a vicious circle on the way up, and it’s a vicious circle on the way down.C[yen]

Money will loom just as large in establishing the GOP pecking order for 2012. This year, for example, Rick Santorum will struggle to break through the media-imposed glass ceiling. A former senator from Pennsylvania, and someone with a strong reputation among social conservatives, Santorum nonetheless faces widespread skepticism that he can raise enough money to compete on the presidential playing field. Even potential candidates who have as many credentials as Pawlenty or Thune, the senator from South Dakota, risk being marginalized if they cannot remain competitive in the money chase.

Cash will also be a challenge for Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who is President Obama‘s ambassador to China but submitted his resignation letter on Monday in advance of a possible presidential bid. Veteran GOP political strategist John Weaver, who is advising Huntsman, said that dark horses have to employ a different strategy to tap into money and volunteers.

“It used to be [that a candidate] could go and run an Iowa-centric campaign or a New Hampshire-centric campaign. Those days are kind of gone. But on the other hand, because of the way people receive information, it’s easier for the dark horse to organize because our party is not as hierarchical as it used to be,C[yen] Weaver said. “It’s becoming increasingly easy to go around party bosses and to organize independently of that. So that makes it easier for a long shot or a dark horse to organize.C[yen]

Finally, the candidates who will run this year will make their pitches to various constituencies within the Republican Party, in hopes of securing a foundation from which to launch. Daniels, the Indiana governor and former director of the Office of Management and Budget, would lay a strong claim to fiscal conservatives. Former Alaska Gov. Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee each have valuable inroads among social conservatives. Barbour would be a strong draw for Southerners; Pawlenty boasts of doing well among Sam’s Club Republicans, suburban middle-class voters who care more about pocketbook issues than about grand economic theories or hot-button social issues.

WHAT’S CHANGED

In the broadest respect, the tests candidates have to pass in the run-up to the first caucuses and primaries–tentatively scheduled for early February 2012–are pretty much the same as they were 35 years ago, when Hadley surveyed the field. But with the advance of information technology, the explosion of the professional political industry, and the massive influx of money, the dynamics of running for president are clearly much more complex today.

One of the biggest changes is the intensity and ubiquity of media coverage. News from the minuscule to the grand grabs attention. The political world took note when Romney signed Beeson. Some observers who were underwhelmed by Pawlenty’s first forays into Iowa and New Hampshire, convinced that his speechmaking lacked passion, listened again after he began showing some spark. Democratic operatives actively shopped a Weekly Standard article in which Barbour made ill-advised comments about his hometown’s history during the civil-rights era. And despite Daniels’s strikingly honest confession that he is publicly contemplating a run only to keep his name in the national conversation, he is seen as a strong contender if his considerations turn serious.

As these and other Republicans prepare to run for president, they will have to include in their calculations a core of national conservatives who will demand their own attention. Candidates of both parties have attended “cattle callsC[yen] in and around Washington for years, meeting with special-interest groups eager to hear a potential president talk about their issues. But the rise of the populist tea party movement has added a new twist: Instead of speaking to aspecific group, candidates will now be expected to follow a narrow set of ideological premises that the tea party movement purports to espouse.

These newly energized conservatives have proven particularly effective at deciding Republican primaries and taking on establishment candidates. Two senators lost their primaries in 2010, and tea party groups have their eye on several others–including Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and even Bob Corker of Tennessee. In the last cycle, organizations such as the Senate Conservatives Fund controlled by Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, the tea party-based FreedomWorks, and the Tea Party Express poured millions of dollars into ads that took aim at moderate Republican contenders.

If those populist groups begin targeting one or more of the 2012 Republican presidential contenders–and they almost certainly will–it could shake up the field in a big way. A cross word from DeMint, who is a hero to the tea party movement and one of the prime movers against moderate Republicans in party primaries, could do more damage than any attack ad sponsored by a special-interest group. “You still have to focus on the early relationships and the early unique issues that Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina might have, but you’re playing to a national audience constantly, which you didn’t used to,C[yen] said Weaver, the Republican strategist.

GOP candidates have another consideration to make, that of the party’s virtual media enterprise, the Fox News Channel. The Republican emphasis on Fox is a symptom of both a national and a hyper-local campaign. After all, candidates are aiming to sway conservative voters, and whether those voters are in Mason City, Iowa, or Manchester, N.H., many of them have their televisions tuned to Fox. Every exposure on the cable channel is a special moment for a Republican campaign.

Sitting in a hotel bar just hours after debuting a web video, Pawlenty’s top strategists watched with mouths agape as Greta Van Susteren played the entire 85-second video during her nightly Fox broadcast. They celebrated a little more when an Associated Press story based on that night’s event scrolled across the ticker on the bottom of the screen.

As recent history has shown, the winner of the invisible primary is by no means guaranteed to win the nomination. Veteran Democratic consultant Bob Shrum pointed to Obama, Kerry, and John McCain, all of whom won their respective nominations after having been judged by most observers as losers in the invisible primary. In 2008, Clinton and Romney were arguably better at the invisible primary maneuvering than Obama and McCain were. But once voters checked into the process, Obama proved that organization was more important than Clinton’s name, and McCain’s story proved more attractive than Romney’s. Similarly, in 2004, Kerry lost the invisible primary to Dean, and yet voters trusted Kerry’s ability to win the general election more than Dean’s.

“The invisible primaries are often deceptive,C[yen] Shrum said. “This desire we have to know the results before the votes are cast has created a series of benchmarks that may mislead us.C[yen]

BY THE BOOK

Tonight, Pawlenty insists, he is just selling a book. He is in the middle of a publicity tour that will take him to 22 stops across nine states, including, certainly coincidentally, Iowa and New Hampshire. The book is part autobiography (blue-collar truck driver’s son from a Democratic family who grew up to become a conservative governor in a liberal state–with a healthy dose of personal faith thrown in) and part philosophical treatise (end bailouts, cut spending, force government to live within its means, broadcast a strong America abroad, and protect the nation from radical jihadism at home).

Pawlenty will all but certainly file the papers necessary to make his presidential bid official. Almost no candidate reaches this point without at least taking the first formal steps toward getting into the race. Pawlenty takes pains to emphasize that he has made no final decision, and his staff sticks to the same story. But his early supporters, familiar with the game, roll their eyes, certain that he is but weeks away from scratching the word “presumedC[yen] from in front of “presidential candidate.C[yen]

“We can’t actually have [business] cards yet,C[yen] John Lyons, a Portsmouth lawyer, chairman of the state Board of Education, and chairman of Pawlenty’s New Hampshire political action committee, says, trying and failing to suppress a smile. “Because, you know, we’re here on a book tour.C[yen]

Some of the local and national reporters congregating for the event tease Pawlenty’s aides. They wonder if a line in his stump speech can be fairly described as a swipe, slap, shot, jab, dig, punch, poke, or prod at Romney. (One media theme at the moment is that Pawlenty and Romney are similar and thus will have to compete for similar voters.)

“The invisible primaries are often deceptive.C[yen] –Bob Shrum, Democratic strategist

But observing any of Pawlenty’s stops, it’s clear that for all the attention lavished on national groups and conservative luminaries, he still believes that there’s life in the old dark-horse strategy of assembling support, brick by brick, in the early states.

At a book event in Manchester, Pawlenty adviser Phil Musser takes special notice of Shaun Doherty, a 24-year-old who graduated last year from Rivier College. Doherty is also a state representative, one of 400 in New Hampshire who make the state’s lower chamber the third-largest legislative body in the English-speaking world, behind only the British House of Commons and the U.S. House of Representatives. Musser introduces Doherty as someone to keep an eye on; he has worked for McCain and Rep. Frank Guinta, who represents this district in Washington. Musser guides Doherty to Pawlenty’s table for an autograph and a photo.

Jeanne Notter, a newly elected state representative, also wants an autograph. Pawlenty’s PAC wrote a check to Notter’s campaign, and he phoned her to congratulate her when she won. Other minor luminaries got calls, too; newly elected state Republican Party Chairman Jack Kimball talked to Pawlenty and also got a congratulatory message from Romney. House Speaker Bill O’Brien took calls from Pawlenty, Palin, and Romney after he won the Legislature’s top job. Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt heard from Pawlenty, too.

All of these could prove valuable friends for any presidential candidate. But as the race for the presidency has evolved, a good night on a nationally televised debate next spring might prove more valuable yet.