Moving from barely known to President of the United States: Can it be done in 74 to 100 days?

In a new column, Center director Jeffrey Cole explores what has to happen if Biden leaves the race.

By Jeffrey Cole

This is one for the history books.

The most important presidential election since at least 1864, if not ever, is a little more than 100 days away. While everyone knows everything they need to know (if not too much) about the Republican candidate, it is likely that the Democratic candidate will be someone recognizable by name or face only to voters in one state and those addicted to politics.

The nominee (if not President Biden, as is looking increasingly likely) will make their acceptance speech in front of Democratic delegates in Chicago on August 22. He or she will then have 74 days to transform into a household name and face with a well-understood record as a VP, governor, or Senator and make a case against perhaps the best-known opponent of all time.

Is it possible to go from relatively or completely unknown outside of California, Michigan, Pennsylvania, or elsewhere (even Vice-President Harris, while recognizable, is not well-known on her own) and pick up 270 or more electoral votes between now and the election?

On December 13, 1973, the highly popular but virtually unknown governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, appeared on the television quiz show What’s My Line. The job of the panel was to discover who he was through a series of questions. Although the panel was not blindfolded (as they usually were for celebrity guests), he did conceal his name and sign in as X.

One of the panelists saw real charisma in the mystery guest and asked, “you have a real spiritual quality, do you recruit nuns?” That charm and smile would become his most important asset in becoming a known and successful candidate. Eventually, the panel figured out he was a governor, but they had no idea of his name or the state he governed.

Less than three years later, the guest who could not be recognized was elected President of the United States. Historians have written many books examining how Carter and his top advisors took a candidate with a million dollar smile (and the teeth to go with it), along with candor and openness, and built a campaign that started on quiz shows, local television, supermarket openings… anyplace that would have him.

Their plan was to build a household name and face that attracted the majority of voters in 1976. It helped enormously that his charm and spirituality were in complete opposition to the sitting president at the time. Richard Nixon was not trusted. He was also going through the worst days of Watergate, which led to his resignation in disgrace.

What Carter was able to do in less than three years was a piece of cake compared to what a Democrat will need to do in 74 to 100 days in 2024.

How we got to modern presidential debates

In the 19th century, the only mass media were newspapers and magazines. Candidates were often chosen at the conventions, sometimes in smoke-filled rooms. Unless the candidates were well-known generals like Ulysses S. Grant, the public rarely knew anything about them. Newspapers showed what they looked like, but almost no one knew what they sounded like. The concept of politicians with charisma would have to wait for radio and television in the twentieth century.

Prior to 1880, it was considered undignified for a candidate to actively seek the presidency. Even the famous 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates, a rehearsal for the 1860 presidential campaign, were about a race for an Illinois Senate seat. Lincoln lost that election but got so much positive attention he was able to win the White House in 1860.

Benjamin Harrison, James Garfield, and Warren G. Harding ran campaigns from their front porches, meeting with delegations who came to visit them at home.

Everything changed with radio in the 1920s and then changed again with television in the 1950s. Franklin Roosevelt was perfect for radio: he used that technology to build an intimate relationship with the country through his Fireside Chats. John F. Kennedy’s mastery of television changed forever the course of presidential campaigns starting with the 1960 debates. Voters got to know candidates by listening to their words, but more importantly the candidates built seemingly personal relationship (or not) with voters through charisma, energy, humor, grace, and style.

Some candidates failed the television test, especially incumbents in their first debates (Reagan, George W. Bush and Obama), but they were still able to come back and change the narrative.

Even running against someone who much of the country dislikes, this is an unprecedented challenge. After years of voters having to hold their noses to choose the lesser of two evils, it is time at least one of the parties finds a candidate that excites the country.  If they do, it will change all future campaigns.

This is what Biden wants to do, but the first debate was such a trainwreck that it is probably not survivable. There may not be another chance.

What needs to happen next

A replacement candidate will have little time to establish credibility and reputation. Unless the rules change, there will only be one more debate before the election. Even that agreement between Biden and Trump may not survive a new candidate. The Trump campaign may well decide it is in their best interest to allow no additional debates.

The Best Case for a new Democratic nominee: President Biden withdraws soon, and the party comes together around a new choice shortly after the Republican convention (it ends on July 18). That would give the new Democratic candidate 109 days to establish themselves and build a relationship with voters.

The Worst Case: Biden hesitates; the party cannot agree on a consensus choice, and the nominee emerges at a messy Democratic convention in August. That brings back painful memories of the 1968 Chicago Convention, from which Humbert Humphrey emerged badly weakened and went on to lose the election. In this scenario there will be ten and a half weeks when the new nominee, perhaps carrying convention wounds, can campaign.

Some recommendations:

  1. The eventual nominee must be someone filled with energy, who will not use a teleprompter (except for formal speeches) and can engage in back and forth with audiences. He or she must hug the camera. All this will be a massive distinction with the Republican candidate, who will suddenly seem older and less energetic than when running against Biden. All these qualities should be front and center in the requirements for a new candidate.
  2. The candidate must expect a non-stop, close to 24/7 campaign. He or she should accept every media opportunity presented: local news, national news, parades, races, and other special events, late-night and daytime talk shows. To the voter, the nominee must feel like a blur of constant activity.
  3. In contrast to the Republican candidate, the new nominee should have their spouse and family out there both with them and individually.
  4. Although it can be hoped the new candidate does not have weakness or problems to explain or apologize for, if there are, then the candidate must disclose and explain them fully. A slow trickle of undisclosed problems and past behavior would be lethal.
  5. In further contrast to the opponent, the nominee should disclose years of financial records—including tax forms, education records, military service, and any other relevant information
  6. He or she should take a full medical exam immediately after being nominated and release all health records. No exceptions.
  7. All these special requirements for 2024 will also apply to whoever the nominee selects as their running mate.
  8. Both candidates will devote time and energy to the six swing states that will probably decide the election. But the Democratic candidate should also campaign in red states, especially in the south, and on Fox News and Newsmax. He or she needs to show a willingness to make their case everywhere and to anyone.

Already, there has never been an election year like 2024. After a disastrous debate in June, it is increasingly likely a new candidate will replace President Biden. He or she will be in a position no one has ever faced before in the media age: they will have 74 to 100 or so days to tell their story, explain their policies and build such a connection that the majority of those who vote in November will vote for them.

Even running against someone who much of the country dislikes, this is an unprecedented challenge. After years of voters having to hold their noses to choose the lesser of two evils, it is time at least one of the parties finds a candidate that excites the country.

If they do, it will change all future campaigns.
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Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.

To subscribe to Dr. Cole’s columns, write to [email protected].

 

 

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July 8, 2024