How the “Permanent Campaign” Has Taken Over Our Politics

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 9 2013 8:39 PM

It’s Always Campaign Season

Why election season begins the day after the election.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), center, speaks to the press after the weekly Senate Republicans policy luncheon.
A new tape recording reveals that Sen. Mitch McConnell's re-election campaign had gotten an early start

Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

Sen. Mitch McConnell is the least likely politician to get caught in a secret recording discussing the dark arts of campaigning. He usually says that stuff on the record. The four-term senator speaks openly about his political motivations. You may remember that in October 2010, McConnell told Major Garrett, then of National Journal, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

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John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The recording was disclosed by Mother Jones reporter David Corn, who also discovered the famous “47 percent” video starring Mitt Romney. (Not since the Grateful Dead has an institution done so much with bootlegs.) McConnell and his staff can be heard plotting how to defeat his potential opponent, actress Ashley Judd, using her public remarks about religion, America, and her battle with depression. In the wake of the report, McConnell has asked the FBI to investigate whether his office was bugged and his campaign manager has accused the senator’s political enemies of "Nixonian tactics." Stephen Law of American Crossroads—and a former McConnell aide—called on liberal groups to confirm they had no involvement in the recording. (American Crossroads ran an anti-Judd ad days after the secretly recorded meeting.) Democrats wonder why the senator's official staff was working on opposition research. It’s still spring, but we should settle in for a summer stock performance of umbrage-taking.

Before this drama concludes, we should embrace a truth at the heart of this recording: We are in the era of the permanent campaign. At the time the recording was made, the November 2014 election was 21 months away, and McConnell was knee deep in strategy about a woman who hadn't even entered the race (or any previous political contest for that matter). He's a hands-on political operator, sure, but it's not just McConnell who is thinking about the next election. Strategists in both parties say that technological and strategic innovations have moved campaign start dates even earlier than before. The next elections are also at the heart of the big policy debates. The 2014 election is at the center of the gun control debate. The debate over immigration reform is motivated in large measure by Republicans worried about their presidential chances in 2016. 

This is obvious. Suggesting a politician is worried about the next campaign is like accusing them of giving a speech. Still, the "permanent campaign" charge is thrown around as though it has the power to harm. The National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee has attacked Obama for it. When Rand Paul threatened to filibuster gun legislation, fellow Republican Sen. Tom Coburn suggested it was just about his 2016 presidential ambitions. Speaking Monday, President Obama said that that the gun control debate was not about politics, but he is encouraging voters to contact their elected officials because he knows those officials will be moved if they think their electoral chances are threatened.

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The hypocrisy about the permanent campaign is as old as the permanent campaign. After Bill Clinton's presidency of permanent campaigning, Dick Cheney declared early in Bush's first term that "The days of the war room and the permanent campaign are over." But Clinton never gave James Carville or Dick Morris an official job. President George Bush installed his top political adviser, Karl Rove, in the White House to tend not only to Bush's political interests but also to provide counsel on House and Senate races. Denying the obvious became so commonplace that President Bush felt comfortable telling reporters on Jan. 2, 2003 that he wasn't thinking about his next campaign minutes before huddling with Rove for his first extended strategy session for the 2004 campaign.

Obama's top campaign adviser David Axelrod was also his top White House adviser and President Obama also has learned to deny that he is campaigning while he is campaigning. Last week, while on a trip to raise money for Democratic candidates, the president decried the perpetual campaign at a campaign fundraiser

The way it usually works is that after a party complains about the permanent campaign they turn around and copy it. "We made a lot of jokes about the community organizer," says one top Republican campaign strategist about President Obama’s campaign organization, "but it turns out he was organizing communities and now we're going to school on that."

Campaign strategists say that even though the permanent campaign has been growing over the last few cycles, there are even more incentives to get started early today. The influence of outside super PACs has meant candidates have to be on guard sooner. A candidate has to have a team of pollsters and strategists ready and on call so that they can respond to any attacks. Conversely, candidates who are vulnerable have to poll to learn about their specific vulnerabilities and craft positive ads to shore themselves up. Or, like McConnell, you have to pound potential opponents and scare them out of running.

McConnell's campaign ran its first ad in February. He's a special case since he's the top Senate Republican, which makes him an attractive symbolic target, but a host of other senators up for re-election in 2014 have also seen ads run for or against them. "This is the earliest we've seen it," says Elizabeth Wilner, vice president of Kantar Media CMAG, which tracks campaign and issue advertising. In the past, the political advertising in nonelection years focused on issues. Now a greater percentage is focused on actual lawmakers, says Wilner. To have enough money to run television ads and pay everyone, you have to start the fundraising extra early.

If you talk about gun control legislation with members of Congress from either party, it only takes a few minutes for the conversation to turn political. Which of the five senate Democrats up for re-election in Republican states can afford to sign on to gun legislation? What penalty will Republican senators pay if they cross the NRA? As Ron Fournier reported in National Journal, Republican Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia is now being targeted in the next election because of his support of a gun trafficking bill. The entire thrust of Michael Bloomberg's ad campaign is that he will punish members of Congress who do not back restrictions on guns in the 2014 election. 

It's not even too early to think about the 2016 election. That's how Republican Sen. Pat Toomey's recent move toward an agreement on background checks for gun purchases has been read. Toomey, a fiscal conservative, is not up for re-election for another three years, but Pennsylvania is a blue state with moderate voters whom he has to court, particularly since he’ll be running in a presidential-election year. Democratic turnout will probably be higher. No Republican presidential candidate has won the state since 1988.

A number of Republicans think the party will only have a shot at reaching Hispanic voters if its members back comprehensive immigration reform. So when Sen. John McCain was asked why Republicans were working so hard for comprehensive immigration reform, he said, "Elections, elections." If you’re looking for what motivates politicians in Washington, that’s always been a pretty good answer, but now, more than ever, we should just accept that we’re in a permanent campaign.

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