As the snow melts – to be quickly replaced by mud, at least here in Maine – and our thoughts turn toward mowing lawns and beach days, we also enter a new season politically: campaign silly season. It’s that time of year when almost everybody seems to be running for office, or at least considering it.

What used to be a quadrennial exercise focused on presidential aspirants has slowly begun to morph into a biennial one, even in a smaller state like Maine, as campaigns at all levels of government have become longer. That’s unfortunate, as it leaves less and less time for actual governing and the entire country is increasingly stuck in permanent campaign mode.

At the presidential level, most of the serious candidates have already formally declared their candidacy. It’s important to note that at this stage in the race, head-to-head polling doesn’t really mean that much. Right now, the polls largely are a reflection of name recognition, which is why Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders consistently lead the race – they’re easily recognizable names among primary voters. The same was true for Republicans at this point in the campaign in earlier cycles: At this time in 2015, Jeb Bush was leading, while in April 2007, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was 10 points ahead of John McCain.

These early polls aren’t entirely worthless, to be sure. They do at least tell us who has that name ID, and they give the rest of the field a sense of where to focus their fire. They become more useful when we notice aberrations, like the surprisingly strong performance of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg in recent polls. Whether he can capitalize on that and stick in the race for the long haul will depend not only on his poll numbers, but also on how effectively he’s able to build the type of national organization needed to run a presidential campaign.

In Maine, we don’t quite have the enormous field of candidates that the Democrats do nationally, but a few people have actually declared their intentions to challenge Susan Collins next year – from the left and the right. Just as we should take early presidential polls with a few grains of salt, though, we probably shouldn’t put too much focus on these early 2020 candidates here.

None of them is exactly a household name; instead, they’re a mix of people who have never held or run for office before and perennial candidates who seem to always be running for something. Most of them are unlikely to turn out to be serious challengers, in either the primary or the general election. That’s not just because they lack political experience, either: None of them is analogous to Donald Trump – that is, people who have at least managed to make a name for themselves in their field.

Many of those who have already announced will not even be able to get the 2,000 signatures needed to appear on the ballot. That may not seem like an enormous number, but it’s an important early barometer for a candidate’s viability – especially if they’re not well-known or well-financed. If you have the money, you can pay people to gather signatures for you, and if you’re well-known, you shouldn’t have any trouble assembling the team to get the job done. Even for experienced candidates, getting the necessary signatures often feels like a madcap scramble; for first-timers without any money, it can often be an insurmountable hurdle.

For all of the attention that these early candidates can get – whether from media coverage or just from your overly enthusiastic friends on social media – they’re probably not going to end up in the top tier. The real candidates will be waiting until later this year, or early next year, to make their announcement – even if they’re already quietly laying the groundwork. They’ll be spending their time now contacting donors, feeling out the party elites in Augusta and D.C. and lining up staff and supporters.

Whether it’s the presidential race or the U.S. Senate race, it’s far too early for most voters to be paying much attention at all, and the election is too far away to assume anything is set in stone. That’s why it’s more than a little silly to treat almost anything that happens at this stage as monumentally important. The truth is, right now we just can’t say what is and isn’t significant, either at a national level or locally here in Maine.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel


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