DES MOINES — Labor Day traditionally has marked the official kickoff of the fall political season. So why do so many Iowans have political fatigue already this year if campaigning is just getting started in earnest?
Social media, cable TV news shows and so-called dark political money are partly to blame, political experts say. But the unusual nature of the 2016 campaign coupled with the fact that Iowans were bombarded with a multitude of candidates during an elongated caucus cycle makes September feel more like the second half of a rugby scrum rather than the starting whistle.
“They used to say way back when that the public really didn’t tune in the elections until the World Series is over,” said Tom Henderson, chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party. “It seems like we’re just doing 18-month election cycles anymore without a kickoff. It seems like we’re almost into 24-hour news cycles with 24-hour campaigning from the convention to Election Day.
“It doesn’t seem like they ever stop anymore. There’s no wall.”
Jeff Kaufmann, a former state legislator and current Republican Party of Iowa chairman who teaches political history classes at the community college level, has seen the political world from a number of angles. But 2016 is in the process of rewriting the election syllabus with the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton matchup.
Kaufmann said he used to tell his students that Labor Day was the official start of fall campaigning — but no more.
“It’s more of almost a symbolic relic of the past,” he said. “In terms of the flow of this campaign, I think (Labor Day) is relatively insignificant this year.
“I really think the general election started at the beginning of summer and the official kickoff was as soon as Hillary accepted the nomination,” Kaufmann said. “With the dollars that are spent, and the expectation of a lot of the states, like Iowa, that are in play in meeting these candidates, I don’t think we can get it done in two months. Those days are over.”
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James McCormick, an Iowa State University professor who is chairman of the ISU political science department, said Labor Day still brings political campaigns into focus for voters once the vacation season is over and their children are back in school.
“There’s a lot of noise out there with the campaigns, but I’m not sure how much attention is given to it” until things “reignite” in September for the down-ballot statewide, congressional and legislative races along with the presidential sweepstakes.
“I don’t think it’s obliterated entirely the Labor Day kickoff and how it’s viewed by campaigns. Where they stand on Labor Day is still pretty crucial for them to see what kind of head way they have made so far and what kind of challenges remain,” McCormick said.
“Who’s ahead is often indicative of where the election is headed,” he noted, although this year the presidential debates that start later this month may carry higher stakes than normal for two polarizing major-party nominees competing for a shrinking slice of undecided voters.
Trump, during an interview with The Gazette last month, said he was looking forward to meeting Clinton one-on-one in the upcoming debates, given that the televised candidate forums helped him in a crowded primary field and likely will be “a very important factor” in the general election.
“I did well in the debates previously and got very high marks,” Trump said. “I enjoyed debating. I didn’t know when I first did this how I would do in the debates. I came out winning.”
Henderson said the presidential debates will be “critical” this year because a large number of voters likely will tune in before “cementing” their decisions in late September or early October. He expects there will be more emphasis as well this year on early voting — which begins Sept. 29 in Iowa, with one of the longest early-voting periods in the nation at 40 days.
“It’s not decided by any stretch of the imagination. You’ve got to play it out,” he said. “I don’t think either camp should take anything for granted at this point.”
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Henderson also said he expected fairly high turnout for a presidential election cycle. But McCormick disagreed, given the polarizing nature of the candidates and the negative campaigning that has gone on for months.
“It’s a turnout election,” McCormick said, “and I think that there will be people turned off and they won’t turn out.”
Kaufmann said he expects aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts, with an unprecedented Republican push in the 10 weeks leading up to Nov. 8, and “I think there can be minds changed here in the end.”
“Even though there is some dislike, I still think there is time for these candidates to make their case as the least dislikable for people who are not engaged,” he said. “I think this is going to be a knock down, drag out — it’s almost like a prize fight when we don’t have 15 rounds anymore.
“We’ve just got one big, long fight until the last person drops,” Kaufmann continued. “I really think that’s what changed. I think the unorthodox way that these two candidates are campaigning and the high negatives I think are enhancing that lack of significance of the Labor Day start date,” he added.
Henderson said Labor Day always is significant for Democrats because of its strong pro-labor roots. But many of the axioms that go with it are fading in an election cycle that’s rewriting U.S. political textbooks.
“Every rule that was ever in existence has now been blown up. There just isn’t anything you can go to right now that makes sense as far as traditional logic would be concerned,” Henderson said.
“Traditional logic would tell you that Trump’s campaign should have been destroyed several times by comments that he made that were inappropriate. It would have killed another candidate in another year, but there’s no rules anymore that you can really go to and say, ‘Oh, my god,’ that’s a game changer.”