Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, looks strong on the 2020 campaign trail right now. He is raising money, drawing good crowds and generating a lot of positive buzz. But wait a minute. Wasn’t Beto O’Rourke the center of the Democrats’ political universe just a few days ago? What happened?
Nothing has really changed in the polls: Buttigieg is only at 2.3 percent in RealClearPolitics’ average of recent 2020 Democratic primary polls, placing him in seventh place. So why all the attention?
What is happening is a naturally occurring part of the campaign season referred to as the “Cinderella cycle.” Think of the campaigns as something akin to the story of Cinderella. Every candidate wants to be the chosen one, the one who will turn out to be the desirable princess. All the candidates want the slipper to fit. At any given time, one candidate has the slipper and is trying it on.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, had it for a while, then O’Rourke picked it up for about 10 minutes, and now it appears Buttigieg is trying it on, too. Soon it will land in another candidate’s hands, as many media observers and party activists look away from Buttigieg and toward the new candidate of the moment.
When a candidate has the slipper, the campaign needs to do everything it can to take advantage of the limelight. The challenge is to reap the rewards of the favorable attention and ramp up fundraising, collect endorsements and generally build awareness of their candidate’s appealing features and hope for something of a breakthrough. This cycle will continue and repeat itself until the actual voting starts.
The 2020 Cinderella cycle may be somewhat different because, so far, there are more than two dozen candidates who have announced they are running or are believed to be considering a run. As a result, some will never have a moment to shine. For instance, it is hard to see where contenders such as Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, or former representative John Delaney will ever be thought of as one day emerging as Cinderella. On the other hand, just like Buttigieg, other lesser-known candidates will have their moment, and, conversely, some of the more prominent candidates will appear to be politically dead.
In addition to the Cinderella cycle, presidential primaries also have at least one Lazarus-like character who returns from the dead to be a contender after the political class had counted them out. It is hard to remember when you are living in a campaign day to day, but in politics, things are never as good or as bad as they appear. Staffers and activists should not overreact or kid themselves into thinking that they are backing a candidate who is in the lead when they really are just having a Cinderella moment. At the same time, no one should give up the first time their candidate appears to be down and out of the race.
Campaigns are marathons, not sprints. It is foolish to take today’s headlines and extrapolate out to next year’s primaries. Similarly, what looks bright and shining in April is almost certain to become dull and back in the pack before summer.
Ed Rogers is a contributor to Washington Post Opinions, a political consultant and a veteran of the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses and several national campaigns.