Sunday, May 31, 2015

Can I raise a practical question at this point?

Are we gonna do Stonehenge tomorrow?

Hillary Clinton, the Republican presidential field, and Spinal Tap share the same problem.

The problem of scale.

Certain things only work at certain sizes. For example, a Stonehenge monument must have a certain colossal hugeness, so that it is not in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.

And debates only work at certain sizes. Greater than one, but less than X. Beyond value X, the amount of time per candidate drops below anything meaningful, and moderators have a lot of power to play favorites. Even in a six-way debate, that was notable enough that Chris Dodd tried, and failed, to make his debate time clock a meme in 2007.

X is as yet undefined, but it is less that the number of candidates in the Republican field. The number of debate invitees peaked in October 2011 at nine. This week, the announced field will grow to ten, with Jeb Bush and Scott Walker certain to make that at least a dozen soon, Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal still not giving up, and Donald Trump doing whatever it is that Donald Trump does.

Let's call that fifteen. With one recent poll showing a five way tie for first, and another showing no candidate above nine percent, there's not a clear distinction between low first tier and high second tier. Which matters a lot if one of the solutions to a crowded stage is holding back to back varsity and JV debates.

And if you limit it to just present and past office holders, you eliminate the one black candidate, Ben Carson, and the one woman, Carly Fiorina, in a party already struggling with an Old White Guy problem in public perception and in electoral demographics.

Another thing that only works at certain sizes is an Iowa caucus retail politics event.

We all know the drill. Anyone who wants to show up shows up.  The local introduces the candidate, they give the speech, they take the questions, they work the room, they maybe squeeze in a local media interview.

This only works in rooms up to size Y. Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley were bumping up against the limits of size Y with their events this weekend, Sanders had a room of 250 and an overflow crowd even bigger, and took about eight questions.

Sanders is probably in the upper single digits in the polls now, and O'Malley is in low single digits, and they're already at the top end of retail event size in Iowa.

How does Hillary Clinton, at 60%, do a legit retail event?

She can try, with her coffee table chats. But that leaves a lot of people out, disappointed that they didn't get to see her. And as we saw, the media scrum at those events outnumbered the participants.

If the maximum retail event size is about 500, and the media scrum, staff, and - a problem other candidates don't have - Secret Service detail is close to that big, it pretty much rules out a retail event.

If you were to have an event in Iowa City where anyone who wanted to see Hillary Clinton could just show up, it would need to be at the Field House or Carver-Hawkeye. Then it's not a retail event anymore. It's an arena rally, and at a rally there's invariably a distance, physical and emotional. And that is exactly what Team Hillary is trying NOT to do.

It's also harder to quietly do that thoughtful interview with, say, Douglas Burns from Carroll, when the national folks are running countdown clocks on how long it's been since you had a press conference. (I would NEVER EVER EVER do a countdown clock like that. Again.)

If I were a highly paid Democratic Strategist, I might have the solutions here. But even a lowly Democratic Activist knows the different between feet and inches.

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