By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
It was big news back in 1976 when then-President Gerald Ford departed sharply from political custom by deciding not to launch the formal start of his election campaign on Labor Day.
Ford waited until the holiday passed before he officially launched his bid to return to the White House. Four years later, Ronald Reagan returned to tradition and formally kicked off his campaign with a Labor Day speech delivered with the Statute of Liberty in the background. What a long, long time ago that was.
Labor Day, the great American holiday that once marked the end of summer and the serious start of November election campaigns, has lost its place as a political mile marker.
This year’s Labor Day is bracketed by the national conventions, with the Republicans in Florida last week and Democrats in North Carolina this week.
But at most, it’s the start of the backstretch of the campaign season rather than the start of the race.
Consider this: In 1988, Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush didn’t begin his first paid advertising until Labor Day — about two months before Election Day. His Democratic challenger, Michael Dukakis, had a jump on him, but not by much.
Fast forward to this Labor Day. Since April, more than 500,000 presidential election ads have run on network, cable and local TV stations, according to Bloomberg News and its data-gathering partner, the Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, said the importance of Labor Day in campaigns has been on the decline for decades.
“These days, if you wait for Labor Day to get started, you’ve waited way too late,” Downs said.
There are a myriad of reasons why. On the national level, more primaries have shifted from summer to early spring, which means campaigns for the general election get started much earlier.
Downs also cites the steady decline since the late 1960s of the power of political parties to pick their candidates and turn out the vote.
Party-centered campaigns have been replaced by candidate-centered campaigns and that, Downs said, means candidates have to start raising money and their name recognition much earlier than they once did.
“If you’ve got to shake a million hands — or whatever the number of voters you want to reach — you’ve got to start a lot earlier,” Downs said.
It’s true on the state level as well. Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence, who wants voters to elect him this November, launched his campaign in June 2011. His Democratic opponent, John Gregg, kicked off his campaign last November. The Libertarian candidate, Rupert Boneham, announced his candidacy last October.
Eight years ago, when Gov. Mitch Daniels was running for his first term, both he and the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan, were airing TV ads long before Labor Day.
Ed Feigenbaum, publisher of Indiana Legislative Insight and longtime chronicler of state politics, said the entire election cycle has changed. He recalls a time in Indiana politics when the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve — after the November election and before legislative session started — was relatively quiet.
No more. Now the post-election holiday season is a time for major policy announcements and speculative chatter about what the next legislative session holds. “Basically,” said Feigenbaum, “over the past 15 years or so, politics and government has turned more year-round.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.