The Invisible Primary

John Invisible Primary 2.mp3

Audio introduction to the Invisible Primary

Invisible primaries happen before primary voting when candidates campaign to establish themselves as viable candidates to win the primary race. Potential primary candidates try to gather support, gain recognition, raise funds and establish a core staff. This usually starts well before they announce their candidacy.

The land of the never-ending election.

Although presidential elections are held every fourth year, the manoeuvring in preparation for the elections begins months, if not years, beforehand. Because these events take place before the official first stage — the primaries — and because there is very little to see, this stage is often referred to as the invisible primary. The term was originally the title of a book by White House journalist Arthur T. Hadley published in 1976. The invisible primary is said to be critically important for a candidate to gain name recognition and money, and to put together the necessary organisation. There is a high correlation between who is leading in the polls at the end of the invisible primary and who actually wins the presidential nomination.

During this time the aims of candidates are threefold — to gain media coverage, to gather endorsements and to secure funding.

Media coverage

Candidates will look to achieve widespread name recognition, attempting to gather media airtime and coverage in the printed press. In particular, they will endeavour to present themselves to potential voters as credible presidential candidates and cover any potential weaknesses in their political CV. Thus, following his withdrawal from the 2008 Republican field, Mitt Romney began positioning himself to run as a conservative candidate in 2012, with speeches at the Lincoln Day dinners, the whether states allocate their delegates on a proportional or first-past-the-post basis. Thus in Florida in 2008 McCain picked up all 57 of the Republican pledged establishment of his 'Free and Strong America PAC' and fundraising activities for SBA-List (a pressure group committed to electing anti-abortion women to political posts).


Candidates try to gather support from key individuals within the party. These include leading politicians who are not running, those who drop out and the Super Delegates. In the race for the Republican nomination in 2012 Romney had secured the support of 41 of the 153 unbound superdelegates by March 2012, something the National Journal referred to as his 'path to victory'.

Candidates will also look to gather endorsements from influential groups outside the party who will provide important grassroots support in mobilising a candidate's campaign. For example, 7 months before the first 2012 primary, Michele Bachmann joined almost every other major Republican presidential candidate in speaking at the Faith and Freedom Conference in Washington.


One of the most important functions of the invisible primary is to build up a big enough 'war chest' to fight the long presidential campaign. The ability to attract donations in seen as an early test of the candidate's viability. For example, the early withdrawal of former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer who, after establishing an exploratory committee to run for the Republican nomination in March 2011, was forced to pull out of the 2012 race in February 2012, having raised only $340,000. In particular, candidates will look to court key pressure groups and political action committees (PACs) which will provide them with valuable funding. Although candidates can self-finance their campaigns (as Michael Bloomberg did in 2020) it is enormously costly, and very few candidates have the personal assets to do this.

The invisible primary takes place mainly in the media. A candidate will hope to be ‘mentioned’ as a possible serious presidential candidate in such newspapers as The Washington Post and The New York Times, or there might be a positive article in Time magazine. There might be offers of an in-depth interview on such serious political television programmes as Face the Nation (CBS), News Hour (PBS) or one of CNN’ s political talk shows, such as State of the Union with Jake Tapper, or The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer. Candidate announcements Then there are the candidates’ formal announcements of their entering the presidential race.

The Invisible Primary is getting longer.

The first major Republican candidate to announce his candidacy for the 2016 presidential race was Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who made his announcement on 23 March 2015 — over ten months before the Iowa caucuses. By the end of July 2015, there were 17 declared Republican candidates. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton announced her intention to run on 12 April 2015. In the next three months, four other Democrats joined the race. Support for a candidate at this stage is demonstrated principally by opinion polls. Some of these polls, reported regularly by the press, may be based on a certain state while others are regional. From time to time, some polling organisations may conduct a nationwide poll. They may run head-to-head match-ups to see how candidates of one party might fare against fancied contenders from the other party. During 2015, polling organisations published frequent head-to-head match-ups between the presumptive Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton and possible Republican candidates such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Televised party debates Not all the ‘invisible’ primary is invisible. Some relatively formal events do occur. Between 6 August 2015 and voting beginning in February 2016, there were seven televised debates between the would-be Republican candidates. This was a significant decrease from the 16 such debates held during 2011. It was in the tenth of those 2011 debates that Governor Rick Perry of Texas had a much-publicised memory loss when he could not recall the three federal executive departments he would close down if elected president. Governor Perry began his answer: ‘Commerce, Education and the … uh, um, what’ s the third one there, let’s see.’ After almost a minute of trying to recall the third — which was later revealed as the Department of Energy — Perry ended his halting response with the word ‘Oops!’ to much audience amusement. Just over two months later, Perry ended his 2012 presidential bid, having finished sixth in the New Hampshire primary with less than 1 % of the vote. In the 2015 – 16 invisible primary, there were so many Republican candidates that the sponsoring media outlets couldn't even fit them all on the same platform. To get around the problem, they started to run two debates. On each designated date there was a secondary, afternoon debate (referred to as the ‘kids’ table’) for those in the lower half of the national polls, a main, evening primetime debate for the leading candidates. In the end, just six candidates — Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump — were invited to all seven of the main debates, though Trump chose to boycott the last one. But with the numbers involved, and with Donald Trump mostly involved, these debates turned into a political circus with little if any serious policy debate occurring. As a slightly dejected Ben Carson commented after the debate just four days before voting started: This format is not the best format for convincing anybody of anything. We’ re dealing with sound bites as opposed to being able to explain something in depth. But unfortunately that’s characteristic of the society we live in today.

The invisible primary season increases in intensity as the first primary vote, which takes place in Iowa, get closer. Candidates with high levels of funding and strong public support are likely to be viewed as potential winners, thus attracting more funding and support. This season usually leads to some candidates dropping out because they lack funding or public support. While no actual voting takes place, contestants try to establish themselves as the lead candidate in a specific faction, gaining loyalty from a key set of voters.

Announcing a presidential bid early can enable the candidate to 'capture' the support of a party faction before another candidate has even declared. This is referred to as 'the big mo or momentum'. For the 2016 elections, Senator Ted Cruz was the first Republican candidate to declare, nine months before the first primary voting and a year and a half before the presidential election. Cruz gave a speech appealing to socially conservative voters at an evangelical college and was subsequently able to maintain this support, leaving previously popular evangelical Republicans (such as Santorum) with limited backing.

Invisible primaries can have a major effect on a candidate's chances of success. As well as being a key period of fundraising, invisible primaries are when candidates can spend a great deal of money, mainly on publicity campaigns, adding to the financial burden of running for the presidency. The process is also significant because it provides an opportunity for lesser-known candidates to establish themselves as realistic challengers to perceived frontrunners. This was the case with Barack Obama in 2007, who used solid performances in pre-voting debates to establish himself as the main rival to Hillary Clinton. Clinton `won' the invisible primaries, thanks to higher fundraising and greater popularity, but Obama's ability to get close to her put him in a position to win the nomination. Sanders's invisible primary performance in 2015 helped him to gain funding and support, allowing him to run a fairly close primary race against Clinton.