Susan J. Demas: Does Whitmer's Move Show Big Campaign Rollouts Are Dead?

  Photo by Susan J. Demas

Photo by Susan J. Demas

It was, by far, the worst campaign rollout I’d ever seen.

After cranky reporters milled around the Lansing Community College foyer for a good 45 minutes without word from anyone, gubernatorial hopeful Andy Dillon finally waltzed in with a couple of flustered aides –– one of whom promptly dropped the backdrop with a comical thud.

It was the kind of thing that would have been YouTube gold today, had anyone been rolling. But back in March 2010, print reporters like myself still had the luxury of not having to double as videographers, photographers and Twitter fiends.

Dillon had already canceled a Saginaw stop due to “logistical reasons” and stumbled through his news conference in the capital city. It was a fitting start for a campaign that would end with an 18-point Democratic primary loss to Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero (who would go on to lose by roughly that amount in the general to now-Gov. Rick Snyder).

There have been many memorable campaign announcements rife with symbolism, like Barack Obama invoking the memory of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Ill. on a frigid 2007 day. In 2015, Donald Trump descended a Trump Tower escalator to declare what everyone presumed was a vanity presidential bid.

But notably, Hillary Clinton released a YouTube video declaring she was in for ‘16. Given so many potential pitfalls, many politicians are deciding that a grand campaign announcement isn’t really worth it. The public is increasingly savvy when it comes to political maneuverings and tends to greet traditional gestures with skepticism. Everybody’s seen everything before.

So while Gretchen Whitmer surprised many political observers announcing her 2018 gubernatorial bid this week via a mass email to supporters, maybe it was a smart move. After all, it’s not like this was a big surprise.

The Democratic former state Senate leader made her intentions clear in a spate of media interviews last year after taking an interim post cleaning up the Ingham County prosecutor’s office (which was widely seen as a résumé-building exercise).

And Whitmer has a history of bowing out of statewide races –– attorney general in 2010 and governor in 2014. Doing a press conference would only invite questions about that and pull focus off her message. And it’s not like the media was going to ignore her announcement, even if plenty of journalists weren’t able to ask her questions directly.

If there’s one thing that candidates want, it’s to control the way they communicate to voters. And increasingly that means going around the media, at least with their initial salvos. President-Elect Trump has perfected this by making news on Twitter, like announcing jobs coming back to the country when he had nothing to do with it. However inaccurate or inflammatory his tweets may be, reporters feel obligated to report them, often giving him precisely the positive headlines he craves.

There are other reasons to go with a low-key campaign announcement. Sometimes nosy reporters have stumbled upon your plans and you want to beat them to the punch. Other times pesky campaign finance laws force you to file the necessary paperwork so as to legally collect donations. The idea of organizing a splashy campaign announcement may not seem like a big priority compared to keeping the checks rolling in.

And sometimes staging a big event can invite your competition to steal your thunder with a stunt of their own. Whitmer clearly wanted to be out in front with her campaign and she achieved that. That’s even more crucial when her likely rival, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), has proven particularly adept in snagging media attention for sounding the alarm over the Flint water crisis and fighting for former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati to be freed from Iran.

It will be interesting to see if other gubernatorial candidates follow suit. It’s hard to imagine Attorney General Bill Schuette, the presumed GOP frontrunner, foregoing the pageantry of a formal announcement. He’s as old school as they come on the campaign trail, relishing any chance to shake a hand or kiss a baby. And Schuette is pretty fond of TV cameras, too.

So it’s not clear if the art of the campaign rollout is dead. But Whitmer’s announcement crystallizes the fact that another time-honored tradition is: the break between elections.

Those days definitely are over.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.