WASHINGTON D.C. (NBC) - As America prepares to sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, a presidential election three years in the future probably won’t be a hot topic of discussion around every table.
But like it or not, the 2016 conversation is in full force already among those with skin in the political game, as operatives, donors, and journalists swap speculation about familiar names like Hillary Clinton, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. And even the potential contenders are wary of the rush to the next big election.
"I feel badly for President Obama,” New Jersey Governor Christie said recently. “He just won a year ago, and everybody's like, 'So, who's next?' … There is work to be done in this country. And as we shove him out the door, we minimize his ability to be an effective executive. And we shouldn't do that."
Political pros say the early banter can be blamed on the media and elected officials alike.
"I’m as much of a political junkie as anybody could imagine, and I don’t read those stories at all," said Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chairman who ran for president in 2004.
Dean points his finger at the press corps, whom he says avoids substantive stories in favor of horse-race politics, which often earns more Web traffic or better ratings.
“There are all kinds of things that get clicks – Kim Kardashian gets a lot of coverage, but it doesn’t mean it’s worth spending a lot of effort on it,” he said.
Media organizations have already spent thousands of dollars and even more man-hours commissioning polls about 2016, and following prospective candidates to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Texas Senator Ted Cruz might be a mere freshman Republican with scarcely a year of congressional experience, but his status as a potential 2016 candidate virtually ensures that his actions are more closely covered and scrutinized than any other back-bencher’s.
The ultimate star of the early 2016 speculation, though, is Hillary Rodham Clinton. The former secretary of state, New York senator and first lady has practically been treated as the Democratic nominee-in-waiting since she left the Obama administration at the beginning of the year. Even the most mundane corporate speeches by Clinton have been combed through for any clue that Mrs. Clinton might make good on the opportunity to run again for the Democratic nomination in 2016.
As with most elements of politics, though, the relationship between the media and the politicians they cover is symbiotic. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, almost seem to enjoy dropping the coyest hints about the possibility of an upcoming campaign.
"I hope we have a woman president in my lifetime, and I think it would be a good thing for the world as well as for America," Bill Clinton said last week in China.
(A cursory Google search confirms the immense coverage of this comment, which would have been otherwise shrugged off if not for Hillary Clinton's political status.)
And other candidates – Cruz, Christie, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul among others – have hardly acted to scuttle speculation. Paul arguably leads the pack, having traveled multiple times already to the traditional early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
“There are a number of national leaders who are going to be spending time here, and it's absolutely well-intended and welcome,” said David Kochel, an Iowa Republican strategist, of the early trickle of candidates into the Hawkeye State.
Iowa’s particularly inviting for candidates, given the two major statewide races – one for governor, one for Senate – in 2014. And if Christie (who’s sure to swing through Iowa as the new chairman of the Republican Governors Association) or any other candidate wants to end 2016 speculation, Kochel said they should do so by emphasizing 2014.
“I would encourage potential candidates who come here to help tamp down talk of 2016 by talking up our Iowa candidates,” he said. “That's the best thing that they can do.”
There’s also the very important point to be made that the early presidential speculation often doesn’t reflect the eventual electoral outcome. If early speculation were to be believed, Dean might have won the Democratic nomination in 2004. Instead, his campaign flamed out after the Iowa caucuses. And if the early polls heading into 2008 were accurate, that election would have seen Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton squaring off against Republican nominee Rudy Giuliani.
“We're going to see potential candidates rise and fall, and fall and rise several times before anyone starts paying attention,” said Ana Navarro, a Florida Republican strategist with close ties to two possible contenders in 2016: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
“Peaking two and a half years before a primary means as much as having a rain coat in the desert,” she said. “I don't think anyone looking blatantly political and ambitious is doing themselves any long term favors when comes to 2016.”
By Michael O'Brien, Staff Writer, NBC News