The NFL preseason is arguably a waste of time unless you’re a die-hard football fan or a desperate gambler or you’re related to someone who is actually playing in the games. It’s simply practice for players who are hoping to make the team and for television analysts working on their one-liners and hot takes.
Because deep down, everyone knows that nothing matters until the real games start, right after Labor Day.
The same applies to America’s other favorite pastime, presidential politics. As much as the 24-hour news cycle has been enamored with real estate mogul Donald Trump’s antics and infrequent polling, most Americans haven’t cared that much about the candidates up until now. Labor Day has always been the official start of the campaign season, and just as in sports analysis, it’s time to start making some predictions about the real season we’re about to embark on—whether we like it or not.
With the Democratic debates starting, fundraising getting serious and final plans in the works for the fall, here are three things to expect at the start of the real political season for the 2016 presidential election.
Uncle Joe Isn’t Coming
The biggest story in the post-Labor Day political cycle will be whether Vice President Joe Biden will actually jump into the presidential race. Political insiders and most Washington, D.C., consultants have said that Biden needs to make a decision by Oct. 1 at the latest or the campaign train will have finally left the station. Well, no need for Biden supporters to start buying tickets, because he will not choose to run for president.
Because, deep down, Biden’s heart really isn’t in it. He lost his son (and best friend) just a few months ago, and all reports are that he’s still in mourning and may not have the heart to enter the race. More importantly, by waiting this late to start a presidential run, he will have put himself at a severe strategic disadvantage in getting a team on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Not to mention, he would be significantly behind in fundraising. But because the political game is addictive, Biden will likely wait until the very last minute to inform the public that he’s not running, because once he finally tells the public he’s out of the game, he’s accepting the end of a long and successful career in Washington.
There Will Be Two More Surges
The last week has been all about Dr. Ben Carson and how he’s the new insurgent presidential candidate who may give Trump a run for his money. This is, at best, a temporary surge, one that won’t survive attacks from other candidates or real scrutiny, but more importantly, it won’t be the last.
The Republican debates after Labor Day have the potential to give the public a new superstar every month or so. Doing well in an upcoming debate, or performing above expectations, is likely to boost someone into double digits or the nebulous realm of “contender,” only for him or her to flutter down to the median by the time we get to Iowa.
Best candidates for yo-yoing in and out of relevance in the post-Labor Day season? Carly Fiorina is likely to get a boost in the Sept. 16 CNN debate, when she faces off against the full Republican slate. John Kasich will likely follow up on his strong first debate performance and wake up one morning to find himself jumping ahead of the pack in Iowa or New Hampshire. But in the end, Iowa voters are flirts. They’ll play footsie with newcomers to the campaign, but in the end, when the caucuses actually start, they tend to gravitate toward candidates who’ve been campaigning for years.
Hillary Clinton Will Stabilize
Hillary Clinton has more or less hit rock bottom, so there’s no place else for her to go but up, or possibly out of the presidential race. Since you couldn’t pry her (or her husband, the former President Bill Clinton) out of this race without a crowbar and 4 gallons of WD-40, it’s much more likely that her descent into “trouble” will stabilize in the coming months.
This doesn’t mean that Bernie Sanders will suddenly overtake Clinton in Iowa, let alone someone like Jim Webb or Martin O’Malley, because that is unlikely as well. What this means is that given her long-standing popularity among Democratic voters, and the fact that the majority of Democratic voters don’t really care about the “email scandal,” it’s unlikely that her overall polling numbers will ever dip below 35 percent or so in Iowa.
She may hover along in the mid- to low 30s for the next couple of months, but she’s not going to drop any farther because her reputation is too strong with the Democratic faithful.
And as a bonus prediction, take a look at the “undecided” numbers for Iowa. They’re still hovering around 10 percent—which is a bad sign for Sanders and other Clinton challengers. Undecided voters tend to break late at about 3-to-1 for the incumbent or the front-runner, which means it’s very possible that even if Clinton is hovering around 35 percent for months, she could blow her competition out of the water by the time the rest of the voters decide.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.