A presidential candidate stumping in Mobile at Mardi Gras? That’s about as likely to happen as turning the raucous Joe Cain Day into an afternoon of citywide meditation.
“Politics and Mardi Gras don’t mix. They never have,” said historian and architect L. Craig Roberts, author of “Mardi Gras in Mobile.”
But if there was ever a time for one of the hopefuls to drop in on Mobile’s celebrated Carnival and its three weeks of mystic revelry, it’s 2016.
Several factors make the notion interesting:
-Alabama has moved its presidential primary to the crucial March 1 “Super Tuesday” slate of Southern states, giving it national impact.
-GOP and Democratic contenders have been making splashy campaign swings through Alabama since August.
-Mardi Gras, itself, is by far Alabama’s largest annual event drawing up to 800,000 visitors each year.
-And the city’s historical setting is a perfect backdrop for a presidential candidate to shake hands and kiss babies while cameras roll.
“It would be a great opportunity,” said Terry Lathan of Mobile, chairwoman of the Alabama GOP.
Alabama, though, isn’t expected to attract any of the presidential battlers until they make their final campaign efforts in Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa’s caucus is scheduled Monday, followed by the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9.
After that, state political observers anticipate a dwindled field of presidential candidates flying southward. Alabama joins other Southern states such as Texas, Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas for the March 1 primary. It’s even been dubbed the “SEC Primary,” since universities in various of the states are represented in the Southeastern Conference.
“In terms of campaigning and where they put the money, this is not a good time to come to Alabama,” said Sam Fisher, political science professor at the University of South Alabama. “They are working real hard to get their ground organizations going for the (Iowa) Caucus and New Hampshire. It doesn’t make practical sense to come to Alabama or to Mardi Gras, though it would be a fun thing to do.”
Roberts, the historian, and Wayne Dean, who portrays Chief Slacabamorinico during the annual Joe Cain Procession, said that politicians risk getting lost in the party if they come to Mardi Gras.
“It’s almost like mixing causes,” Dean said. “You don’t particularly want to be at one type of event and then another one breaks out. The people who go to a Carnival parade go for a number of reasons, but not for a political rally.”
Roberts said the private nature of Mardi Gras – where balls are invition-only, and mystic societies allow no commercial advertising at their parades – hampers the potential of presidential politics converging with Carnival.
“It’s never been a political thing, nor has it been a commercial sponsorship thing,” he said of Mardi Gras. “I really don’t know if any politician would draw a good crowd.”
Roberts continued, “Everyone wants a good time. The last thing a crowd wants to hear is how awful everything is and how to fix everything.”
Logistics would also be a factor. At Mardi Gras, streets get shut down, parking spaces get closed off and sidewalks get lined by barricades.
Said Dean: “In today’s world, security is a nightmare for a president. (Combining) that with Carnival would be an even worse nightmare. I know the Police Department would be pulling out whatever hair they had left.”
‘Could care less’
William Stewart, professor emeritus of political sciences at the University of Alabama, compared politics and Mardi Gras with a Crimson Tide football game. He noted that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was scheduled to make an appearance at one of the team’s home games last fall, but canceled.
“I think he calculated that people’s minds would be on football, not politics,” Stewart said. “I think the same holds true for Mardi Gras. I believe the thousands who come to Mobile for Mardi Gras could care less about even seeing a presidential candidate.”
Still, there’s no written, or unwritten, rule that keeps Mardi Gras off-limits.
Local politicians, particularly City Council members and county commissioners, do turn out for some of the afternoon parades, to wave and run elbows.
Dean said, however, that when it comes to parading with mystic societies or going to balls, the local politicians are simply following tradition. And, he added, “They’ve never paraded with a mystic society unless they were under mask.”
In the opinion of Quin Hillyer, a nationally published conservative columnist who lives in Mobile, presidential campaigns should steer clear of Mardi Gras. “Alabama has tended to have later primaries in the past, and I don’t think Mardi Gras was an issue,” Hillyer said.
He added, “If I were a candidate, I would not want to make an appearance here during the final two weeks of Carnival. I’d run ads and keep my team pressing ahead organizationally, but I wouldn’t want to risk coming to down and being seen as a sideshow.”