Labor Day weekend, once the official kickoff of campaign season, now comes almost a year after most candidates have hit the trail and after the first primary debate.
The occasion lays out a basic fact of modern presidential campaigns: Politicians need vacations, too. But while taking a break can create an opportunity for campaigns to show that their candidates are just like the rest of us, it also carries potential peril.
The “right” vacation can give a candidate time to rest and recharge, to reconnect with family after weeks on the road, and a chance to look presidential while doing it. A tone-deaf vacation — too elite, too disconnected, too much beach bod — is tabloid catnip and can alienate voters. And the wrong vacation can upend a campaign faster than a wave topples a windsurfer.
So it’s no surprise that the presidential candidates this year, by and large, are lying low.
Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor, will be at home on Kiawah Island, South Carolina. (“Vacation? LOL,” a spokesperson said. Haley, she noted, is heading back to New Hampshire on Tuesday.)
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina has no scheduled public events, but a campaign spokesperson said Scott planned to play pickleball, a game that can make even the deftest of athletes look ridiculous.
A spokesperson for the campaign of former President Donald Trump, an avid golfer who counts two vacation properties as homes, did not respond to requests for comment about where Trump would spend the weekend.
President Joe Biden was scheduled to go to Florida on Saturday, not for a vacation but to see the damage from Hurricane Idalia. He will then head to his house in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, with his family, before going to Philadelphia on Monday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, whose state was badly battered by the storm, will also be working through the weekend. But there will probably be no beach outing for the two potential rivals: Jeremy Redfern, press secretary for DeSantis, said Friday that there were no plans for the governor to meet with the president.
Some of the 2024 candidates already have experience with the awkward vacation moment. In summer 2017, when a state government shutdown forced the closure of New Jersey beaches before the July 4 holiday, Chris Christie, then the governor, was infamously photographed lounging on a deserted strip of sand at Island Beach State Park.
A spokesperson for Christie’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment about his plans, although he got an early start on the holiday weekend Wednesday by attending a Bruce Springsteen concert, the first of the rocker’s three shows in New Jersey this past week.
Vivek Ramaswamy will spend the weekend campaigning in New Hampshire. A spokesperson for his campaign said he had a town hall Friday night, a breakfast and a rally Saturday, a few meet-and-greets and a Labor Day parade on Monday in Milford. The spokesperson said his most recent vacation was around Christmas, and he had not taken a day off since before launching his campaign.
Former Vice President Mike Pence will also be in New Hampshire on Monday, attending a “smoke-off” at a Baptist church, a picnic and a barbecue. (While in office, one of Pence’s family’s preferred vacation destinations was Sanibel Island in Florida.)
While most of the 2024 candidates have chosen to emphasize that they are at work rather than at play, vacations were once seen as an opportunity to burnish a politician’s image. Ronald Reagan chopped wood and rode horses at his California ranch. George W. Bush cleared brush in Texas. John F. Kennedy, perhaps the embodiment of the artful presidential vacation, sailed.
These days, it seems, the risks are not worth the reward.
Stories of vacations restoring the candidate but tanking the campaign are many. When Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for president, went on vacation in late August 1988, he was seen by some as checking out of the race as George H.W. Bush gathered momentum from the Republican convention. Dukakis was also once pilloried for reading a book called “Swedish Land Use Planning” on the beach.
Vacations can even be perilous after you win. As president, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were each criticized for palling around with donors on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. In 2015, Hillary Clinton went to the Hamptons in New York for an August vacation, despite concerns about the political optics.
A getaway can also become a fashion meme or a wardrobe minefield. In August 2008, Obama, then a candidate, was photographed without a shirt on a beach in Honolulu. People swooned. In 1993, Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were photographed in short shorts. People cringed. Both appearances drew comparisons to Richard Nixon in a suit and wingtips on the beach. More recently, Biden took the internet by storm when he went shirtless at the beach, with his trademark aviators and baseball cap.
And then there are those moments of R&R that can cause real problems for a campaign. During John Kerry’s 2004 presidential run, he spent time at the family house on Nantucket in Massachusetts, where he engaged in one of his favorite pastimes: windsurfing. What might, in some circumstances, have created the impression of athleticism, strength and adventure was instead turned against him by the George W. Bush campaign to illustrate, memorably, that his political stances shifted with the wind.
Even parades, a Labor Day staple, seem to have fallen out of favor.
No candidates plan to take part in the parade in Chapin, South Carolina, which is billed as the largest in the state and has been a traditional stop for Republican presidential hopefuls. According to The Post and Courier, this will be the first Chapin Labor Day parade held the year before a contested Republican primary since at least 1996 in which no candidates make an appearance — although several campaigns will have “a presence” there, with walkers, trucks and probably a few flags.