The 2008 presidential race is an election that just gets “curiouser and curiouser,” as Alice might say.
Many of the political assumptions, rules of engagement and benchmarks that drove media coverage in previous presidential contests have been all but overtaken by a series of surprising turns in recent
Debating the pros and cons of each candidate, who’s up and who’s down, who raised
how much and who made the latest gaffe, always has been a spectator sport in
Washington, D.C. But this political season is going to be different.
Beyond the obvious fact that neither side has an incumbent president or vice president
in the running, there are several other factors that are altering the dynamics of the race
in significant ways. Perhaps most important is the emergence of Feb. 5, 2008, as the
political equivalent of high noon at the O.K. Corral.
Between Jan. 14 (the tentative date of the Iowa caucuses) and what the press has nicknamed “Super
Duper Tuesday,” we may see as many as 29 states jump into fray. For candidates on both sides, Feb. 5 forces some difficult strategic decisions in an environment of unknowns.
Will Mega-Tuesday make Iowa and New Hampshire more or less important? And what do Nevada and
South Carolina now mean in the process? Does it make strategic sense to pour millions into these first states in the hope that a win will propel a candidate to victory on Feb. 5? But what if frontrunner status coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire lacks the imprimatur of “Big Mo” this time around?
Maybe in this “Alice in Wonderland” of a campaign year, skipping these early bellwethers might be the wiser course, putting time and effort instead into the big delegate count at stake on Feb. 5? In large part, the media will answer many of those questions as it decides whether to give these early states their usual king- (or queen-) maker status or anoints Feb. 5 as the day that will make or break the top candidates.
It’s probably safe to say Iowa is a must-win for John Edwards (D), who has invested so much time in
the state, and perhaps for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as well. Likewise, New Hampshire is probably a
must-win for Mitt Romney (R). Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have been campaigning in both states as has McCain and, to a lesser degree in Iowa, Rudy Giuliani (R).
Philosophically, Giuliani may be in the best position and may need to do little more than survive to Mega Tuesday when larger, more moderate states like New York, California and New Jersey may offer him, and McCain as well, a friendlier environment with a bigger payoff. But there are a number of smaller, more conservative states that will be in the mix, too; and that may benefit potential late entrants. Newt Gingrich (R), Fred Thompson (R) and Al Gore (D), each with substantial name ID,have the luxury of delaying their decisions, possibly even leap-frogging Iowa and still being viable thanks to the size of the February primary.
But there is another element that needs to be factored in. Super Duper Tuesday also puts major
pressure on individual campaigns to literally buy into the perception, created by past presidential
campaigns, that winning in states with the most expensive media markets in the country will take as
much as $100 million.
That’s a lot of money for even the most fearless of fundraisers. Look at Obama, who raised an
astounding $25 million in the first quarter. To keep up with Clinton, he will have to bring in roughly
$250,000 every single day from April 1 of this year to Feb. 5 of the next.
He won’t be alone. Most of the top-tier candidates will put themselves in similar straights, bowing to
conventional wisdom, which, given the explosion of new media over the past five years, may be more a lot more perception than reality. Despite that possibility, both Republican and Democratic campaigns will spend millions on political ads during that short window between Iowa and Feb. 5.
Yet, more and more data is showing that political advertising may have become the poster child for the law of diminishing returns. A survey released last year by the Association of National Advertisers and Forrester Research Inc. found that nearly 70 percent of major national advertisers believe advertising “has become less effective.” While these were marketers of consumer products, there is no reason to think that political ads will fare any better.
This means while campaigns will continue to use political ads, successful ones also will use new
technologies. What we don’t know is what some of these new technologies may mean in terms of
organizational efforts, controlling the message and responding to attacks.
Clearly, the Internet, which McCain and Howard Dean were the first to use as a fundraising tool, will
play an even bigger role this year as fundraising and organizational efforts move at warp speed trying to keep up with the new compressed primary season.
Obama has more than 96,000 “friends” on MySpace, and one Facebook community supporting him lists 300,000 members. Can these “communities” become an organizing structure or a direct message
vehicle? Will YouTube supplant 527s when it comes to “renegade” advertising for and against candidates with no restrictions? Will new technologies supplant traditional advertising and continue to circumvent traditional news media?
In campaign 2008, like for Alice, it often seems that up is down and down is up. It is, to some degree, the nature of the beast. But this cycle may change the way the game of presidential politics is played for the foreseeable future.