Karl Rove says the presidential campaigns are beginning way too soon; that the candidates will soon outwear their welcome. That would have been true a few years ago, but not now.
Take 1976, for example. In November 1975, Ronald Reagan announced his intention to challenge Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. That was six weeks before the actual campaign would begin in January 1976. His “exploratory” committee had been formed six months earlier. The campaign was intense right up to the convention in July and that convention was the last of either party to be truly contested.
For the 1980 campaign, Reagan was in the It’s-His-Turn mode, so often practiced by Republicans. He formed his exploratory committee in March of 1979 declaring “this would be my campaign committee if I were to become a candidate.” He was careful not to declare his actual candidacy until mid-November that year. Meanwhile, another half-dozen putative candidates were out looking for money and supporters.
In both cases, the delay between formation of a committee and the announcement was motivated by the equivalent of Rove’s theory about outwearing one’s welcome. A candidate must have regular media coverage to keep volunteers motivated, to attract new supporters and money and to create a sense of momentum. For most, the only way to attract media attention was to announce one’s candidacy. Then what? Well, one could announce a 10-point plan to do this or that or say something dumb on the campaign trail (always a hazard). Otherwise, the candidate would be left to say more or less the same thing day after day. Hence, the outworn welcome and ennui by the news media.
Reagan had one asset no one else had: a five-day-a-week radio commentary program syndicated on several hundred stations and a twice-a-week newspaper column. Thus, he had regular access to an audience of millions — all of which would evaporate the moment he made an official declaration of his candidacy.
Therein lies the reason why Rove is wrong today about the outworn welcome. The difference between then and now is the existence of 24-hour cable news networks. They must fill the time and millions of American have become used to tuning in one or another of them several times a day. Newspapers, in turn, get fodder for stories from cable coverage with its incessant mini-interviews of politicians and coverage of a candidate’s every move except to the bathroom.
Thus, we have the potential candidate’s teaser about “thinking” of forming an exploratory committee; then the announcement of the committee; then, finally, the candidacy announcement itself. The entire process has been moved up by about 10 months from what used to prevail — all to take advantage of non-stop television coverage.
Won’t the public become fed up with such coverage? A new Fox Opinion Dynamics poll released the other day showed that 37 percent of those polled said they would become fed up and 38 percent said they would not. The rest, presumably, will just keep watching. without registering an opinion.
A spate of recent polls asked who you absolutely would NOT vote for. Results are being compared with earlier such polls. More fodder for more stories. It’s the ages-old campaign horse race at warp speed. Discount any comment by journalists complaining that campaign coverage should be about serious debate of issues, not the horse race. Believe me, it’s the horse race they care about. That’s good copy. Dull discussions of arcane issues are not. For them, the only good thing about issues debates are the occasional “gotchas.”
Going into 2008, all the potential nominees have the same thing Ronald Reagan had in 1976 and 1980: seven-day-a-week access to the media. He, of course, wrote his material in advance, so had time to think it through. Nowadays, the candidates must hope that what they have to say will be taken seriously and that they will keep their feet out of their mouths.
Their only other worry is the REAL competition for cable news attention: Anna Nicole Smith and what to do about her (1) corpse, (2) infant child, (3) numerous would-be fathers of the child.
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