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A Three Act Play

Topics: 2008 , The 2008 Race

I'm back from vacation and will be playing a bit of catch-up on a few "remainder" items from the last two weeks.

I want to start with a presentation I gave at the YearlyKos convention earlier this month. One big point that I tried to make is that even though voters are paying more attention to the presidential race now than they have in past contests, the majority have not yet focused closely on the race, and their level of attentiveness has still not reached the level it typically does when the results come in for Iowa and New Hampshire.

1PewInterest.png

For example, according to the most recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 23% of Americans say they are following "News about candidates for the 2008 presidential election" very closely, a level roughly double that at this point in previous election cycles (see the chart below). However, the same survey also shows that many more Americans are paying "very close" attention to "the six trapped Utah coal miners" (36%) and "the hot weather" (33%). Another way of looking at the same result -- nearly half of Americans say they are following campaign news either "not too closely" (21%) or "not at all closely" (24%).

Strong partisans -- particularly strong Democrats -- may be paying more attention than other voters, but more than half are not yet putting "a lot of thought" into the campaign. At my request, the analysts at the Pew Research Center provided results to a slightly different question that they could tabulate among strong partisans: "How much thought, if any, have you given to candidates who may be running for president in 2008?" As the table below shows, self-described strong Democrats have been among the most attentive to the campaign, but even among that group, more than half the voters have been putting only "some" thought, "not much" or "none at all" to the campaign.

08-20%20Pew-lot%20of%20thought-small.png

Open Left's Chris Bowers neatly summarized the main idea I tried to get across about the common pattern in two charts created by Charles Franklin, the one above and the one below showing the rapid change in vote preference in 2003:

1TopDems2004.png

The key point here is how these charts match up. Specifically, the rapid change at the end of the 2004 Democratic primary campaign occurred at the same moment when people began to pay far more attention to the campaign. Smaller changes that occurred before Iowa also corresponded with major media moment in the campaign, such as Clark's entry into the race and Gore's endorsement of Dean. The point here, which should have been obvious to me all along, is that the campaign won't really change much until the level of coverage of the campaign changes. Only major events that receive truly massive amounts of news coverage have any possibility to alter the shape of the campaign in a statistically significant manner.

The point here is this: don't expect any long-term, gradual improvement for any candidate. National changes in campaigns like this will happen only in large chunks, and as the result of major events. Otherwise, expect the campaign to stay pretty much as it is, and pretty much the way it has been for the past four months, until such an event takes place. . Expect small, weekly changes away from the status quo to reverse themselves in only a week or two. Basically, unless something major happens, the horserace isn't going anywhere for a while.

I'd add just one thought: While I would not expect the national vote preference numbers to change much until the primaries get under way in January, things may move more quickly in the early states, especially Iowa and New Hampshire.

I like to think of the early state campaigns as a three act play. In Act One the candidates announce, do their initial swings through the early states, engage in a few early and largely non-confrontational debates and devote most of their time and energy to fundraising. Movement in polls, both nationally and in the early states, tends to be glacial as most information reaches voters through news media coverage.

In Act Two, the candidates begin saturation television advertising in Iowa, New Hampshire and perhaps a few other early states. This process begins to reach those voters who are less attentive to politics and can move numbers more dramatically for candidates who begin with less recognition. Act Two of the 2008 race started early for Mitt Romney and Bill Richardson (thus producing upward movement for both in Iowa and New Hampshire), but appears to be getting underway for most of the other candidates right about now. So it will be interesting to watch the round of early state surveys in September and October to whether greater exposure to all of the candidates changes perceptions and preferences.

Act Three, if it happens, will involve negative attack ads. Historically, only a few Iowa and New Hampshire campaigns have featured exchanges of negative advertising, partly because such attacks pose huge risks in multi-candidate primaries. They typically sink both the attacker and the attackee to the ultimate benefit of a third candidate. For example, John Glenn's attacks of Walter Mondale helped set up Gary Hart's meteoric rise in New Hampshire in 1984, and the negative exchange between Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt in Iowa in 2004 set the stage for the late ascent of both John Kerry and John Edwards. Not for nothing did wags label the Gephardt's ploy "murder suicide." If such an exchange happens this year, it may create yet another radical and surprising reshuffling of voter preferences in the final weeks of the Iowa and New Hampshire campaigns.

Either way, whatever happens in the final weeks in Iowa and New Hampshire will occur at a moment when voters there are paying much more attention to the campaigns than they are now.

 

Comments
bebee:

Obama made some comments about winning GA and MS. I found it's quite astonishing. Mark, Can you do some analysis on how realistic his latest claim is? Thanks.

http://www.boston.com/news/local/new_hampshire/articles/2007/08/20/obama_says_black_voter_turnout_will_shoot_up_if_he_is_the_democratic_presidential_nominee/

"I'm probably the only candidate who having won the nomination can actually redraw the political map," Obama told a Democratic voter skeptical that he could defeat a Republican candidate.

"I guarantee you African-American turnout, if I'm the nominee, goes up 30 percent around the country, minimum," Obama said. "Young people's percentage of the vote goes up 25-30 percent. So we're in a position to put states in play that haven't been in play since LBJ."

"If we just got African Americans in Mississippi to vote their percentage of the population, Mississippi is suddenly a Democratic state," Obama said. He said Georgia would also turn Democratic and South Carolina would be in play.

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beebe:

Mark,

Obama claims he can win GA and MS, which is quite an astonishing announcement. Can you do an analysis on his numbers? I found it's a stretch.

Barack Obama predicted that black voter turnout would swell by at least 30 percent if he wins the presidential nomination, giving Democrats victory in Southern states that have been voting Republican for decades.
...
"I'm probably the only candidate who having won the nomination can actually redraw the political map," Obama told a Democratic voter skeptical that he could defeat a Republican candidate.

"I guarantee you African-American turnout, if I'm the nominee, goes up 30 percent around the country, minimum," Obama said. "Young people's percentage of the vote goes up 25-30 percent. So we're in a position to put states in play that haven't been in play since LBJ."

...
Obama noted that in in Mississippi, blacks make up more than a third of the state's population, but make up a smaller share of the electorate.

"If we just got African Americans in Mississippi to vote their percentage of the population, Mississippi is suddenly a Democratic state," Obama said. He said Georgia would also turn Democratic and South Carolina would be in play.

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Steve:

It has to make a difference that this primary is so hotly contested on both sides of the aisle. You have to go back to 1968, or maybe even 1952, to find a totally incumbent-free election like this one.

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Neet:

Mark:

Your article is astoundingly similar to what the Obama campaign has been telling its supporters. As a result, we are not paying attention to poll numbers; we are organizing.

May I humbly insert another innovative Act into this scenario? Call it Act 2a, and it is "Organizing". Engaging all Americans -- black, white, rich, poor, Democrat, Republican, Independent, male, female -- into the American process of government. Senator Obama has reminded us that WE THE PEOPLE are the government, just as the Framers intended, and this is what we must do if we expect positive CHANGE - engage, and take charge of this government of the United States of America. Thank you, Mark!

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Karen:

I found this from a link on TPM where another link talked about Thompson having allowed Romney and Huckabee to get ahead of him. Romney-Huckabee as a ticket would be very strong, certainly against Clinton. Democrats are going to NEED a wild card like Obama increasing black turn-out and that won't happen if he's just the VP nominee under Clinton.

Romney will get a huge boost in the polls when he secures the nomination, having taken down "giants" (McCain, Thompson, Giuliani). Plus there is a lot of Republican money sitting on the sidelines waiting for the nominee. Romney has shown several times that he will go for the jugular with Clinton to push up her already high negatives in the key states. By September 2008, she could look like Dukakis did in September 1988 and be just as hopeless. If it goes like that, Democrats will be very angry with Clinton and with the party.

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