Thursday, August 14, 2008

When It Comes to Election 2008, You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

By Stuart Rothenberg

America’s long national nightmare — the 2008 election — is coming to an end. But don’t worry. We still have another painful, gut-wrenching three months of campaigning, TV ads, direct-mail pieces and political telephone calls that will fill up our answering machines, jam our mailboxes and disrupt our family dinners.

Yes, the longest campaign in history is about to ratchet up in intensity to a level that you’ve never seen and possibly can’t yet imagine.

If you want to know what to expect, imagine the hype of the Super Bowl, the Olympics and the Oscars, multiply it by about a million, and you’ll have at least some idea about the political frenzy that you’ll start experiencing with the two national party conventions in late August and early September and continuing all the way to early November.

Consider the amount of money that the national party committees are sitting on.

As of June 30, The Republican and Democratic national committees, the two Congressional campaign committees and two Senate campaign committees were sitting on a combined $207 million.

On the GOP side, the majority of the cash was held by the Republican National Committee ($68.7 million of the three committees’ total of $101.7 million), while on the Democratic side, the fattest wallet was the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ($54.6 million of the three Democratic committees’ total $105.3 million).

Add to that bankroll the roughly $84 million in federal matching funds that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will receive and spend and the more than $200 million that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is expected to raise and spend between the Democratic National Convention and Election Day, and you may start to see what kind of political deluge we are in for.

Of course, you still need to add in the many tens of millions that individual House and Senate candidates will spend between Labor Day and Nov. 4, and the spending from “outside groups” such as Freedom’s Watch, environmental and labor groups or other individuals or interests.

None of this includes the spending and time that the media will devote to hyping the election, which has drawn so much interest nationally and internationally that the suits who run big media companies have finally figured out that they can make money covering politics — as long as they cover it like the latest Paris Hilton development.

You can bet that between now and November, each of the campaigns will have to deal with at least one campaign snafu or controversy. And the media’s coverage of those problems will be suffocating.

So be prepared for more mindless chatter on the cable television networks, and more guests described as “Republican strategist” or “Democratic strategist” that nobody in politics has ever heard of.

Obviously, campaign spending won’t be distributed evenly, so the folks in Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia, Colorado and a few other states will see a disproportionately large amount of the hundreds of millions of dollars that will be spent in the presidential race and in other campaigns between now and Election Day.

To them go our sympathies.

All of this leads to one question: Will this money really affect the election outcomes very much?

While it’s likely to have an impact in U.S. House races, and could determine the winner in a Senate race or two, it very well may not play a major role in deciding who will be the next president of the United States.

Few TV ads really change people’s minds this late in a race, and the national conventions, debates and “free media” coverage of the candidates from now to November are likely to have a much greater impact on how voters see Obama, McCain and their choice. If Obama closes the deal with undecided voters, it’s not likely to be because of a TV ad, but rather his overall exposure to those voters.

By this time in the election cycle, voters have seen more ads that they care to and have heard candidates and their surrogates promising everything imaginable. Another ad is, well, just another ad — meaningless blather about change or jobs or health care or taxes — that’s aimed at getting votes and getting elected.

Who knows what either McCain or Obama will do once he gets into the White House?

But that won’t stop the parties, campaigns and outside groups from their voter contact and get-out-the-vote efforts. You can never be criticized for raising and spending too much money, only for not raising and spending enough.

So, let the sprint to Election Day begin, with even more ads and more hype than we’ve already had to this point. There will be plenty of “news” shows and political ads to watch, plenty of news coverage to read. I’ll be watching “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” on the Travel Channel.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on August 11, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.