The 2008 presidential race has already been the longest in recent memory, and yet we’ve only seen the prologue, with every speech, gesture and commercial acting to set up the real drama ahead.
The drama has finally arrived and will continue with a groundswell of activity. On Jan. 3, Iowans commence caucusing, kicking off the first in a blizzard of early winter primaries and battles.
It is a fast welcome to the high-stakes season when the political pollsters will award new favorites and also-rans almost daily. And the candidates, desperate to get their "approved" TV messages out to voters, continue to part with unprecedented amounts of campaign cash, while also preparing for the inevitable slinging of mud.
"We’re going to have some voters say something about this election and who these [candidates] are and who they want their next president to be," said David Chalian, political director for ABC News. "That’s a really important moment. It will change the dynamics of the race."
The lack of an incumbent in either party, coupled with President Bush’s consistently abysmal approval ratings, put the 2008 presidential race on the front pages much earlier than anyone might have anticipated. It’s 10 months till Election Day and Americans are already tuning in with rapt attention. According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 72% of voters are following the race "very closely." At roughly this same point in the cycle during the 2000 election -- the last nonincumbent contest -- only 45% of voters could make that same claim.
With the Iowa caucuses concluded and the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary days away, ABC News, Facebook and WMUR, the ABC affiliate in New Hampshire, will host unprecedented back-to-back primetime debates Jan. 5, beginning at 7 p.m. The Republicans are up first, followed approximately 90 minutes later by the Democrats. Charles Gibson will moderate.
Fox News Channel will hold a Republican debate Jan. 10, while MSNBC hosts the Republicans Jan. 24. And CNN has Republican and Democratic debates Jan. 30 and 31, respectively, in Los Angeles.
"The race is very, very fluid," said Marty Ryan, Fox News’ executive producer of political programming. "I think it’s totally up for grabs everywhere. I don’t think we’re really going to know the impact of Iowa and New Hampshire being so close together. Traditionally, they were 10 days to two weeks apart. There was the so-called Iowa bump. A candidate would improve his fund-raising because he was a strong second in Iowa. Now it’s all very compressed."
The compression has spurred unprecedented television ad spending for the month of December in New Hampshire, Iowa and, for Republican candidates, South Carolina, where Republican delegates go to the polls Jan. 19.
Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), the Democratic front-runner in TV ad spending, is pouring $275,000 per day into New Hampshire, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republicans’ top spender, is blanketing New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Florida TV stations to the tune of $250,000 per day.
With so much lip service paid to the evils of direct-attack ads and the debasement of the political process, commercials up to now have mostly been garden-variety rah-rah spots with little mention of other candidates’ shortcomings. Clinton has, for instance, pressed her mother and daughter Chelsea into service in an effort to project a warm, compassionate persona.
The Romney campaign, however -- which, according to multiple polls, is fighting a very tight race with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Iowa -- is using a compliment-and-attack ad strategy. Extolling the family values and moral virtues of Huckabee and Romney as "two good family men," the Romney ads proceed to cite Huckabee’s record on immigration, crime and taxes.
Romney’s tactics are somewhat reminiscent of George Bush’s and John Kerry’s 2004 campaign skirmish.
"Bush did to Kerry what Romney is doing to Huckabee," said Garrett Biggs, a political strategist and principal at Los Angeles-based Blair Biggs Campaigns. "After the Democratic nomination, suddenly, Kerry sprang to the forefront. [Voters] didn’t know a lot about him. Bush seized on that opportunity and started running negative ads on Kerry before the public got a chance to know his positive side. That creates a huge obstacle for the opponent to climb."
According to Biggs, Huckabee’s wave of popularity is already beginning to ebb. "That’s what gives Romney the edge over Huckabee," he said. "[Romney] can now turn around and educate the public on the issues that Huckabee falls short on."
While some voters may tune out attack ads and candidates may publicly blame them for promoting an undignified political process, voters can expect to see the attack spots brushed off and polished as the process moves on. They do, to whatever degree, work.
"It makes a difference," Biggs said. "The power of television is so strong. When you see something over and over again, it becomes a de facto point of reference on that candidate."