No Loneliness for Long-Distance Runners

There is a famous story — perhaps apocryphal — of Richard Nixon being told by a reporter after the 1968 close election victory over Hubert Humphrey that if the election had been held a week later, Humphrey’s last-minute surge would have succeeded. Nixon reputedly sneeringly responded, "I knew the date of the damned election." The point being that the strategy and rhythm of a campaign is designed to reach its maximum vote-getting potential on the day that the votes are actually cast.

With the trend of recent years toward early voting and greater use of absentee ballots, it has already become harder to design a presidential campaign rhythm to peek at an exactly optimum moment — as the Nixon 1968 campaign did. But although I have worked on or around several presidential primary and general election campaigns (my first was Goldwater’s primary and general election campaign in 1964), I confess to being puzzled by the technical implications of a presidential election cycle that will run at a high level of intensity for a full year before the first primary votes are cast. I suspect that the current crop of veteran strategists and tacticians working on the various campaigns must also doubt their own instincts and rules of thumb that have served them well in prior campaigns.

For example, what does it mean to be a "fresh face" in a 12-month primary campaign in an Interneted, 24-7 news cycle environment? This, of course, must be a question that Sen. Barack Obama and his people are puzzling over now. He will be as familiar as an old shoe to Democratic Party primary voters by next January and February. He may still be appealing next year, but he will no longer be fresh.

Therein is the logic of both the Clinton hit on him and his fairly vigorous response. The Clintons couldn’t let him float above the crowd and build up his positives for months and months, and I assume Obama understood that in a long campaign he would inevitably have to respond to the attacks — so he might as well punch back early and let the Clintons know right away the price they will have to pay for their future tough tactics.

Likewise, when does Obama start giving specific policy solutions to the several problems he judges the public cares about? In a traditional active primary campaign of, effectively, three to four months — a new proposal can be launched and well received with little risk of having to endure a long shelf life. But a new idea put forward a year before primary voting risks not only providing more than sufficient time for an opponent’s research team to find and publicize the flaws in the idea (and communicate to and activate the interest groups who would be harmed by the proposal), but also runs the risk of becoming stale and, most dangerously, of letting events overtake the proposal.

Thus is lost one of the great advantage of challengers — that their ideas are fresh, appealing and plausible, but not public long enough to be measured by events and considered judgment — which is the inevitable plight of incumbents and their party successors.

One of the other imponderable challenges to both fresh faces and well-known veteran candidates is how to manage the life expectancy of clever phrases and slogans and even of endearing personality quirks and styles of speech or manner.

These things tend to get old fast — as even loving wives will attest to in their husbands of a certain vintage. How many times could Ronald Reagan have gotten away with his clever rejoinder to President Jimmy Carter: "There you go again"? And even those of us who still support and admire George Bush have long ago tired of his various tropes.

I suspect that the insatiable public maw of freshness-hunger will prove a vast challenge to the wordsmith and media shops of all the campaigns. Do they save their best for last, or use them sooner when they see their candidate slipping in the polls in April, June or September? On the negative side, when do they launch their killer negatives on the front-runner — in spring, summer, fall or winter? A lethal attack two weeks before the election might well be recovered from if launched five months before the votes are cast.

And yet, can a front-runner such as Clinton, McCain or Giuliani risk slipping to second or third in the public polling, even for a moment, without emptying both barrels of their mud guns? And how in the name of all that’s holy does a campaign manage the timing and points for their media buys?

They will probably go nuts when they conclude that for image and communications reasons they can’t afford to be off the air for long without major ad buys — while for money reasons they can’t afford to be on the air for long with such buys. (After all, a mere three-month California-only media campaign can easily cost $40 million.)

Perhaps this will be the election cycle of the late entries — either fresh faces for fall, or old faces re-introduced — such as Al Gore or Newt Gingrich. In any event, by convention time 2008 we are sure to see not the loneliness, but the excessive publicness of the long-distance runner.