A Three Act Play

08/20/2007 10:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mark Blumenthal Mark Blumenthal is the Head of Election Polling at SurveyMonkey.

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.


For example, according to the most recent
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.


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:


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.