Just as a circus holds a sideshow to generate fresh interest, the 2008 election three-ring circuses of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina will also have a number of ad sideshows, with all of sorts of groups launching their competing acts in an effort to gain the attention of the campaigns, the pundits, reporters and maybe even a few voters.
With at least a half a dozen months before the main event starts, interest groups, 527s and a number of corporate concerns are already delivering new ad campaigns designed to be noticed by some or all of the interested parties. Groups like the League of Conservation Voters, Children's Defense Fund, the U.S. Chamber, MoveOn.org and a host of others have begun airing TV ads nationally on cable news and in those key early primary states.
This sideshow strategy is nothing new in presidential politics. During the 2004 election, CMAG witnessed several millions of dollars in ad spending promoting issues ranging from steel subsidies and federal forestry regulation to securing missing Russian nukes. Today, with the political stakes seemingly higher in Washington, expect dozens of these sideshows to role out ad campaigns in the coming weeks and months in an attempt to highjack the 2007 and 2008 election.
Thus far, the issue ads that have generated the most spending and political dialogue have been focused on health care, the environment and the war in Iraq.
However, some groups like MoveOn.org are already engaging the campaigns with blunt attack ads targeting the opposition that are historically reserved for the general-election period. Normally I would argue that ads during a party primary from agenda-driven groups like MoveOn.org actually help the targeted candidate with his or her party's base (in this case, John McCain could conceivably gain with conservatives by being attacked by liberals). Today, however, because of the unsettled political climate, and thanks to the internet full of well-informed primary voters, I could see where these ads may now hold the potential of sending a strong message to the party faithful that these attacks are in play and will be running in the general election if the targeted candidate makes it out of the primaries.
It will be worth watching the coming months for the impact that the sideshow acts have on the race but one constituency that is bound to be interested is the broadcasters.
So step right up!
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Evan Tracey is the founder and chief operating officer of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a TNS Media Intelligence company. See his complete bio.