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Is Barack Obama planning to use the Olympic Games to roll out the national introduction to his running mate? Obama has purchased $5M worth of ads during the Olympic fortnight, unusual in that so rarely do presidential candidates purchase national ad time.

Conventional wisdom has held that neither candidate would pick his running mate during the Olympic Games, because once underway the Games would occupy the nation’s attention at the expense of political news. Granted, some of this is coming from commentators on MSNBC, who can’t exactly claim neutrality – the NBC family would love the Olympics to drown out every other current event. But it has been taken as a given that neither candidate would get much chance to reach voters with his message during those two weeks.

The vice presidential pick is big political news, but consider what the Obama campaign’s ideal scenario is: dozens and dozens of ads aimed at a national audience permitting the Democrats to define and frame the ticket on their own terms. Biographical spots, smiling running mates, optimistic, patriotic, flag-waving images, and no countering ads from the Republicans that define the ticket in negative terms. It’s a mass first impression of an optimistic, change ticket Obama would want to make, and almost a free field to make that impression (there are no reports of any McCain Olympic ad buy, and negative ads during the Olympics feel tonally off). The goal is just enough attention so that huge numbers of viewers come away absorbing a positive feeling from seeing the visuals, with the Games providing just enough cover to elide viewer attention to the dissecting commentary that accompanies such big news.

So how would the VP announcement unfold? It’s unlikely – though certainly possible – that Obama would reveal the pick in an ad itself. The campaign showed a fondness for all-network, blanket, two-minute closing ads during the primary season and there would be huge anticipation if they could simultaneously promise a big announcement while keeping the lid on the secret. However, in this case it would amount to giving NBC an exclusive and would unnecessarily risk catty feelings among rival networks.

Instead, an all-network press conference during the day followed quickly by the first introduction ad in Olympics prime time would both capture a lot of eyeballs and allow the Obama camp to control the all-important imagery. For what it’s worth, Michael Phelps – so big a story that the Olympic schedule was adjusted specifically to put him in American prime time – has individual gold pursuits during prime time on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday next week.

How much time would you need to cut some of those ads? 21 hours?

Update: Well, no sooner did I post this early this morning than we heard John McCain is buying $6M worth of ad time for the Olympics. Smart move, not to leave the entire playing field to Obama. (Perhaps in a panic they read this post? Ha ha.) Some of our regular knee-jerk Obama-is-an-arrogant-celebrity commenters who posted early in reply may have to recalibrate the kneejerkery. Still, I think McCain is at a disadvantage by the nature of the Olympics themselves. As I said above, there would be something tonally jarring to come off a feel-good event and be confronted with a negative ad. McCain should use the opportunity to reinforce his own biography, and perhaps also introduce his own running mate during the freebee framing time. Al Giordano has a smart speculation post about it possibly being Pawlenty here.

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