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Energy Gap: Following Campaign News “Very Closely”

As the political news shows bury themselves in the micro stories such as Affaire Clark, the macro factors continue to be the most striking indicators in this election. In addition to right track/wrong track numbers that in poll after poll after poll after poll (despite some Nate-noted problems with the LA Times/Bloomberg poll) presage a mammoth wave of voter dissatisfaction, voter enthusiasm disparity continues to be a macro-level harbinger of bad tidings for Republicans. (See case studies here, here, and here.)

Courtesy of Pew, we learn that Democrats are following news about this presidential race much more closely than Republicans. Since the start of the campaign, Pew has tracked the percentage of partisans and independents following campaign news “very closely.” As July 2008 opens, this index shows its widest gap since Pew began tracking: 52% (of Ds) to 28% (of Rs), a near double-up.

This is a fascinating chart. Three things jump out. One, the intensely competitive race began to climax interest-wise in late February with the onset of “Shame on You Barack Obama!” and Clinton’s drama-laden Kitchen Sink Strategy.

Two, for all of the initial hit from Kitchen Sink Strategy drama, for all the Jeremiah Wright and Bittergate controversies that began in mid-March and which captured the media’s collective breath, the “very close” public interest dropped sharply (10-15% across the board).

Three, the single most interesting time for Republican voters, to date, occurred not when John McCain won the nomination battle but when Obama and Clinton were going at it hot and heavy in the roughly ten-day runup to the March 4 primaries.

This final point has to be troubling and underscores the rationale behind the shakeup in the McCain camp yesterday. Whichever guilty party you want to blame it on – historic and dynamic Obama/Clinton campaigns, the “liberal media” obstinately refusing to report on McCain, lack of enthusiasm among Republicans for what their own party hath wrought, McCain himself for his gruntychucklish “that’s not change you can believe in!” lime-green delivery – the fact that the window of McCain’s own nomination win (mid-30s) was far less attention-capturing for Republicans than Obama v. Clinton for the March 4 runup (mid-40s) cannot be spun both positively and persuasively.

To win, McCain needs big Republican turnout to compete with the expected big Democratic turnout. He can’t rely solely on antipathy toward Obama. He has to inspire his own base, and he can’t do that if his base finds Democratic drama is 25-30% more riveting than him winning the nomination. For a game-changing move in the numbers, McCain needs game-changing messaging.

If there is any comfort for McCain partisans out of the chart, maybe it’s that there’s still room for Obama to be defined in the minds of less-attentive Republicans (and independents, who generally track with Republicans by this measure), particularly if the Republican base is not yet tuned into “campaign news.” Underground smears, though not officially owned by the campaign, will certainly be a part of it. Just the other day an otherwise sweet girl solemnly informed me that Obama was secretly only “8.25% black.” (Yes, that is one-12.1212121212th black, for those scoring at home.) But something tells me the dissatisfied public right track/wrong track mood is going to dwarf the traction of smears. If I were a Republican, I wouldn’t feel comfortable betting on the smears.

Perhaps the most significant lesson Pew’s chart teaches us is that Kitchen Sink attacks and “controversy” depress “very close” attention across the board. Counterintuitively for those who voraciously consume political news and have an emotional investment in the outcome, just when it seems like everything is becoming Urgent with a capital U because of some particular story, that very well may be when the aggregate of millions are tuning out.