5/11/2008

The Importance of Name Identification

I was watching television with my wife a few days ago. We were watching MSNBC's "Race for the White House," which is basically a political junkie's dream show: nothing but punditry, punditry, and more punditry. Political junkies are so well acquainted with Washington's pundits, columnists, and opinion makers that the mere mentioning of their last names evokes strong expressions of support or disgust: Scarborough, Bennett, Hume, Maddow, Smerconish, Borger, Dowd, Brownstein, Gergen, Will, Freidman, Robinson, Olbermann, Schneider, Buchanan...

Anyway, the pundits were talking nonstop about the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama post-Indiana/North Carolina. Should Clinton drop out? Will Obama choose her as VP? What happened to Bill Clinton's political skills? Was she pandering with the gas tax? Who made the biggest gaffe? Of course, I was happily taking in all of the pundits' hot air, both nodding in agreement and shaking my head in disbelief. My wife was watching the show with me too, but she wasn't paying much attention to what the pundits were saying. She was just happy watching television with me.

After the show had to take a commercial break, my wife broke her silence:

"Poor John McCain..."
Intrigued by my wife's sudden foray into political analysis and punditry, I had to ask why.
"Because nobody's talking about him anymore."
Interestingly, I had no response to this. And it was difficult to concentrate on the rest of the show from then on. I couldn't help but think that even though my wife does not follow politics much at all and has no clue who people like Jill Zuckerman and Roland Martin are, she very well may have been onto something that I haven't heard many of the "professionals" touch on so far.

Most pundits seem to believe that the extended race between Clinton and Obama is hurting the Democratic Party. I've tended to agree with this view, and there have been polls suggesting that their supporters may vote for John McCain or stay home if "their candidate" doesn't win the nomination. White women, a major part of Clinton's base, are sensitive to the idea that "men" unfairly forced her out of the race. Blacks, a major part of Obama's base, are sensitive to the idea that "Whites" took the nomination away from "their" candidate.

These are very real problems. But then I think about what my wife said.

Nobody's talking about John McCain. It's as if Clinton vs. Obama is the main event while Obama vs. McCain (the more likely November scenario) is the undercard. In other words, the primary election seems more important than the general election this year. Democratic voter registration and party identification have increased substantially compared to 2004. Democrats have been outvoting Republicans in almost all of the primaries so far this year. Democrats are clearly more enthusiastic about the upcoming election than Republicans. Both Clinton and Obama have been all over the news for months, while John McCain's name is barely mentioned. I would not be so quick to call this "media bias," but the fact is that there simply isn't much news to report on the Republicans these days simply because that race is finished.

If Clinton and Obama continue battling each other through June and Clinton takes her fight all the way to the convention, this news will continue to dominate the airwaves the way it is now. Once the Democrats finally have a nominee, he (or she) will be matched up against some guy that either nobody knows or everyone has forgotten about. Obama and Clinton may be beating each other up to their collective detriment. However, they are also at least getting their names out there. And if my wife is any indication of average voters who don't follow the 24-hour political newscycle, perhaps the real loser in the Clinton-Obama fight is John McCain.

Think about why there is so little turnover in congressional elections. It's not simply because of gerrymandering or the idea that voters really like their congressmen. It's also because their challengers often don't have the money or the megaphone to get their message out. So when it's time to vote, voters see one name on the ballot they do know and one name they don't. Unless the person is a partisan supporter or a partisan critic, more often than not he will vote for the person whose name he has at least heard of. This would seem to render one's unfavorability ratings moot. After all, Hillary Clinton has been able to win 49% of the vote in the primaries and caucuses thus far despite her "sky high negatives."

This post is not intended to be an endorsement of any candidate. However, John McCain had better make himself a part of the discussion sooner rather than later because he risks fading into political obscurity as far as nonpartisan and less engaged voters are concerned. Hillary Clinton and Republicans have argued that Barack Obama is "too risky" to be President because nobody knows much about him or his resume. Ironically, however, the "riskier" choice to these voters may very well be the candidate nobody is talking about right now. Will name ID trump policy positions and resumes at the ballot box in November? Talking with my wife a few days ago suggests that this may very well be more of an issue than the pundits realize at present.

5 comment(s):

Nikki said...

Anthony, very astute observation by your wife. I agree with her to a degree. I think Obama is going to start focusing on McCain from here on out and that will get him some publicity. Though I do think the focus on what will Hill do next will grab the attention of the soap watchers like myself, McCain will get some attention because he is now the opponent of Obama...the more star like candidate. However McCain is well known and well liked and will make a come back I think...interesting post and a unique angle. :)N

Anthony Palmer said...

Hi Nikki.

I think my wife's observation is a reminder that even though pundits and astute political observers may make their decisions on policy and momentum, there are likely far more voters out there who only vote based on what they hear or how salient a candidate's name or reputation is. Much to the chagrin of the punditry and political elites, these casual voters' votes count just as much.

DB said...

It is true that the conversation has ignored McCain, but this race is just starting. Obama will still be outraising McCain by large margins, but it won't matter in attention because McCain will still be half the conversation. I don't think this primary will create a "catch-up" scenario for McCain, he will just enter the conversation like he hasn't been gone. I think, if anything, that if McCain doesn't start pulling in money, his problems won't be in not getting attention, but a failing infrastructure.

If McCain played this smart, he would be saving his money right now where he can because anything he spends now will be wasted. I am sure he knows this though.

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

great post but if history is true, america will always be what it was built on

Freadom said...

Cool observation. I think that it is early enough in the election cycle that the lengthy democratic primary cycle will basically have no effect on the general election. Ted Kennedy did not bow out of the dem. primary in 1980until the convention, and Ronald Reagan still won. Bill Clinton was 3rd in the polls at this point in the election cycle in 1992, and he still won. So, the office is still pretty much up for grabs.