Nation & World

KSG panel: Early campaigning takes voter toll

5 min read

The intense media coverage of a small group of presidential hopefuls is prematurely narrowing the field of worthy nominees, many political experts claim.

In 1976, journalist Arthur Hadley authored “The Invisible Primary,” which examined the trend of early campaigning in the run-up to presidential primary elections. A candidate could help secure his or her position in the race long before a vote was cast, Hadley argued, in part by capturing the media’s attention.

More than 30 years later, the media’s focus on certain presidential candidates plays a significant role in determining the front-runners. And it’s not a welcome development, said several political pundits last week at the 2007 Theodore H. White seminar titled “The Invisible Primary,” sponsored by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

The trend has become a “critical part of the campaign,” said the panel’s moderator Thomas E. Patterson, acting director of the Shorenstein Center and the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the John F. Kennedy School of Government (KSG). Patterson said the candidates singled out by the press have a “great advantage,” and in turn better positioning in the polls and greater financial support. He asked the panel at the Kennedy School’s Malkin Penthouse to assess how the trend impacts voters.

Marion Just, professor of political science at Wellesley College and a research associate at the Shorenstein Center, said the “winnowing aspect of the press” that propels some candidates forward, in turn hurts voters who want to know as much as possible about everyone in the race in order to make informed decisions.

“We wonder whether the electorate is losing something by this heavy attention on a narrow set of candidates,” she said. “People say they want to know more.”

This year’s complicated shuffle of the primary calendar could alienate voters even further. Several states have moved their primary dates up in an effort to increase their influence in the nominating process. The result, said Tom Fiedler, former political editor and columnist at the Miami Herald, is a “twisted situation” with elections concentrated into a small window of time that could leave some casting their primary votes as early as December 2007.

“It’s a ridiculous thought that [the New Hampshire primary] could take place in December. … Nobody is going to want to vote that early,” he said.

Mark Halperin, editor-at-large and senior political analyst for Time magazine, said the media needs to do a much better job at vetting candidates early on.

“We don’t scrutinize candidates enough in the nominating process,” he said, “and I think this cycle will be the worst that it’s ever been.”

Charles E. Cook Jr., editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report, warned against selecting a nominee so long before the presidential election. He argued that a candidate could falter badly or that harmful information could come to light that could seriously hamper his or her chances.

“A lot can happen,” he said. Then “you’re stuck with badly damaged merchandise. … How do you undo it at the convention?”

In discussing possible nominees, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton garnered the most attention from the panel. Many said both candidates were positioning themselves well to capture their respective party’s nomination.

Cook, who last year claimed he would win the Tour de France before Giuliani would take the Republican nomination, admitted he had been wrong about the moderate-leaning candidate.

He guessed that a fundamental shift in the Republican Party, away from its traditional, evangelical base, might be behind the former New York City mayor’s strong showing.

“Maybe something else is happening out there,” he said, referring to controversial topics like stem cell research that he contended may have “galvanized secular Republicans” and made them more assertive within the party.

Many on the panel gave Clinton ample praise. Steve Jarding, lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School, said that Clinton “has shown she can perform.” Wellesley’s Just said the former first lady has shined in the debates, and Cook compared her to an agile mountain goat, calling her “sure-footed,” and “deliberate.”

While some panelists said that Democratic hopeful Barack Obama could still pose a threat to Clinton for the Democratic nomination, they added that he has to overcome the lingering perception that he is lacking in experience and true, presidential appeal.

“He has to convince people that he is ready to be commander in chief from day one,” said Halperin. “It is a challenge on which he is running out of time.”

Dana Priest, national security correspondent for The Washington Post, was also on the panel. Priest received the David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism Oct. 25 at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.

IOP launches ‘Campus Voices’

Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP) has announced the launch of “Campus Voices,” a new Web site chronicling the final 100 days of the 2008 New Hampshire primary. Since mid-September, “Campus Voices” students have been traveling north to observe and follow the candidates, campaigns, and events of the 2008 presidential race, activities they will continue until the New Hampshire primary. At, students post their experiences.

Additionally, the IOP is collaborating with The New York Times, which will exclusively feature selected “Campus Voices” dispatches and reports in the political section of its Web site (