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Campaigns pick up the pace to meet schedule

A shortened timetable is forcing both campaigns to recalibrate the pace of television advertisements, accelerate voter turnout operations and tailor travel schedules.
Image: Barack Obama
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama outlines his education plan at Stebbins High School in Riverside, Ohio, on Tuesday.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

Senators John McCain and Barack Obama are confronting a sharply abbreviated general election campaign season, the product of the late nominating conventions and a boom in early voting in tightly contested states. This shortened timetable is forcing both campaigns to recalibrate the pace of television advertisements, accelerate voter turnout operations and tailor the candidates’ traveling schedules to accommodate states where voting is imminent.

While it is just eight weeks until Election Day, even that schedule overstates how much time the candidates have to win over voters. More than 30 states allow some form of early voting, forcing the campaigns to deal with a rolling series of Election Days. Iowa, a crucial state, will begin voting on Sept. 23, less than three weeks after the end of the Republican convention marked the traditional start of the general election sprint.

“I think it’s unprecedented, a whole new way of looking at elections,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who is not involved with either campaign. “A combination of the late conventions and the way early voting is becoming even earlier around the country is going to have a big, big impact.”

Close-the-deal messages
Aides to Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Mr. Obama, Democrat of Illinois, are devising state-by-state advertising strategies so that their close-the-deal messages — typically kept in reserve until the last 10 days before Election Day — are released to coincide with when people are reaching their final decisions. The old advertising formula was to begin after Labor Day with soft biographical advertisements introducing the candidate, followed by commercials drawing sharp contrasts with the other side, and closing with the strongest argument. But that formula is obsolete, aides to both candidates said.

The traveling schedules of the candidates, spouses and running-mates are being adjusted so they front-load the time spent in states where, practically speaking, there is not much time before people begin to vote. Both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain were in Ohio on Tuesday, on-the-ground evidence of the fact that this state will for the first time permit early voting in presidential elections. Voting starts Sept. 30.

Voter turnout operations that once would not have kicked into high-gear until the weekend before Election Day are about to be revved up and will remain in operation to accommodate the elongated period of early voting, posing new expenses and complications. The campaigns are using computer models — studying past voting trends along with consumer and demographic data — to try to identify people most likely to be early voters, and press them to vote.

“We are now less than 30 days from people voting,” said Steve Hildebrand, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama. “Easily one-third of the people are going to vote before Election Day.”

Time constraints limit options
Given the truncated general election season, campaign aides said they were going to have make triage decisions sooner about what states the nominees are actually going to compete in. The ambitious battleground presented by Mr. Obama’s aides, of at least 18 states, may soon get whittled down in deference to a calendar that does not leave that many days for campaigning. With deceptively little time left, it is now unlikely that Mr. McCain will go to, say, New Jersey, or that Mr. Obama will visit Georgia, early wish-list states for the two candidates.

And given the time constraints, complicated by the fact that the three presidential debates are going to eat up campaign time in the weeks ahead, there is less time for a candidate to recover from a mistake or catch up should either Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain experience a major breakthrough at one of those debates.

“It fundamentally changes two things: timing and budgets,” said Mike DuHaime, the political director for Mr. McCain. “You need to close the deal earlier for some voters, and Election Day can be spread out over weeks. That means your get-out-the-vote costs are more than ever.”

David Plouffe, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, said: “This is an enormously compressed time frame — this thing is really getting down to the wire. You can’t look at this like there’s 57 days until Election Day. We start having Election Day right around the corner.”

The shortened campaign season means that both campaigns have more money to spend on a per-week or per-day basis; thus, the $84 million that Mr. McCain is receiving in his federal campaign subsidy will go a lot further in a 60-day campaign than it would have gone in, say, 2000 when the general election campaign lasted 81 days.

Among shortest campaign season
With the exception of one campaign, 2004, this 60-day general election campaign is the shortest since the new Republican Party held its convention in 1856. This year, unlike 2004, the two parties held their conventions in consecutive weeks toward the end of the summer, making the general election that much more concentrated for both of them. Early voting is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics, and its influence varies widely by region. But significantly, Southwest states that have emerged as central McCain-Obama battlegrounds this year — Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico — are hotbeds of early voting, as is Florida, where one million people have already requested a ballot. But early voting is far less prevalent in contested Eastern states like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Paul Gronke, the director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Oregon, said he expected 33 percent of the votes in this presidential election to be cast early, a sharp increase from the 20 percent of the 2004 election. In the 2006 midterm elections, 25 percent of the votes were cast early.

“The numbers have accelerated as the campaigns have learned about this,” Mr. Gronke said. But, he said, this remains to some extent new territory, and he could see circumstances where early voting might not reach the levels expected.

“If the race is very competitive,” he said, “citizens may hold their ballots.”

Early evidence of how campaigns are adjusting to this new calendar can be seen in spending patterns on television advertising. Evan Tracey, the chief operating officer of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a company that monitors political advertising, said his campaign had charted a big upsurge in spending in Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico in recent days. Those are all states viewed as big early-voting targets.

In addition, Mr. Tracey said, Mr. McCain went on the air on Sept. 1 in Florida, another state where early voting is viewed as crucial, after weeks in which he let Mr. Obama have the field to himself there.

Kitty Bennett and Jim Rutenberg contributed reporting.

This article, Campaigns Pick Up the Pace to Meet Tight Schedule, originally appeared in the New York Times.