WASHINGTON – It is a given these days that the toughest decisions John McCain and Barack Obama will make this summer will be choosing running mates. But there is another choice that might prove important as well: when to make the announcement.
A confluence of events – the summer Olympics and two very late, almost back-to-back political conventions – are presenting a web of complications for the Obama and McCain camps as they try to figure out the best time to unveil their choices.
Consider this calendar. The summer Olympics begin Aug. 8 in Beijing and finish Aug. 24th. The Democratic National Convention begins on Aug. 25th, a Monday, and ends on Aug. 28th, a Thursday. The Republican convention begins the following Monday in St. Paul.
That doesn’t leave either side with much breathing room. One thing both sides agree on: McCain or Obama would probably prefer not to announce their choices during what seems likely to be a very closely followed Olympics. That is a time in August when campaigns are more apt to announce things that they would like to see go unnoticed.
It would appear that of the two candidates, Obama has the more complicated road to navigate, given the fact that the Democratic convention opens up the day after the Olympics end. Presumably, he doesn’t want to announce his choice is on the first day of the convention (George Bush picked Dan Quayle one day after his 1988 Republican convention began in New Orleans; a surprise of an announcement that sent that convention off on the wrong foot).
Beyond that, campaigns are apt to want to do full-scale rollouts of running mates to make the most of this moment. With the announcement, the network news interviews, the tour across the country, a good campaign can extend this into a five-day story.
For Obama, that could mean looking to, say, Monday, Aug. 4, which is Obama’s birthday. (Too cute? This is, after all, the campaign that held its first joint rally with Hillary Clinton in a place called Unity). It would give him his week but, truth be told, it is still not ideal: Obama’s rollout would be bumping up against the roll-up to the Olympics. Thus, there is a good argument for him to make the announcement in late July, a week or two before the Olympics. That could run up against another event: At some point in July (no dates have been announced yet) Obama is heading to Europe and the Middle East.
And even beyond that, in terms of recent history, an announcement say a month before the convention would be an awfully long break. John Kerry picked John Edwards 20 days before the 2004 Democratic nomination; and at the time that was considered relatively long. Both President Bush and Bill Clinton announced their running mates four days before their conventions; Al Gore did it a week out.
Of course, Obama has certainly broken some rules and assumptions in running his campaign this year. Would it necessarily be a bad thing for him to announce his choice during the conventions? If any candidate can hold its own against the Olympics, it may be Obama.
“The Olympics ratings have been going down steadily over the years and my guess is that Obama could compete pretty effectively for coverage with just about everything but the opening and closing ceremonies,” said Todd Harris, a Republican consultant. “So if Obama wants a longer window in which to try to roll out his choice I don’t think the Olympics will stand in the way.”
Obama’s campaign is aware of all these complications, though his aides said they were not worried. “We can work around it,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist. Befitting the secrecy attached to the process on both sides, he did not offer any clues as to how.
McCain is in a different situation. He may actually have fewer choices but more opportunities since, unlike Obama, McCain does not seem to be the kind of candidate who can challenge the Olympics for attention from the news media.
First off, simply by virtue of the fact that the Republican convention takes place after the Democratic one, McCain can wait to make his choice to take into account Obama’s choice in deciding how to balance his ticket. That is a built-in advantage and one, officials from both parties said, he would be wise to take.
Finally, the calendar also presents an opportunity for McCain. The Democratic convention ends on Thursday Aug. 28, and the Republican convention begins the following Monday. What better way for McCain to squash whatever lift Obama receives from his convention than to announce his choice for running mate just as Democrats are folding their tent in Denver?
It would knock Obama to the back of the stage and give McCain a nice little lift going into his own convention. And yes, Republicans say that is something that is under very serious consideration in the McCain camp.
Kitty Bennett contributed reporting.