The dog days of August, a time when politicians used to take a break, are definitely barking this year. More than any campaign in history, this summer has been a battlefield with neither Democrats nor Republicans leaving much in reserve for the post-Labor Day weeks that used to be considered the stretch run to Election Day.
Nowhere is that more evident than in President Obama’s schedule. He made his first “official” campaign trip on May 5. In the 92 days since, he has visited 20 states on 42 trips, with the overwhelming majority of them — 31 — being overtly political. (Six of those 31 trips were a mix of official business and politics, leaving 25 trips solely political and only 11 trips purely official.) This is considerably more political travel than any of his post-World War II predecessors made and double the combined political trips Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or George W. Bush took before their conventions.
There are many reasons for the heavy emphasis on political travel: the closeness of the race, the precarious economic situation, the need to respond to attacks by Republican challenger Mitt Romney, early voting in many states, and the insatiable appetites of today’s multi-platform, short-attention-span news media. It makes the pace of many recent campaigns look downright leisurely. But as unavoidable as it may have been, the president’s heavy schedule of politics carries high risk and represents a rejection of the reelection formula championed by Bill Clinton, the last Democratic president to win a second term.
(GALLERY: Campaign Flashback -- Clinton in Summer '92)
Clinton’s team was extraordinarily aggressive, not even waiting for election year to run ads against the likely GOP nominee Robert Dole. Those ads began in the summer of 1995, all designed to brand the senator from Kansas as a partner to the decidedly unpopular House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But even while this was going on, the White House was determined not to let the public see Clinton in campaign settings. “It was a different time,” said Doug Sosnik, who was a senior political strategist for Clinton. “But we wanted to keep him as president as long as possible. And every day he was seen as a president and not a candidate was a day we thought was good for reelection.”
A review of Clinton’s schedule from May until his convention opened in late August shows almost nothing overtly political. There were lots of bill signings and events and speeches to call attention to politically popular measures. For example, there was “kick butts” day, an attack on juveniles smoking cigarettes; the dedication of a church in South Carolina; a national homeowners’ summit; and the signing into law of a taxpayer’s bill of rights, welfare reform, church-arson prevention, and Megan’s Law.
In none of these events did Clinton ask for votes; but in all of them, the message was that he was a candidate on the side of the public. And behind the scenes, his operatives were crushing Dole before he could recover from a tough primary battle. “The optics were to keep the president as much as possible doing the job that people elected him to do. But we clearly were aggressive on the political side away from the president trying to define Dole and doing all the other political work that has to be done in a campaign,” recalled Sosnik.
It got so bad for Dole that he resorted to a dramatic move and resigned from the Senate on June 11. And even that gave an opening to Clinton to appear above politics while hitting a campaign theme. In a letter, the president lavished praise on Dole for his “35 years in Congress,” saying he was speaking for “a grateful America.” Noting that they would be engaged in battle “during the fall campaign,” Clinton added that “until then” they should work together in “a moment of genuine bipartisan achievement” — working, of course, with Dole’s partner, Speaker Gingrich.
Four years earlier, Clinton also made effective use of the summer months. While incumbent President George H.W. Bush was recovering from his primary fight with Patrick Buchanan and waiting for the traditional Labor Day kickoff, Clinton’s team worked to change the campaign dynamics. Behind the scenes, they came up with what they called their own Manhattan Project to redefine Clinton on their terms before Bush could. They had to rebut the misconception that Clinton had been born to wealth and was not “a different kind of Democrat” who would bring real change. To do that, they took advantage of summer talk shows, even getting Clinton to don shades and play sax on the Arsenio Hall Show. They picked a fight with Sister Souljah, a black singer who had advocated killing whites. By the time of the convention, Clinton had climbed out of third place in the polls, taken a lead, and so impressed independent Ross Perot that he — temporarily — ended his third-party bid.
For the Clinton brain trust in 1992, the searing memory of the importance of the summer came from only four years earlier when Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis so misused the summer that he went from a comfortable lead to a big deficit. “That was when the summer became kind of a pivotal time in presidential politics,” said Tad Devine, who was a senior strategist for Dukakis in 1988. “He kind of took August off. We had a big lead coming out of the convention and a lot of it just evaporated away in large part because we weren’t out there campaigning aggressively. Dukakis was still performing his duties as governor and the Bush people took advantage of it.”
Devine suffered through a similar collapse in 2004 when he was advising Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. This time, though, the candidate wanted to be aggressive in August but could not because of money and the vagaries of the calendar. In what Kerry later acknowledged was his biggest mistake, he decided to accept federal financing. That meant he and Bush would split $149 million. Each candidate would get the money once he was nominated by his party. But the catch for Kerry is that his convention ended on July 29 while the Republican convention did not end until 36 days later, on Sept. 1.
“It was a black hole,” Devine told National Journal. “Those five weeks were a time when the Republicans were spending primary money. And that’s also when the independent expenditures, particularly the Swift Boats, came out of nowhere. So we got a double-barrel assault. Bush spent $40 million on television in August, all of it negative, against us.” That summer, he said, was pivotal. Before that, Kerry had moved ahead of Bush in key battleground states. “We were doing what we needed to do until we went dark. At that point, the Bush people stepped into the vacuum and just cleaned our clock for five weeks.”
Buttressing those memories for Democrats is the modern reality that a voracious Internet, said Devine, “just demands that campaigns serve up something every day. And they are either going to serve up something bad ... or you are going to do something that people think is newsworthy and on your message.” He added, “Campaigns are in the position where they must every single day provide a full track of their message and make sure your opponent is answering some kind of charge.”
This is why the president has spent this summer campaigning as if it were October.