After the most compressed series of primary elections in modern history, the unprecedented six-week break between Mississippi’s March 11 primary and Pennsylvania’s April 22 primary could end up feeling like an eternity to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama.
Since the advent of the Internet age, no competitive presidential campaign has faced such an extended gap of time between contested primaries. The gaping maw of cable news networks, blogs, Internet publications, magazines and newspapers will be hungry for content – and how the Clinton and Obama handle the demand could help determine the outcome.
“No one has ever gone through this before,” said John Brabender, the head of a Pittsburgh-based media firm that worked on former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign. “This is uncharted territory.”
The candidates disagree on the importance of Pennsylvania, which means, at this point, the campaigns could take noticeably different approaches to the next six weeks.
Clinton is aiming for a big win in the state, so her approach is likely to involve digging in Iowa-style, visiting far flung communities in every region of the state – often. It works to Clinton’s benefit if the national media decamp to the state, and chronicle the minutiae of a contest that appears to be hers to lose.
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Obama is hedging his bets, so his campaign can be expected to talk about Pennsylvania as only one of several contests to watch. His aides reject the comparison to Iowa, viewing the six-week gap more as the break before the second semester in a long political school year.
The cold, hard truth for Pennsylvanians is that they won’t be the center of his universe. To the Illinois senator, delegates will decide the nomination, and the state can make only a minor dent in either candidate’s bottom line.
“I would expect that they will win this state,” Robert Gibbs, Obama’s communications director, said of Pennsylvania. “It is the next state but it is not going to be the determinative state. We are clearly going to go beyond Pennsylvania.”
Just as important to Obama are the elections beyond the six-week runup to Pennsylvania– North Carolina and Indiana on May 6, West Virginia and Nebraska on May 13, and four other states plus Puerto Rico through early June.
If Obama won North Carolina, for example, he could net seven delegates, just one delegate short of what Clinton could earn from Pennsylvania. A solid showing in Indiana could net another six delegates, which means the victor of both May 6 states gains more than the winner of Pennsylvania.
The Obama messaging strategy is clear: The campaign does not want the media to obsess over the next six weeks – or, in its view, inflate the importance of – Pennsylvania.
For Clinton, who begins campaigning today in the state, the opposite is true: Pennsylvania gives her the chance to operate for the next six weeks from a position of strength in a state where she is thought to have an edge.
“After March 4, after wins in Texas and Ohio, the race was reset,” said Mo Elleithee, a Clinton spokesman.
A win in Pennsylvania will only strengthen her argument that she can best appeal to voters in large, traditionally Democratic states.
“If she lost Pennsylvania, that would be the death knell for her,” said Christopher Borick, a pollster for Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “It would break her case down. She has to win, and has to win fairly substantially. She has to make the case with the superdelegates to go against the rank and file delegates.”
Elleithee said Clinton will campaign over the next six weeks in the same way she has in the past, hosting a mix of town halls, rallies and olicy roundtables across all media markets in Pennsylvania.
“It is an important state and the next big state, a state that we will put tremendous energy into,” Elleithee said.
But she will also spend time in post-Pennsylvania states – in a shift from the past, when Clinton wrote off states, allowing Obama to rack up his delegate lead.
A meeting Friday of Philadelphia ward leaders underscored the divergent approaches to Pennsylvania, Brabender said. Clinton sent her husband, Bill, a former president of the United States. Obama dispatched congressman Patrick Murphy, a freshman Democrat from the Philadelphia suburbs.
“It tells you something about how they view Pennsylvania,” Brabender said.
For the media, after months of quick-paced reporting based on the dynamics of the next states up on the calendar, the extended time period will offer a prime opportunity to probe the candidates, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington nonprofit organization.
“Rather than just report their charges and countercharges, the press is actually going to have to investigate them,” Rosenstiel said. “This is a higher order of press coverage – a little of what was expected of the press last year in 2007.”
Aside from the opportunity to delve into more investigatory journalism, the absence of any consequential contests will also afford the media plenty of time to closely scrutinize and comment on the ongoing trial of Barack Obama fundraiser Antoin “Tony” Rezko, as well as Hillary Clinton’s schedules as first lady, scheduled to be released by the National Archives later this month.
The media could play as much of a role as the campaigns in shifting the dynamics of the race over the next six weeks, Rosenstiel said.
“Voters want new information – not just the daily tactics – because Democrats apparently can’t make up their mind with that level of information,” Rosenstiel said. “It is appropriate and probably meets public demand to begin to probe a little more deeply.”
Jay Rosen, a media critic and professor at New York University’s journalism school, said he expected the media to behave just as they have for months, focused on gaffes, mistakes, ads, attacks and horse race polls.
“Look,” Rosen wrote in an e-mail, “there is no plan, there is no vision, there is no agenda for campaign coverage at our news organizations (can't have that, right?) and there is no strong sense of purpose beyond ‘covering the campaign, fairly.’”