The Media Consumer's Guide To Pre-2008 Election Coverage

The Swamp is one of many blogs for political junkies. If you're on "Obama Watch," don't worry: so are they. There was a bit of irony on the site recently, when a post noted that in a recent Gallup poll, people were asked who they wanted to see elected president in 2008. Thirty-eight percent – the largest percentage of respondents -- said "I don't know." That's more than Hillary (15%), more than McCain (11%), more than Obama (6%). In fact, it's more than all three combined.

This isn't particularly shocking information, of course, given that the election is two years away. It's also something not lost on news producers. Right now, people like Steve Chaggaris, a CBS News producer who focuses on politics, assumes that stories like this one -- about Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack's (heard of him? He's from Iowa) official announcement of a run for the presidency -- are pretty much off the radar of anyone who isn't a political junky.

Nonetheless, says Chaggaris, "you write it because it is news in the political world and you hope that people are going to pick that up." He adds, "but I think most of the country doesn't pay attention until much closer to the election."

But the coverage is coming early this year, in part because the field is wide open, says Chaggaris. That's because there is no sitting president or vice president running and plenty of pols on both sides maybe, sorta, kinda considering runs. "It hasn't been this wide open for, I would say, at least 50 years," Chaggaris says of the race.

That means it's difficult for some candidates to distinguish themselves enough to get national media attention, which is part of the reason they're getting started early – that and the fact that they're going to need more money than ever. Political plotters, says Chaggaris, estimate candidates will need to amass around $50 million to be players in the primaries. That's $10 million more than what the Democratic heavy hitters in 2004 came to the primaries with.

People with tons of campaign cash – even if they aren't making official announcements – are staffing up and getting coverage. Sen. Hillary Clinton, for example, "hasn't come out and said anything about an exploratory committee. And she's hiring people. …She's naming hires for a campaign that doesn't even exist in an exploratory form yet," says Chaggaris.

Why is that? "Because you've got to snatch these people up, otherwise they'll all be taken by the time you make up your mind," he says.

And while there isn't a boatload of media attention lavished on candidates like Vilsack or Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh (who has announced his own exploratory committee,) there has been quite a bit paid to candidates like Clinton – who haven't even launched anything official yet.

"Right now, there's just not a lot of interest, especially on the evening newscasts of what is going on with these presidential folks," said Chaggaris. But, "there are certain people that they look at that have proven to cut through all that clutter – people like Barack Obama – who is more of a celebrity."

Obama's trip to New Hampshire Sunday, for example, is "something that not only the 'Evening News' will pay attention to," says Chaggaris, "but something that people around the country will at least listen to a little bit more than Tom Vilsack announcing a run."

In other words, talking Campaign '08 in Dec. '06 is difficult, "but there are certain things that people will be interested in," said Chaggaris -- like Clinton or Rudy Guiliani. "I mean, across the country everybody knows who those two are. Anything that they do that looks like they are going to get closer to running for president, I think people are going to be interested in that."

Indeed, the front page of the Washington Post today outlines the "series of concrete steps" that Clinton is taking "toward a likely campaign for president in 2008." Sen. John McCain – who announced and exploratory committee for the presidency – schmoozed with Republican governors last week and that made front-page news in the New York Times.

"People know who they are, that's the thing," says Chaggaris. "Nobody knows who Tom Vilsack is. There was a poll last week that said 75% of the people didn't even know who Evan Bayh was. So, you know, you write a story about Evan Bayh and you're writing it for the 25% of the country – if that -- who know who he is."

Nonetheless, " in terms of fairness," those candidates still warrant coverage. Just not necessarily on programs like the "Evening News." At least at this point.

"These aren't nobodys in terms of where they're from or what they've done in their careers. They're just not celebrities nationally," he said. "So I think you still cover it, I just don't think it's going to cut through all the other stuff that's going on in the world."

For Vilsack, national media attention is "almost irrelevant," right now, says Chaggaris. But local media attention "is totally relevant."

"When he goes to South Carolina – one of the early primary states – he wants people to listen to him. It's not about getting CBS to cover him, it's about getting the CBS affiliate in South Carolina to cover him. It's about getting the local papers to cover him."

It's that type of attention that ends up helping lesser-known candidates when they enter the national scene later on, says Chaggaris. "You look at a guy like Howard Dean in 2003. He went out there and built an organization and started to raise money and people started to take note that he was a force, even though he was a nobody before then. It's not about Tom Vilsack making a name for himself today, it's about Tom Vilsack making a name for himself in a year."

So for the next year, says Chaggaris "it's all going to be about the nationally known folks. And the lesser known folks, I think they know how that works. And I think they're focusing on getting local coverage."