The idea is quaint: For two weeks in the midst of a fierce presidential contest, John McCain and Barack Obama pause as the nation immerses itself in the Summer Olympic Games.
But it won’t happen.
As much as voters and the candidates might welcome a break from politics, it is almost unthinkable in an era of 24-hour media coverage and with less than three months on the election calendar. The pace could slow once Obama retreats to Hawaii Friday for a week-long vacation – timed to coincide with the Olympics – but the next two weeks may look strikingly similar to the last 18 months.
“The well will not shut down for the Olympics,” said Steve Elmendorf, a lobbyist and deputy campaign manager to John Kerry in 2004. “There are so many media outlets in terms of TV, print, cable, that I don’t think you can sort of shut down.”
For starters, Olympic viewers will not escape it. Both candidates placed significant ad buys for NBC’s coverage on its network and cable stations. Obama put down $5 million for TV time, which experts described as unprecedented in its size and scope. Yet McCain outdid him this week with a $6 million buy.
Halfway through the games, McCain and Obama will make their first joint campaign appearance Aug. 16 at Saddleback Church in California, where they are expected to appear briefly together before taking questions individually from the Rev. Rick Warren for an hour each.
Until then, McCain is expected to take advantage of Obama’s absence, keeping a full campaign schedule over the next week that includes stops in Iowa, Arkansas, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
“The word’s biggest celebrity will be off the campaign trail so we figure we’ll have a better opportunity to get some attention on the campaign trail all by our lonesome,” McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said. “Next week will be about John McCain reaching out to voters individually and making his case for leadership during the next four years.”
Obama’s surrogates, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who campaigns Friday in Nevada, will fill in for the candidate as he takes his first extended vacation since entering the race in February 2007. Some campaign aides are expected accompany Obama to his childhood home of Honolulu, where he will work on his convention speech and hold a fundraising event. But the senator suggested this week that most of his focus would be on his wife, children and grandmother, who he has not seen in 19 months.
“Those little girls need love, as does Michelle I think,” Obama told reporters. “So we are going to take the time.”
The campaign will be “working just as hard” during this two-week Olympic period to press Obama’s message, said spokesman Bill Burton, and when the candidate finishes his vacation next Friday, he will return to the trail full time during the second half of the summer games.
“Of course attention will be diverted some, but with only 20 days until our convention and about 90 days until Election Day, there isn’t much time to lose,” Burton said.
Political tradition once dictated a reprieve during the Summer Olympics, which usually coincides with the slow days of August. But that custom, once practiced as a way to store up money and energy for the post-Labor Day sprint, appears to be becoming increasingly obsolete.
Similar to President Ronald Reagan with the 1984 Los Angeles games, President Bill Clinton got the golden opportunity of attending the Atlanta games in 1996 as a sitting leader, while sharing the spotlight with athletes from around the world. In 2000, the Olympics took place in late September, and the campaign went on as usual.
Four years later, President Bush and John Kerry sparred throughout the Olympics.
The Democrats had just wrapped up their nominating convention, and Kerry embarked on a cross country tour. By the middle of the Athens games, Kerry was calling on Bush to denounce ads that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had begun airing two weeks earlier raising questions about his military service.
Bush, in preparation for a GOP convention that followed the Olympics, launched $30 million in TV advertising, including a spot that irked the United States Olympic Committee because it used Olympic imagery to tout his decisions on the war on terror.
This year may be no less eventful, experts said.
“It will not be a blackout here,” Elmendorf said. “Uniquely in this campaign, it is never turned off.”
One bit of news that most political experts do no expect is a vice presidential announcement from either side until after the Olympics.
“The one thing you do during this period is not try to make big news,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Don’t do a vice president selection. You may get buried below the fold under a swimming record.”
Yet at least a few strategists see a window to soak up the spotlight.
“We are often talking about ‘voter fatigue,’ but after a week there will be an ‘Olympics fatigue,’” said Doug Heye, a Republican communications strategist who has worked in the House, Senate and Bush administration. “With 24 hour news stations, blogs and the Drudge Report, there will be a lot of voters seeking political news. It may provide a good opportunity to make news.”