Friday, July 25, 2008

A Game of Vice Presidential Chicken

The clock is ticking on both presidential candidates to select running mates and there is even less for them than you might think. Sure the Democratic convention kicks off one month from today, leaving the candidates just over four weeks to make a selection. However, sixteen of those days will be devoted to the Olympic games and may not be the most opportune time to make such an announcement. With the games starting two weeks from today, both McCain and Obama will have to either fit their decisions into that two week window or make an announcement during the Olympic period.

The consensus is that Obama will make the first move because the Democratic convention is first. McCain is at a disadvantage here because the GOP convention gets underway just a week after the Democrats' gathering in Denver. In other words he can't fall back on the time between conventions as a viable time in which to make his VP selection public. Viewed from this angle, reports of McCain potentially making his decision this week make that possibility seem less farfetched (going before Obama, perhaps would make it more unusual).

So we have a predicted order of selections, and the timing has yet to be determined, but is severly constrained at this point. Let's talk about the Olympics as an obstacle to these decisions (And the games are not supposed to be political.) for a moment. During the last two cycles the Olympics had no real effect on vice presidential selection. In 2000, the Sydney games were not until mid-September, after both conventions and both VP selections. In 2004, Bush already had his man in Cheney and Kerry had countered that soon after he wrapped up the Democratic nomination by selecting John Edwards. But even though, the Olympics didn't play a role in the VP decisions in 2004 they may have had an effect on the presidential race. And I haven't seen this discussed anywhere. However, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth released their controversial ad on August 5, 2004, just eight days prior to Athens games commencing. Now, that leaves three weeks, one before the games and two during, for that to percolate before Kerry could/would effectively respond (He did file a complaint with the FEC during the games.). Did those games stand in the way of an effective response though? And what does that mean for the VP selections to come?

Well, the Olympics are a distraction and just enough of a distraction to allow for something underground like the Swift Boat ad to spread. However, something like a VP announcement would likely be viewed as a political move during an apolitical event. So while the Swift Boat Veterans may have been able to get away with it, McCain (or Obama) likely would not. It isn't that the games would overshadow the announcement so much that the announcement would be a move contrary to the overarching tenor of the games.

If Obama is supposed to go first then, he may be playing a game of brinksmanship with McCain and his campaign now. To stretch the decision out this far either forces McCain to move first or decide at a bad time (during the games or the Democratic convention). Nate Silver covered this earlier in the week when the report of McCain's imminent announcment surfaced, but didn't include the Olympics angle. But McCain is up against it on this one. Obama is holding all the cards and, if he is the one to move first, could hold them until the eve of the games. The flipside, of course, is that Obama forces a move out of McCain but leaves himself little time to respond or respond effectively. As adept as the Obama campaign has seemed though, it would appear unlikely that they would be playing such a game of chicken without some contingency plans. There are only so many rabbits McCain can pull out of that VP hat.

[Update: Chris Cillizza over at The Fix has more on the implications of the Olympics on VP selection.]

Thanks to Rob Shewfelt for getting the ball rolling on this one in the comments to the Florida post (linked below.).

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Unknown said...

The Olympic period is hardly apolitical--remember the ad the Bush campaign ran in 2004 during the Olympics? A devastatingly effective ad, in my opinion--it's impact tends to be underrated compared to the contemporaneous Swift Boat ad, in my opinion. And, of course, Obama will be returning the favor to the Republicans this time.

McCain would be very foolish to announce during the Olympics, because he needs all the attention he can get.

Obama, though, could conceivably use the Olympics as cover for a mildly controversial pick. Say he did go for Wesley Clark. The storm of complaints would fall on deaf--or at least hard-of-hearing--ears, and it would simply be an established fact by the time of the Convention. The big trick with this scenario is that Obama has to be careful not to play too much into the "presumptuous" narrative by defying the conventional wisdom of when you're "supposed" to announce a VP candidate.

Anonymous said...

No, the Olympics are far from apolitical territory, though IOC would prefer that the games were.

Yes, I do recall that ad, and yes, it was very effective. Another non-response from Kerry that likely didn't help him. I don't recall the 2004 Democratic nominee adding on to the USOC's complaint. I had to look, but here is a link to that Bush ad.