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Two out of five people polled by the Pew Research Center were unable to name a single member of the Republican presidential field, even though eight candidates took the stage at this week's TV debate (including, from left, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney).
Two out of five people polled by the Pew Research Center were unable to name a single member of the Republican presidential field, even though eight candidates took the stage at this week's TV debate (including, from left, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney). Phillippe Diederich/Getty Images
Both of our major parties are locked in furious battles over their presidential nominations, yet the latest poll from the Pew Research Center tells us that only half the American public is paying much attention.
In fact, two out of five people could not name a single one of the Republicans running. The best known on the GOP side was Rudy Giuliani, a name volunteered by just 45 percent of those surveyed. Even most Republicans were unable to cite two of their party's hopefuls, although there have been as many as a dozen during the year (eight took the stage in this week's TV debate).
The Democratic candidates were better known, with nearly four in five volunteering the name of Hillary Clinton. If you are part of the half of the country that's watching this election, you won't be surprised to hear that more Republicans knew Hillary than knew any of their own candidates.
It should be useful to bear all this in mind as the campaign enters its next phase, with just 10 weeks left until the Iowa caucuses. It helps to explain phenomena such as the recurrent emergence of Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas whose latest run of good press has him poised once again on the brink of a breakout from the GOP pack.
It also suggests how Giuliani can continue to lead in polls among Republicans when his views on social issues would seem inimical to the party's, and how Fred Thompson can run second in those same polls despite a lackluster campaign to date.
In the Pew poll, 52 percent say they are paying attention (closely or "fairly closely") to the campaign, which is just three percentage points higher than Pew found eight years ago, at a comparable point in the 2000 cycle. Back then, the Democrats had just two horses (Al Gore and Bill Bradley), and a larger but lackluster Republican field was led by the establishment favorite and presumptive nominee, George W. Bush.
Even more surprising, the current level of interest is just five points higher than it was in 1995, when neither party was putting on much of a pre-game show. The upcoming Democratic contest then was between incumbent President Bill Clinton and nobody, and the Republicans were choosing between Bob Dole and a field of forgettables (led, as it turned out, by Pat Buchanan).
All this may not surprise those who have been watching presidential politics for decades or generations. But it stuns those of us preoccupied with the current cycle's unprecedented levels of campaigning, fundraising, spending and media coverage. The number of nationally televised pre-primary debates has already exceeded all previous campaign cycles, and the general election is still more than a year away.
And yet, Pew tells us, the level of interest in the campaign this fall is no greater than it was at the beginning of the year. Is it possible that all these months of early hoopla have mattered so little? And if so, what was the point?
Let's be frank. Pushing the election of 2008 into 2007 was never a response to voter demand. The big calendar shift was driven instead by three competitions quite separate from voter interest — or the national interest.
The first of these is the leapfrogging contest among the states that want to hold their primaries or caucuses early enough to attract attention from the candidates and the media. Big states have stewed for decades over the goodies going to Iowa and New Hampshire (and more recently to South Carolina). So they moved up their springtime events to March, and then to February, and this year in Florida and Michigan, to January. Iowa and New Hampshire have resolutely moved their events even further into the winter and now threaten to jump the divide into December.
Facing the prospect of the nomination being decided in the first five weeks of the year, the candidates recalibrated their own efforts. Campaigning had to be moved forward several months, and fundraising several months before that. No wonder we saw one of the biggest quarters ever in presidential fundraising in the first three months of 2007 — with the election itself more than 18 months distant.
And if candidate competition intensified with the calendar wars, so did yet another battle: the one among news organizations intent on "owning the story" of the 2008 cycle. Each of the major cable networks had to have its own candidate debates, one for each party, a proliferation of events that spread back ever further into 2007. The same could be said of print organizations, pressed by a world of new competition from Web sites and blogs and new publications all devoted to politics. To be comparably robust in their coverage, national newspapers put the campaign on top of page one early in the preceding year.
And yet, with all this sturm und drang going on around them, half the country has been oblivious enough not to know who's running in the party that now holds the White House.
It's also possible the candidates themselves are responsible for flaccid public interest. Dissatisfaction with the Republican field is historically high, and it is illustrated by the hovering notion of a Huckabee Moment.
In polls of the nation, the Arkansan is a blip. In fundraising, he trails not only the front-runners but the niche candidate, libertarian Ron Paul, who is sometimes booed at public forums. Yet Huckabee shows up well when the religious right is counted, as it was in the Iowa straw poll in August and at the Values Voter Summit in Washington this month. In both contests, Mitt Romney worked the system long and hard in advance. Huckabee sailed in at the end and dominated among those who decided on the spot.
Huckabee has also won over many in the media, who for a variety of reasons are always looking for a true conservative to be fond of. He has managed a version of what John McCain did eight years ago, talking to reporters as people and hinting at a human personality beyond his campaign persona. Suddenly columns sprout in influential locations, describing Huckabee as personable and human — good balance for a ticket headed by, say, Giuliani.
And speaking of the GOP front-runner, can he stay on top as more people actually tune into the proceedings and learn about his views and personal life? Or will he and current runner-up Thompson spiral downward as more people tune in, realizing their chance to vote will be here before Valentine's Day?