Summertime in Politics; What Perceptions Will Voters Bring When Fall Comes?

Article excerpt

Byline: Tod Lindberg, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Does politics still have a slow season? If so, the Fourth of July weekend marks its official beginning. According to conventional wisdom, even in an election year, summer is no time to try to drive a political message. People aren't interested. But does that old conventional wisdom adequately take into account the intensity of feeling this year? That's the proposition we are likely to test this summer.

In the usual reckoning, campaigning is mainly a post-Labor Day phenomenon. This is not to say that candidates usually just disappear for the summer. But the perception is that people are too preoccupied with barbecues, family vacations, the Olympics, golf and other seasonal rituals to pay heed to the national political scene.

People simply tune out politics for a while, knowing they will have ample opportunity to pick it up later - in fact, especially in a presidential election year, that the political world will be inserting itself into their consciousness by main strength come the fall, in the form of a ceaseless barrage of political advertising and news from the campaign trail. The result isn't so much that people reset their dials for each candidate to zero over the summer, but rather that the impression people had going into the summer season essentially gets frozen in place. Approval ratings and such may drift a bit over the summer and the movement may even show a trend, but the changes are very ephemeral, subject to reversal once people begin to pay serious attention again.

President Bush has seen his approval ratings decline each of the three summers he has been in office, and it looks like such a trend may be shaping up in 2004 as well. In 2001, Mr. Bush had passed his big tax cut, and the question on everyone's mind was what exactly he had planned for the rest of his term. As of August, the answer was not obvious. With September 11 came a broad reorientation of priorities and a huge jump in his support. But it would be wrong to assume that the administration was saved from drift and eventual torpor only by the war on terror. The essential fact about that summer was that administration gurus made no real attempt to drive a news agenda. But they certainly had every intention of starting to try to drive it in the fall.

By August 2002, Mr. Bush was once again drifting downward, this time as a result of the increasingly vocal opposition to the possibility of war with Iraq. Here, it seemed that the White House was leaving the field to its opponents, letting them fire away without answering. …