82 Days and Counting

Why campaigns feel like they never have enough time.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

Barack Obama is on vacation in Hawaii, but there is no rest at his Chicago headquarters. The 3,300-square-foot office is teeming with humans. The first thing I notice when I walk in is the body heat. In the vast bullpen of desks and cubicles, the Obama staffers type, stare into laptops, and pace—sometimes in flip-flops—while talking on cell phones. You think you’re walking down a hallway, but then, watch out, someone might be sitting where you were about to plant your foot, grabbing an extra inch of space. Open laptops line desks like they’re on showroom display. Office chairs crowd so close to one another that their casters kiss (as would their occupants, if they were to turn their heads). Pictures, maps, and hand-drawn signs clot the walls, making the place look like a huge ransom note.

One small piece of paper tacked between two doors reads, “82 Days to go.” In campaign time, this means that when you’re sleep-deprived and crazed, the race feels like it’s never going to end—but the rest of the time it feels like you’ll never accomplish everything you need to. The pace of a hyper-fast news cycle means that the back-and-forth between opponents that used to take up a week can now be dispatched with in an afternoon. But the most significant parts of campaigning are still tied to the moon and sun. The candidate can be in only one place at a time. Door knocking, perhaps the most valuable way to mobilize voters, cannot be done via e-mail blast. These physical limitations mean that as the campaigns head for their conventions, the calendar, in fact, is much tighter than the two and a half months remaining might make it seem.

The most precious days for a campaign are those on which the candidate’s time and attention are free and the news has left open a window for projecting a specific message into voters’ ears. If a candidate can push the same message over several of these days consecutively, there’s a much better chance it will stick. A three-day Obama bus tour through rural areas has the potential to show that the candidate connects with people outside his urban base. John McCain could spend the same amount of time visiting kitchen tables to push the message that he really understands people’s economic woes.

But already in this election, the speedy and unpredictable news coverage has made it harder than ever to devote a few days to a single subject. The news blows the principals off-course (or in McCain’s case, he does it himself). It’s about to get worse. As soon as each candidate picks a running mate, the whirlwind frenzy will double. There will be four people who can make campaign news rather than just two. This increases the chances that a campaign’s plans for the day will get hijacked.

The 82 days left on the calendar are also packed with compulsory exercises. The three weeks after this one go to vice presidential selection and the rollout of the dream team, followed by the political conventions. For a brief interlude during that period, each campaign will get the best days it can imagine—the clear skies of massive press coverage with very little filter. The rest of the time will be hard to control. The candidates won’t want to make news that contradicts what’s going on at their own party conventions. For the candidate whose convention week it is not (McCain in the last week of August, Obama in the first week of September), the news cycle becomes hard to break into.

By the second week of September, the conventions will be over and the campaigns can engage in earnest. But then almost immediately they’ll observe a truce on and around Sept. 11. Two weeks after that, the debates start. There are three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, scheduled for the second half of September and the first part of October. Each one requires prep time. On the day of the debate, the candidates don’t campaign. For at least a day or two afterward, they have to address the fallout. Remember how many days were eaten up during the Democratic primary talking about driver’s licenses for illegal aliens?

Once the debates are over, it’s mid-October. That leaves roughly three weeks before voting, right? Not if you live in important states like Colorado, Virginia, and Ohio, just some of the 31 states that allow voters to cast early ballots. Early voting by mail in Ohio, in particular, may allow the candidates to take advantage of thousands of first-time voters more than a month before official Election Day. Thus the first votes of the 2008 election will be cast only 40 days from now.

Adding to the urgency is the potentially larger number of states that could be up for grabs. There’s no better way to own a state media market for a period of time than to put a candidate in that state. If there were only 10 battlegrounds, it would be difficult to map out a schedule for maximum impact. Barack Obama’s campaign says he’s trying to compete in twice that many states. That might be spin to throw off the McCain campaign, or it might be a more realistic reading of a strong Democratic year. We’ll know for sure how serious Obama is about his strategy as time dwindles, because with each day, the candidate’s time gets more precious. If the Obama campaign doesn’t put Obama in North Carolina and Georgia, we’ll know they aren’t really banking on strong showings there.

As time grows short, campaigns will show that they can move quickly and nimbly. The mass of staffers in Obama’s Chicago headquarters and their counterparts at McCain’s headquarters in Alexandria, Va., can design a three-day bus tour almost overnight, renting buses, finding venues, filling them with people, arranging local media interviews, and orchestrating logistics for all the traveling press and campaign bodies. They can adapt back at home as well. In Chicago, the Obama campaign staff has spilled over onto a new floor to make more space. If only they could find a way to make more time.