Primary Politics as Entertainment Marketing

In Hollywood, it’s called a teaser campaign, and it’s designed to build buzz. Launching a new movie, unless it’s a sequel, is like launching a new brand, and the first step is to make people aware of its existence.
In Washington, if you’re running for president, the first step is to create an “exploratory committee.” You’re not running, but you’re not not-running. “According to the Federal Election Commission,” the Washington Post points out, there is no difference between an exploratory committee and a presidential campaign committee.” But from a getting-attention point of view, there’s a world o’ difference.

The point of announcing an exploratory committee is to get what marketers call — in both entertainment and politics — “free media.” Why settle for one cycle of press coverage when you announce that you’re running for president, when you can string out the process and get noticed each step of the way?
In case you’re wondering, here’s the Post’s scorecard on who’s doing what so far. Bill Richardson has announced that he’s going to announce next month whether he’s going to form an exploratory committee. Evan Bayh first announced that he was thinking about forming an exploratory committee, and then announced that he’d formed one. Rudy Giuliani has announced an innovative “testing the waters” committee, which — presumably if the water tests potable — will be succeeded by an exploratory committee; the virtue of this pre-stage stage is that he doesn’t have to disclose campaign donors. John McCain and Sam Brownback have registered exploratory committees. Tom Vilsak boldly skipped the exploratory stage, and announced that he’s running, and perhaps the novely of his leapfrogging the explorers got him the equivalent of the two-steppers’ coverage; Mitt Romney is said to be thinking of doing the same.
In his classic 1961 work
boorstinThe Image, historian Daniel Boorstin (right) coined a term for all these confected media-magnet moments: the pseudo-event. He lived long enough — until 2004 — to see that, as far as politics was concerned, when he wrote The Image, he ain’t seen nuthin yet.
UPDATE: According to an AP story, Hillary Rodham Clinton now says she won’t make a decision about making a decision until 2007, unless she has to: “The former first lady said she had not yet decided whether to form a presidential exploratory committee, but that technical requirements of federal election law might require her to do so if she continues to consider a presidential run.”

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