Name recognition drives media coverage of candidates, but may not be an advantage with start of primaries

Thursday, February 15, 2007

With Illinois Sen. Barack Obama the latest to declare his candidacy, the race for the presidential nomination for 2008 is becoming increasingly crowded. Eight Republicans and nine Democrats have formally declared that they will be campaigning to become president, while others have formed exploratory committees. For the Democrats, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Obama are considered front-runners for the nomination, according to poll results, while Sen. John McCain has been called the front-runner for the Republican nomination.

An assistant professor of political science at the University of North Texas says that, clearly, media coverage of the candidates and poll results are functions, in part, of name recognition.

"Naturally, the prospects of having a female or minority nominee for the first time are real, and this drives some of the interest in Clinton and Obama right now," says Dr. Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, who teaches a course on the presidency and has conducted research on public opinion about U.S. presidents and presidential campaigns. "People are responding to polls based on the only thing they really know about candidates. It is not policy, save for general statements on Iraq, but whether they recognize that person's name and whether they can make a determination to support one candidate or another."

He points out that most Americans have not chosen a candidate to support, so media coverage is driven not only by name recognition, but also fund raising - actual or potential - and gaffes or mistakes, such as Democratic Sen. Joe Biden describing Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy" earlier this month. Biden's remark offended some who viewed it as racist.

Eshbaugh-Soha says campaign dynamics "will provide more information about candidates, and it is over the course of a campaign where voters will solidify their support, based on other factors than name recognition."

"Since a lot of the attention that we see right now will not directly help a candidate win votes next January and February, though it may help indirectly as media attention leads to fund raising, some of the lesser known candidates are not really disadvantaged," he says. "They have an opportunity to make a name for themselves and exceed expectations. A lot of this early attention on Clinton, Obama and (former New York City Mayor Rudy) Giuliani, is raising their expectations for winning."

A second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses a year from now may hurt these candidates with great name recognition, he says, but a second-place finish in Iowa by a lesser-known candidate, such as New Mexico Gov. and Democrat Bill Richardson, "would be exceeding expectations, which may lead to momentum, more money, media attention and, perhaps, a primary victory."

"There is plenty of time," Eshbaugh-Soha says. "Although I have already written off some candidates, other lesser known candidates will rise to compete with the perceived front-runners right now. And some of the front-runners that we see today - Giuliani comes to mind - may not win anything."

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