Will Politics Take an August Break?

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Once upon a time, Americans could devote August to carefree summer fun without politics!
Photo: Robert Daly

Way back in the day, when Bernie Sanders was a mere pup of a senior citizen and nobody would have imagined Donald Trump running for dogcatcher, the custom in presidential elections was for both sides to take a serious break in August. In those innocent pre-super-pac years, campaigns marshaled their money for a fall push. The conventions were usually in July or early August. Americans were focused on vacations, the Olympics, and back-to-school sales. And it was just too early for marginal voters to even begin to think about a presidential election. Indeed, it was often thought the campaign really began on Labor Day. For Democrats, there was even a specific time and place to get serious, with a speech at Cadillac Square in Detroit during Labor Day festivities.

But then during an otherwise lazy hazy August in 2004, the idea that nothing happens that matters that month took a big hit as the group calling itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth took to the airwaves with ads attacking John Kerry’s Vietnam War record, and with it the underpinnings of his carefully crafted public image. The Kerry campaign’s initial impulse was to ignore the attacks — after all, it was August, and no one was paying attention, right? But as it ultimately transpired, it did matter, at least insofar as it put Kerry on the defensive about what had been a major talking point for his candidacy.

In the two presidential cycles after 2004 and before 2016, August was no longer a truce month. For one thing, the conventions were significantly later. For another, the ability to use multilayered communications media (not just broadcast TV) and to target narrow audiences meant that campaigns did not stand down just because a sizable segment of the electorate was tuned out. And finally, no one dared fall dormant, lest the other side launch a sneak attack like the Swift Boaters did.

But 2016 is a very different kind of cycle. The conventions were relatively early. One of the two major candidates doesn’t have the money to invest in ad blitzes at this point, even if he thought it was a good idea. So, in theory, we could see an August lull.

On the other hand, Hillary Clinton’s campaign will probably try to exploit its large financial advantage to treat Trump to the kind of unopposed paid media barrage that might put him away early. Trump’s reliance on earned media means he needs to keep relentlessly feeding the beast with quotes and tweets even through August. And to the extent that both campaigns seem to have resigned themselves to base-mobilization strategies for victory, it’s important that both Democratic and Republican voters be kept in a state of semi-hysteria until November 8. There will likely be, moreover, an endless apes-on-a-treadmill rhetorical escalation of hostilities that will keep things red-hot, and no campaign wants to be left behind in that kind of competition.

So, all in all, it’s very unlikely Americans will get any sort of “break” from politics in August to enjoy a last spasm of summertime leisure. Perhaps a hiking trip in the mountains or a desert far from even the tendrils of cell-phone towers could provide a respite. But, for most people, there will be no escape from the Donald and Hillary as the sweltering weeks crawl by.

Will Politics Take an August Break?