Talking Heads

President Bush’s long-awaited ad campaign hits the airwaves today, and, not surprisingly the analysis already has begun. Writing in today’s Los Angeles Times, Nick Adams relies on Kenneth Goldstein of the University of Wisconsin to make the call.

Goldstein, a political scientist and expert on political ads, thinks the image of the president seated next to the First Lady is “very helpful.”

Goldstein was a busy guy yesterday, telling USA Today that the ads are targeted to Bush’s core supporters: “upper-income Republicans, mostly male.” And, he told Business Week Online that large-scale independent spending on behalf of the Democratic candidate is “probably a big reason why the Bush campaign is going on the air now.”

This got Campaign Desk to thinking — and Googling. What other experts are out there, ready at the ring of the phone to shape the media’s perceptions of the election? And who anoints them? And why do the same ones keep popping up in the bookmarks and Rolodexes of campaign reporters?

Instant experts abound, on just about any topic you can think of - on the front-loaded early nominating process, on Internet fundraising, on the New Hampshire primaries, on electronic voting, Iowa’s caucuses and Gen-Y voter behavior. (We nodded off after a while.)

Like Olympic luge judges, whose services are needed once every four years, this select but growing population of talking heads revels in its brief moment in the sun.

“It’s exciting and fascinating and draining at the same time,” Dante J. Scala, an expert on the New Hampshire primary at St. Anselm College in Manchester, told Campaign Desk. (He was quoted more than 170 times in the past six months.) “By the time the circus left town, I felt like I had nothing smart left to say. And I began to wonder if I’d run out of smart things a couple of weeks beforehand.”

“I’m scared to look back at the predictions I made.”

After the Iowa caucuses, Scala became a hot ticket as the national media descended on New Hampshire, and his phone lines were jammed. “They were calling me to find out what was going on in New Hampshire but I was in my office tied to the phone, and all I knew was what they had written that day. I kept trying to think, can I come up with something from my local knowledge versus what I had just read in the Times or the Post?”

And how does an academic make it onto the media’s Blackberries? Publishing books helps. So does local media coverage. Brown University political scientist Darrell West, another regular commentator, got his start appearing on local news programs in Providence, then in the throes of a municipal corruption scandal. “Corruption was a very good topic for me.” When the national media picked up the story, West rode with it, and when national political reporters from New York or Washington needed a local source, he was their guy.

Charles W. Dunn, who taught political science at Clemson University and now teaches at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, views time spent talking to reporters as a “public service.” On more than one occasion, he says, he has basically dictated the outline of a story to a hungry reporter on deadline.

“When you’re good at two- or three-word sound bites, they’re going to be calling you,” says Dunn, whose specialty is religion in politics.

Emmett H. Buell Jr., a political scientist and author at Denison University in Ohio, says most reporters already know what they want when they call an expert. “They’ve formed an opinion. They then call up three people who will second that [opinion]. It’s pretty mechanical.”

Buell’s busiest time was before the New Hampshire primaries, about which he has written extensively. But the phone still is ringing. “Once you’re in the pipeline, you’re no longer a U.F.O.”

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.