By the end of March, the presidential nominees for both parties have been all but established. Although primary contests continue through early June, the outcome is not in doubt. Between the last contested primary and the nominating conventions, there are several weeks of “downtime” during which the candidates focus on selecting a running mate, devising a general election strategy, and creating television commercials.
During these summer months, the incumbent president enjoys a big advantage. While his opponent is typically cash-strapped from the bruising primary campaigns, the president is usually flush with cash and can flood the airwaves with television commercials touting his record and attacking his opponent's. He also enjoys the advantage of incumbency, which means bill-signing ceremonies, unlimited media coverage, and the ability to set the agenda. In 1996, President Clinton dominated the airwaves between March and September with ads attacking Bob Dole, while the Republican could do little but watch. Many experts credit Clinton's aggressive use of paid advertising during the slow summer months for his wide margin of victory.
The political conventions take place in August, and represent the formal nominating process for the two major party candidates. In past years, the conventions offered some suspense about who would be chosen as running mates (and in some cases who would be the nominee), but today they're nothing more than staged events with little real drama. In fact, the conventions have become so stale and devoid of news that the media networks have drastically reduced their coverage over the past decade. Whereas the conventions used to be covered gavel to gavel by the networks, today only the acceptance speeches are still televised. It wouldn't be surprising if, in the future, networks skipped the conventions entirely, leaving it to cable news networks such as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC for coverage.