HOW THE MEDIA WARPED THE PRIMARIES, PART II
The quest for electability
-by Paul Lukasiak
This is Part 2 of a three Part series based on The Invisible Primary: Invisible No Longer (an analysis of press coverage of the Primary campaigns for the first five months of 2006) and other data sources. Part I, examining the impact of the media on the Democratic Primary, can be found here.
Part 2: The Republican Primary-- The Search for a Winner
While the media coverage of Democrats was focused almost entirely on two candidates with built-in electability problems, the coverage of the GOP was focused on Republican candidates who would do well with moderate/independent voters in the general election. Candidates with strong appeal to the core constituencies of the GOP-- the social conservatives (“values” voters and anti-immigration activists)-- were virtually shut out of the coverage.
Instead, the campaign coverage initially focused on three candidates: a “maverick” Senator (John McCain), the two-term mayor of a notoriously “liberal” city (Rudy Giuliani), and the one term governor of the most “liberal” state in the nation (Mitt Romney). And when it became obvious that the core constituencies of the GOP were unenthusiastic about these choices, the media latched on to a former one-term Senator who was better know for his acting career than his (scant) political accomplishments (Fred Thompson), while a half dozen other candidates with genuine “social conservative” credentials were ignored.
According to the Gallup organization, at the beginning of the campaign, 79% of Americans knew enough about Rudy Giuliani to form an opinion (62% favorable), and only 10% had never heard of him. McCain's numbers were similar; 77% had an opinion (54% favorable), and he was unknown to only 10%. And the first gallup poll of Republican voters taken about the GOP candidates (Feb 9-11, 2006) showed Giuliani with a 42% to 25% lead over McCain, with no other candidates even looking competitive.
That same poll showed Mitt Romney at 6%, and Sam Brownback with 4%, and no other candidates getting more than 2%. A Gallup poll taken in December, 2006 showed that 31% of Americans were able to identify Romney (19% favorable), with 52% not knowing who he was. Sam Brownback was not included in that poll, indeed the only time Gallup polled about him was June 2006, at which time Brownback was known to 23% of Americans (10% favorable) with 57% not knowing who he was. In fact, throughout the campaign only one other polling organization (CBS News) asked Americans (once, in January 07) their opinion of Brownback, while four other polling organizations (CBS News, ABC/Washington Post, Diego Hotline, NBC/Wall St. Journal) asked Americans their opinion of Romney in December 2006 or January 2007.
Romney, a one term former Massachusetts governor, was a media favorite at the beginning of the campaign, despite a record in Massachusetts (and a position on gay rights that was “to the left of Ted Kennedy” when he ran for Senator against Kennedy in 1994) that was incompatible with the GOP base. Romney was also a Mormon, a religion considered to be a cult by many conservative evangelicals.
Brownback, on the other hand, was all but shut out by the media, despite his 12 years of Senate experience, and a consistent record of supporting the ideas of the “social conservatives.” (To a large extent, the social conservative vote was fractured at the beginning of the campaign, with former governors Jim Gilmore, Tommy Thompson, and Mike Huckabee, and Congressmen Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter each getting 1% (Hunter) or 2% (everyone else) of GOP support in the February 2007 poll.)
According to The Invisible Primary, the top two Republicans received 52% of the “candidate specific” media coverage in the first five months of 2006, with Giuliani getting 30.3% (162 stories) and McCain getting 22.5%. (120 stories). But despite his anemic poll numbers and name recognition at the beginning of the campaign, Romney received 16.6% (89 stories) of the media coverage in those five months. The Invisible Primary does not break down the coverage for the eight “third tier” (which also included Congressman Ron Paul) candidates, but combined they only received 19.9% (106 stories) of the candidate specific coverage.
But despite receiving a disproportionate amount of press coverage, a Gallup poll taken May 10-13 shows Romney with the support of only 10% of Republicans, with McCain at 24% and Giuliani at 32%. Romney did make significant inroads in name recognition, with only 31% of Americans not knowing who he was at the end of the five months.
It should be noted that in February, only 12% of Republicans were either “not sure” or supporting someone not listed by Gallup (compare to Gallup polls of Democrats taking in January and March, in which 17% and 10% respectively were ‘unsure’). There was no big need for another candidate in the primary, yet when Fred Thompson dropped a subtle hint on Fox News on March 11, the media fell all over itself promoting his candidacy.
From March 11 through the end of May, Fred Thompson, an undeclared candidate best know for his acting career rather than his undistinguished 8 years in the Senate, was covered at a rate (57 stories in 82 days) that exceeded Mitt Romney’s coverage (89 stories in 151 days) and approached the rate of John McCain (120 stories in 151 days).
Of particular note is that, while Thompson had a reputation as a social conservative, little was known about his actual views at the time. (When the Project for Excellence in Journalism studied his website in August 2006, they found one thing conspicuous by its absence: there was nothing that told people what positions he took on various issues of the day.) Nevertheless, the first Gallup poll taken after Thompson’s Fox appearance (March 23-25, 2006) showed him favored by 13% of Republicans, and this level of support was maintained (varying from 11% to 14%) through the end of May.
Thompson’s name recognition also increased considerably. In early April 53% of Americans did not know who he was, by the beginning of June that number was down to 43%. But while 10% more Americans knew who he was, only 5% learned enough about him in those two months to rate him favorably (early April 24%, early June 26%) or unfavorably. (11% early April, 14% early June.)
By the end of May, the GOP race was considered wide open, with four white male candidates, all of whom could project themselves as “moderates” in the general election, seeking the votes of the social conservative GOP base. There was no candidate with strong social conservative credentials in contention, despite the social conservative nature of that base.