HOW THE MEDIA WARPED THE PRIMARIES, PART III
-by Paul Lukasiak
This is the final part of a three part series based on The Invisble Primary: Invisible No Longer (an analysis of press coverage of the Primary campaigns for the first five months of 2007) and other sources. Part 1, examining the impact of the media on the Democratic Primary, can be found here. Part 2, dealing with the GOP presidential primary, can be found here.
PART 3-- The Entry Level Presidency
It is fair to say that, based on the data used in The Invisble Primary: Invisible No Longer, for the first six months of 2007, the media covered this campaign as if there was a sign on the White House saying “President Wanted-- Experienced Need Not Apply." The media apparently prefers candidates with little governmental experience and a recent public record on the federal level in order to project its own narrative upon the race-- its far easier to create and reinforce an image for each candidate in the absence of a strong record of service. But in most cases, the image promoted by the media has been belied by the candidates’ performance on the campaign trail.
Experience Breeds Contempt
There appears to be a very close inverse relationship between recent (as of January, 2007) federal experience and how positive the candidates' coverage has been. Of the seven candidates who received the lion’s share of the coverage, the most experienced-- John McCain-- was the subject of the highest percentage of negative coverage (47.9%) and the lowest percentage of positive stories (12.4%). And while Joe Biden, who also has decades of federal experience, received very little coverage (only 4.9% of the Democratic candidate centered stories), what he did get was relentlessly negative (46% negative, 10% positive).
Of the three Democratic candidates who received most of the coverage, Barack Obama (who had only two years federal experience) received the most positive (46.7%) and least negative (15.8%) coverage by far. John Edwards and Hillary Clinton both had six years federal experience, and their coverage was fairly similar. But Clinton, with the most recent federal experience, received 26.9% positive coverage and 37.8% negative coverage; Edwards, who had not held office in six years, got 31% positive and 35.2% negative coverage.
The same pattern can be found among the declared candidates from the GOP. Neither Giuliani nor Romney had experience as an elected official; Giuliani served two terms as mayor of New York City, and Romney only one term as Massachusetts’s governor. Both had far more positive coverage (Romney 31.8%, Giuliani 27.8%) and far less negative coverage (Romney 30.7%, Giuliani 37.0%) than the far more experienced (four years in the House, 20 years in the Senate) John McCain.
The only anomaly is Fred Thompson, who did spend eight undistinguished years (1944-2002) in the Senate. Thompson was better known as an actor than as a politician, however, and his high positive (46%) and extremely low negative (4%) coverage can be attributed to the perception that he was a celebrity (rather than a politician) running for office.
Thompson was also an “undeclared” candidate throughout this period, and the media coverage of his potential candidacy was virtually “content free.” As The Invisible Primary notes
with regard to the Thompson campaign “… almost all of the coverage (84%) was about his impact on the race. His ideas, his policy positions, even his biography and record, received negligible coverage.”
The Cult of Celebrity
One of the most remarkable aspects of the coverage is the extent to which a great deal of federal public office experience translated into a lack of coverage. Of the seven most covered candidates, only John McCain (with four years in the House, and 20 years in the Senate) received any significant coverage-- and it was decidedly negative throughout the first five months of 2007. Neither of the leading Republicans (Giuliani) who received considerable coverage had any experience as an elected official on the Federal level-- and Fred Thompson was known more for his acting career than his political experience.
While inexperienced GOP candidates received a great deal of attention, far more experienced candidates like Sam Brownback (ten years in the Senate) and Duncan Hunter (26 years in the House, including chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee) had relatively none at all.
The same holds true for the Democratic Party, where candidates with a lot of experience on the federal level were virtually shut out of the coverage. Joe Biden (34 years in the Senate), Chris Dodd (six years in the House, 26 in the Senate), and Bill Richardson (14 years in the House, plus two years as Secretary of Energy, another two and a half years as UN Ambassador, and four years as New Mexico governor) were all virtually ignored by the media in the first five months of 2007, while coverage was dominated by Clinton (six years in the Senate) and Obama (two years in the Senate), with Edwards (six years in the Senate) dominating the coverage of the Democratic “also-rans."
One of the most striking aspects of the data from The Invisible Primary is how little long term impact the tone (positive or negative) of the coverage had during the first five months of 2007. Despite the overwhelmingly negative tone of McCain’s coverage, in February, the Gallup Poll had him at 25%, in mid-May he was at 24%. But “tone” definitely had a short-term impact; McCain lost considerable support at the end of the first quarter when the campaign finance reports came due, and the reporting emphasized the McCain campaign money problems.
What had an impact was extensive positive coverage of candidates without an established national profile. Between December 2006 and May 2007, 22% more Americans learned enough about Barack Obama to form an opinion of him, with his favorable rating going from 42% to 55%. Obama’s standing in the primary also benefited from extensive, and positive, press. In January 2007, the Gallup Poll had him at 19%, in early June he was at 30%.
The extensive, and positive, coverage of Mitt Romney also helped his campaign. In December 2006, only 31% knew enough about Romney to form an opinion; by May 2007 that number had leapt to 49%. Romney’s “favorable” ratings increased by 6% during that period (19% to 25%). And Romney’s standing in the Gallup Primary Poll went from 6% in February 2007 to 14% in early June.
The media made very little effort to inform voters about the record or positions of the candidates. Only 16% of the coverage focused on the public record or policy positions taken by candidate-- and most of that coverage concentrated on a single issue for each candidate (Iraq for Clinton and McCain, abortion for Romney and Giuliani). Instead, the coverage focused on “horserace” issues (63.4%), and personal topics (17.3%) that were specific to each candidate (Clinton’s marriage, Obama’s race, Romney’s religion).
It is obvious that media coverage, rather than qualifications or political positions, determines which candidates the electorate takes seriously, and which candidates are ignored. The question remains, however, what drives the media coverage.
The most important factor seems to be the “celebrity” quality of the candidates, especially as “celebrity” is perceived among the media elite. Hillary Clinton is a celebrity; she received significantly more attention throughout her first term as Senator than far more experienced, and influential, Senators. The media pegged Barack Obama as a “rising star” in the Democratic Party based almost entirely on his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. And Rudy Giuliani became a national superstar on 9/11 when he demonstrated “leadership” qualities that were notably absent in the President that day, while Fred Thompson’s status as a TV/movie star made him a “viable” candidate in the eyes of the media.
The other key factor is cold, hard cash. Mitt Romney’s personal fortune, and his willingness to spend it on his campaign, resulted in far more attention than a one- term governor with low name recognition would receive ordinarily. And an immense amount of coverage was driven by the “money primary." The candidates who concentrated on fundraising, rather than campaigning for votes and organizing their campaigns (or concentrating on their jobs as legislators), reaped enormous amounts of coverage.
The patterns established in the first five months are still in evidence today. A search of Google news for the past week (Oct. 29 – Nov. 5) shows that 84% of the coverage for both parties mentions at least one of the seven “covered” candidates, while on 16% of the coverage mentions at least one of the media-determined “third tier” candidates.
Even when a “third tier” candidate shows potential for gaining support with each party’s base, the media all but ignores them. Despite the fact that Mike Huckabee showed considerable strength among social conservatives in a recent straw poll, he was mentioned in only 6.8% of the stories about Republicans (Giuliani was mentioned in 26.4%). And even though Chris Dodd has been receiving kudos and cash from the Democratic base because of his leadership on issues like telecom immunity and an Attorney General nominee who refuses to acknowledge that waterboarding is torture, he received only 4.7% of the Democratic centered coverage (with Obama being mentioned in 31.9%, a percentage that is even higher than Clinton’s 26.1%)
No doubt, sometime in early 2009, another analysis of media coverage of the 2008 Presidential campaign will be released, and the media will admit that its coverage was deeply flawed and resolve to do better next time. But the same promises were made in years past, and The Invisible Primary demonstrates that those promises aren’t being, and won’t ever be, kept.