Posted by: Matt Compton | February 17, 2008

Three candidates, three media strategies

As the presidential race stands today, there are three candidates will a real shot at winning the White House — Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama. Each has different policies and plans, strategies and tactics. But the way that each interacts of them interacts with the mainstream media is worth exploring a bit because it helps us see a fundamental difference between them.

Back in 2007, when Hillary Clinton was way ahead in the polls, much of the horse race coverage focused on her ‘well-financed and hyperdisciplined campaign.’ The reality, as we now know, is a little different — Hillaryland has never been efficient, and the campaign burned through its record-breaking war chest before Super Tuesday. But discipline is the signature of her press shop, however.

In August, Joshua Green — a writer for the Atlantic — wrote a story for GQ that examined some infighting in the Clinton campaign. The magazine was also scheduled to write a big cover story about Bill Clinton for its Man of the Year issue. Aides for the campaign quickly gave GQ a choice — spike the Green story or lose access to WJC. The Clinton press staff keeps score — their goal each day is to win news cycles and control expectations. The candidate and her surrogates stay on message, and leaks are kept to a minimum. Everything is planned out, scripted, and well-run. It’s a traditional campaign, but near-perfectly executed.

In 2000, during his first presidential bid, John McCain began calling his caravan the Straight Talk Express. In contrast to his opponents, then and now, McCain’s media strategy is largely unscripted. His best moments are not on the debate stage or in a victory speech, but on his campaign bus, where he holds court with reporters in free-wheeling, stream of consciousness discussions. No topic is off-limits, and the press loves him for it. McCain has a press shop, of course, and his aides work to control stories and shape the message. But those efforts are overshadowed by the personal appeal of the candidate himself. By sheer force of personality and intelligence, McCain has earned himself some of the best political coverage in the campaign.

Barack Obama’s strategy stands in contrast to both of his rivals, but his approach is no less successful. His press aides put out releases and advisories, they organize conference calls and interviews, but largely, they don’t try to shape the narrative of the campaign through the media. I’ve written a lot about their effort to bypass the traditional political filters to reach voters directly through new technology and very old-school organizing, and I won’t repeat it here.

But we’re now far enough into the race that we’re starting to see the results. Obama’s press coverage has been incredibly favorable, but at the same time, he’s been completely unable to escape from the weight of expectations. For instance, after Super Tuesday, the Clinton campaign claimed a big come-from-behind victory in Massachusetts, even though the polls in the state were consistently in her favor. Obama is glowing with the aura of a front runner, but if he stumbles in Wisconsin next week, he won’t be able to stop the campaign narrative from changing again.

By comparison, Hillary Clinton has had a harder time in the media, particularly in the wake of her loan to the campaign at the end of January and the resignation of her top political aide on Tuesday night. There’s no doubt that both Obama and McCain get better coverage, as a rule. But she owes her continued political life to the fact that no one in the press wants to be the first to write off the Clintons. If the situation of the two candidates were reversed — if Obama were behind in delegates, votes, and money after losing 8 different states in a row — his obituary would have already been written, and the cable new shows would be fully booked with party elders asking Obama to step aside in the name of unity. That’s a testament to the strength and skill of her media operation.

As expected, John McCain’s press coverage has been uniformly favorable. He’s won a conservative majority in exactly two states, and despite being crowned the front runner, he’s still losing almost half the votes in primaries all across the country to Mike Huckabee. True, the math has now made John McCain the nominee — Huckabee just doesn’t have the delegates to catch up. But there remain deep concerns in the conservative base of the GOP about John McCain’s candidacy, and most of the coverage about the campaign just doesn’t reflect this sense of unease. Beyond that, the way the press talks about McCain is deeply ingrained — he’s described as a maverick, a hero, and a man who appeals to independents.

No matter which Democrat gets the nod, McCain’s popularity in the press will be a challenge to face. The best way for each to do that is likely to take some cues from the other. If it’s Obama, he will have to find a way to control expectations. If it’s Clinton, she’ll have to find a way to build some of the same new roads to voters that Obama has used with such success. Either way, as the campaign moves from the primary to the general, the nominee will have to adapt.


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