How McCain Lost His Media Base

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Recently I wrote about how the McCain campaign felt like it was being treated unfairly by the press. There I mentioned how prior to the GOP Convention, McCain was actually getting proportionally more positive coverage than Obama. Politico has written a story about how since the Convention, McCain has clearly “hosed in the press.”

The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s researchers found that John McCain, over the six weeks since the Republican convention, got four times as many negative stories as positive ones. The study found six out of 10 McCain stories were negative.

What’s more, Obama had more than twice as many positive stories (36 percent) as McCain — and just half the percentage of negative (29 percent).

So if the media was once McCain’s base, as he used to call them, what has changed since the GOP Convention to turn the press again McCain?

We all know that the McCain Palin team has constantly criticized and blamed the “elite media”, but the article also points to the personality of the McCain staff in dealing with the media.

The main reason is that for most journalists, professional obligations trump personal preferences. Most political reporters (investigative journalists tend to have a different psychological makeup) are temperamentally inclined to see multiple sides of a story, and being detached from their own opinions comes relatively easy.

Reporters obsess about personalities and process, about whose staff are jerks or whether they seem like decent folks, about who has a great stump speech or is funnier in person than they come off in public, about whether Michigan is in play or off the table. This is the flip side of the fact of how much we care about the horse race — we don’t care that much about our own opinions of which candidate would do more for world peace or tax cuts.

If that causes skeptics to scoff, perhaps they would find it more satisfying to hear that the reason ideological bias matters so little is that other biases matter so much more.

This is true in any election year. But the 2008 election has had some unique — and personal — phenomena.

One is McCain backlash. The Republican once was the best evidence of how little ideology matters. Even during his “maverick” days, McCain was a consistent social conservative, with views on abortion and other cultural issues that would have been odds with those of most reporters we know. Yet he won swooning coverage for a decade from reporters who liked his accessibility and iconoclasm and supposed commitment to clean politics.

Now he is paying. McCain’s decision to limit media access and align himself with the GOP conservative base was an entirely routine, strategic move for a presidential candidate. But much of the coverage has portrayed this as though it were an unconscionable sellout.

Not only has Palin’s refusal to do press conferences, interviews, or even mingle with the press turned the media against the campaign, but even the choice of Palin itself was widely viewed as cynical by Republican commentators. The sector of the press that previously loved McCain’s candor and the maverick quality of that candor saw him as a sell out.

Beyond whether the press was going to like her or not, the fact of the matter is that when you nominate a virtually unknown persona from the farthest corner of the country with only two months until the election, you are inviting massive press scrutiny both positive and negative. Remember, Palin arrived unknown on the seen and gave that over-the-top, over-confident speech full of one-liner boasts about herself and cheap shots about Obama. It is only natural that the press is going to swoon.

The Politico article also explains how the momentum of the campaign further leads to media bias (and what I believe may potentially influence voters in an unfair way, ie, the self-fulfilling prophecy problem). Politico explains how this momentum disrupts the internal cohesion of the party that is behind in the polls, adding to the negative coverage.

The strongest of these is the bias in favor of momentum. A candidate who is perceived to be doing well tends to get even more positive coverage (about his or her big crowds or the latest favorable polls or whatever). And a candidate who is perceived to be doing poorly tends to have all events viewed through this prism.

Not coincidentally, this is a bias shared by most of our sources. This is why the bulk of negative stories about McCain are not about his ideology or policy plans — they are about intrigue and turmoil. Think back to the past week of coverage on Politico and elsewhere: Coverage has been dominated by Sarah Palin’s $150,000 handbags and glad rags, by finger-pointing in the McCain camp, and by apparent tensions between the candidate and his running mate.

These stories are driven by the flood of Republicans inside and out of the campaign eager to make themselves look good or others look bad. This always happens when a campaign starts to tank. Indeed, there was a spate of such stories when Obama’s campaign hit turmoil after the GOP convention and the Palin surge.

So while the media has been particularly tough on McCain Palin in the last two months of the elections, whether or not you believe that the damage has been not self-induced, at a minimum the McCain team should have managed its strategy and relationships with the press more wisely.

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Filed under Essays, Obama 08

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