The Presidential Campaigns And The Media

Posted by: Jon Fine on September 23, 2008

A column examining the interplay between the ever-expanding media outlets and the Presidential campaigns can be found here.

In order to expand a bit on it, let me start by looking backward. In the final run-up to the 2004 election, at least two hours of my day were occupied by abcnews.com’s The Note, which linked to all major stories of the day while wrapping its own snarky—for Beltway denizens, which is significantly squarer and tamer than snarky for major coastal cities—commentary around it.

(I am reminded that I got so overly familiar with the tone and in-jokes of The Note that I sent them at least two emails begging them to use more updated pop-culture references than Springsteen lyrics. One of these netted a very kind response, which pointed out I was the only reader complaining about them. This sort of proves my point about the Beltway and relative snark. But I’m digressing wildly.)

In 2008, you can start your day with The Note. Or you can go to The Page, which Note founder Mark Halperin does to similar affect at Time.com. And you can go to the Atlantic.com blog helmed by another Note co-founder, Marc Ambinder, who does something roughly similar at the Atlantic albeit with much more original reporting. (Marc Ambinder, we salute you, even if your daily output frankly terrifies us.) Other new players abound: Politico.com, the thoroughly amazing fivethirtyeight.com (baseball stat geek turns his number-crunching chops onto the electoral college), Time.com's Swampland . . . good god, I could go on. But I wouldn't want to neglect stuff that was around last cycle, like NBC.com’s FirstRead and Real Clear Politics. Also, don’t forget, YouTube did not exist in 2004. (The true electoral geeks don’t just go there for candidate speeches. They go for ads from past cmapaigns. Tons of crazy stuff is there!)

Thus, no matter how much time as you spent in the ’04 election chasing down the tiniest new tidbit of news about the election (and then tracking the ensuing ripples through the online commentariat), you can spend much more doing so in ’08. Also, as I couldn’t resist quoting fivethirtyeight.com in my column, there are also now more polls than ever. You can thus hit 'refresh' on your browser like a rat hitting the lever that delivers cocaine, until you collapse onto your keyboard from exhaustion, still in desperate chase of that one new swing state poll that, at long last, might bring the bliss of clarity to a muddled picture . . . .

Right. I’m sure that will work. Anyway, that’s how the election looks if you’re a complete information freak. How does that affect the big picture of how the campaigns play out in the media?

Not much. Why?

Volume. The volume (in both sense of the word) of both news, micronews, and commentary ensures that only the loudest, simplest messages get through. And it makes the beast less tamable than ever. The factcheck.orgs of the world are worthy and all, but the current speed of media means they are adjudicating the rainfall of last week’s thunderstorm—and what they come up with isn’t powerful or compelling enough to break into a news cycle that’s already several steps ahead. This study has gotten a lot of attention on certain blogs, but I think even without it the single straight factual counterpunch would have a harder time breaking through. What can break through is the kind of

Consider the major events since late August: Obama’s acceptance speech, McCain picks Palin, Hurrica Gustav, Bristol Palin’s pregnancy—all that happened within around 96 hours, mind you—Hurricane Ike, Wall Street in tatters. Mickey Kaus has long propounded on the Feiler Faster syndrome—in that speeding news cycles consistently reduce the half-life of significant events. Well, we’re at about zero right now, I’d say. (The Wall Street meltdown is a huge story in our current news cycle—but if a bailout is approved and implemented within days and the stock market behaves, there’s actually a chance it won’t be much of an issue by Election Day.)

A certain board game. The only monopoly players in this game are the campaigns themselves. Both of which have proven adept at maintaining the kind of scarcity of access that underscores their position. (Today, I believe, was the first day in the entire campaign that both major candidates held press conferences.)

The extreme availability of data is not especially material to the voter being chased right now. Much of what I talk about above is behavior unique to what political typescall the “high information voter.” These types likely made up their minds months ago. The campaign is now chasing the “low information voter,” who’s just starting to pay attention, and they’re not going deep-geek on every scrap of data. (A harried working-class mom of three who’s now just starting to kinda-focus on the election—well, she’s not using her Blackberry to check tracking polls.) The value of the undecided low-information voter points to a very traditional campaign: lotsa TV, lotsa big obvious slogans. This is going to make this last phase of the campaign especially excruciating to the high-information types. Except, that is, for the brief respites provided by the debates, which will give the media hordes some fresh quotes and data points to chew on. Until they’re no longer fresh, and the standard campaign tug of war returns.

In sum: Campaign ’08: More Of The Same. And lots more of it, in fact.

Lastly, the Republican campaign is clearly running against the media in ’08. The last time they did it was in 1992. I guess those running McCain's campaign think it will work better this time.

 

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