9/03/2008

McCain and the Media: Part 2

Back in July, I wrote about John McCain's failure to use the media to his advantage. The impetus for that post was McCain's nonattendance at the UNITY Conference in Chicago, a meeting of professional associations for journalists of color. McCain did not attend the conference because of "scheduling conflicts." (Barack Obama did attend the conference and took questions from the panelists there.) I wrote that McCain missed a golden opportunity to bolster his standing among skeptics and even help rehabilitate the Republican brand in the process:

"The audience at the Unity Conference was likely a hostile one seeing that people of color are reliably Democratic. However, the conference participants were there as media professionals, rather than partisans. And given Republicans' problems with voters of color, McCain could have made news by courageously showing up. Instead he gave Blacks, Latinos, and Asians yet another reason to think that McCain (and Republicans by extension) simply don't care about them or the issues that are important to their communities. Oh, and he gave Barack Obama yet another night of positive headlines because he showed up and took questions.

Again, the media are arguably covering Barack Obama more often and more favorably than John McCain, but McCain has certainly had his opportunities to make news. However, on more than one occasion, he simply chose not to participate or did not take full advantage of the golden opportunities that have come his way. And he has no one to blame for that but himself."
(You can read the entire post here.)

Now it looks like John McCain is making the exact same mistake with the Sarah Palin rollout. After successfully stepping all over Barack Obama's nomination speech by announcing his surprise vice presidential pick, the media and the public were all paying attention to the McCain campaign. He had the megaphone to match a captive audience. The Palin rollout initially went over well with the Republican base because her biography appealed to voters seeking an outsider who represented the future of the party.

However, since announcing Palin, the McCain campaign has done a terrible job of managing the media and taking full advantage of the opportunity her selection presented him. Failures to anticipate and execute have really taken a lot of the initial thunder away from her selection.

Sarah Palin is the final piece of the presidential puzzle. John McCain is a known quantity, having run for the White House in 2000 and being a high profile senator. Barack Obama has commanded the attention and respect of millions of Americans through his historical campaign and the slugfest with Hillary Clinton. Joe Biden is a veteran senator who is no stranger to presidential politics himself.

All three of these candidates are known quantities who have been raked over the coals by the media. McCain had the fallout with the Keating Five scandal, the bitter South Carolina primary against George Bush during the 2000 campaign, the fighting with the religious right, and the problems with his base over illegal immigration. Barack Obama has had to deal with coverage of "Bittergate," Reverend Wright, questions about his Blackness, and questions about a lack of substance. And Joe Biden has had his own media problems with his plagiarism episode from his first presidential campaign, the way he conducted himself during the Senate committee meetings he chaired, and his tendency to put his foot in his mouth.

However, nobody knows anything about Sarah Palin. Her biography is largely unknown, and nobody knows much about her political positions either. Of course, the media are going to comb through every video, press release, and interview they have to paint a picture of who Palin is. And when they find out something new, they're going to hammer the McCain campaign for not telling the public about it earlier. They want to know more about her because as a candidate for vice president, the public wants and has a right to know as much about her as possible.

But when these questions came up, his campaign commonly blamed the media for not asking Obama what his accomplishments were. This is an utterly ridiculous complaint because Obama has been running his presidential campaign for over a year and a half and has had to answer these questions on numerous occasions. And given the number of votes and the amount of money he has received, it is obvious that a large enough segment of the electorate is at least willing to accept his limited resume. Sarah Palin completely bypassed the state primaries and caucuses and received absolutely no votes in this campaign except for one vote from John McCain. So it is to be expected that the media and voters will have a lot of questions for her as they subject her to the same level of scrutiny that the other three candidates (Obama, Biden, and McCain) have experienced. It's as if McCain tried to turn his vice presidential selection into a recess appointment and is protesting because he has to subject her to the confirmation process just like everyone else has done.

The McCain campaign got into trouble by not sufficiently vetting Palin beforehand. Of course, this is one of the perils of going with such an unknown and unconventional pick. Because McCain wanted to surprise everyone, he couldn't make too many waves when vetting her earlier. Had the media and powerful political figures and aides in Alaska known about document requests from the McCain campaign surrounding Palin, her cover would have been blown. But had this happened, the media's vetting process would have happened a lot sooner.

Now the McCain campaign is angry that the media want to know so much about her. But it is unrealistic for McCain to expect to be able to introduce the nation to someone that nobody knows and then not expect the media to ask questions about her. That was a terrible mistake that has threatened to cause questions and controversy to eclipse the initial excitement surrounding her.

Secondly, the McCain campaign did not sufficiently prepare themselves or Palin for the media crush after her selection was announced. Palin gave a speech with McCain in Dayton, Ohio, in which she said she was a "hockey mom" who cleaned up Alaska and wanted to bring her reform agenda to Washington. But after that, she essentially disappeared. The McCain campaign has since restricted access to Palin, thus increasing anxiety and media speculation. This is terrible public relations management for the McCain campaign because the lack of access has led to idle speculation in the media that has fed into the storyline that "nobody knows who she is" or "there may be something else negative that she's hiding."

This lack of preparation extends to McCain's own spokespeople. Last night, one of McCain's spokesmen appeared on CNN's Election Center with Campbell Brown. She asked him to name one important decision Palin had made as commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard. This seemed like a fair question, especially since the campaign was circulating that responsibility as one of her selling points. However, the spokesman was unable to provide one example for the audience and tried to pivot to a talking point about how "Sarah Palin had more executive experience than Barack Obama." Brown did not let him get away with this, however, but was professional about it as she gave the spokesman several chances to redeem himself. The McCain campaign then complained about the interview, citing unfairness, and canceled another CNN interview in protest.

These episodes are damaging to John McCain's campaign for several reasons:

1. They undercut his message of strength. John McCain is running as the strong leader who can keep America safe from terrorists and other threats abroad. However, he is too scared to stand up to CNN. That also undercuts Palin's own credentials as a tough woman who can stand up and fight and risks turning her selection into a gimmick.

2. The media narrative of Palin has progressed from brilliant to controversial to enigmatic. Now a lot of the luster has worn off of Palin and a lot of people have questions about her--questions that the McCain campaign should have been prepared to answer before they introduced her to the nation.

3. They have forced the McCain campaign to spend time debating why her limited government experience is more significant than Obama's limited government experience. Time the McCain campaign spends talking about how "she has more executive experience than Obama" is time the campaign is not spending talking about issues that are on actual voters' minds. The "experience" question is a wash that only runs out the clock and benefits Obama in the process because he's the candidate leading in the polls. There is no winner in the Obama-Palin experience debate, so McCain should get away from this discussion and move on.

4. They have raised the bar of expectations for Palin's speech at the convention tonight. Any mistakes she makes will be amplified. And she will have to answer a lot of questions.

5. They have called McCain's judgment into question. He had only met with Palin once before he made his selection, and there is still a lot of potentially damaging or embarrassing information out there that the campaign still doesn't know. One could then rightfully wonder if McCain would exercise a similar level of rashness or irresponsibility in the White House.

6. These episodes are overshadowing his own convention! This convention is supposed to be about John McCain, but it has turned into Sarah Palin's convention even though nobody knows who she is!

As I originally wrote in July, the McCain campaign has commonly criticized the media for paying too much attention to Barack Obama. But McCain certainly can't complain about not getting any media attention now. However, after a good start, he has totally botched the rollout of his running mate and has failed to take advantage of the increased attention that he should have anticipated. And now his campaign is suffering as a result.

Of course, Palin may deliver an excellent speech and allay many fears of conservatives and voters around the nation. But the vetting process will continue in the media, and the McCain campaign will not be able to keep her in a bubble far removed from the microphones and kleig lights. They had better figure out a way to manage the media before the media write her off. While he may not be able to control an inappropriately zealous press corps (as the Palin's daughter's pregnancy story suggests), he can at least control the messages his own campaign sends out and do so in a way that benefits his campaign.

4 comment(s):

S.W. Anderson said...

Hi, this is your friendly neighborhood devil's advocate back for a go at another good, thought-provoking post.

"The McCain campaign got into trouble by not sufficiently vetting Palin beforehand. Of course, this is one of the perils of going with such an unknown and unconventional pick."

Did it really? I don't think so. I think the McCain campaign decided during the Democratic convention that they were on track to not quite make it. So, probably with some urging from Karl Rove and/or his disciples, the McCain campaign decided they must do two things right out of the Rove playbook:

1. Excite the hard-core right-wing base, the 27 percenters who still think Bush is a great president. It was clear neither Pawlenty nor Romney would generate much excitement, however well they might be received by rank-and-file Republicans. Palin was on her way to being something of a cult heroine among the hard right, so she could be counted on for excitement.

2. The McCain campaign no doubt anticipated plenty of criticism from Democrats and some in the media about Palin's thin resume and questionable qualifications. All the better, they think, because fighting back against the criticism and questioning energizes the base, opens checkbooks and steps up the "it's us against them" and "we always get picked on" spirit neocons thrive on.

This strategy is a rehash of the Rove 50 percent-plus-1 approach that doomed George W. Bush to the sub-basement poll numbers he's been getting the past three years. But it could be enough to win the White House for McCain, especially if Obama stumbles badly or can be demonized sufficiently.

Only if something is revealed about Palin that's obviously illegal or so beyond the pale the evangelicals won't have her will she be obliged to bow out. Otherwise, I think the McCain campaign plans to revel in and profit from the controversy.

S.W. Anderson said...

"Time the McCain campaign spends talking about how "she has more executive experience than Obama" is time the campaign is not spending talking about issues that are on actual voters' minds."

Talking about serious issues, except maybe continuing the Iraq war, the troop surge's "success" and expanding war to Iran," is the last thing the McCain campaign wants to do. Rick Davis even said so.

Best I can tell, McCain has yet to come up with a single domestic issue that has produced traction for him, and nothing about foreign relations has caught fire either. Like last night at the GOP convention, it's all about personality, persona, his POWness.

In fact, like Bush before him, polls generally indicate most Americans are with Obama and the Democrats on most issues. So, why would McCain want to go there, except when a particular issue serves to excite the neocon base?

S.W. Anderson said...

"There is no winner in the Obama-Palin experience debate, so McCain should get away from this discussion and move on."

If the questioning of Palin's qualifications, capabilities and past performance, and criticism of making her No. 2 on the GOP ticket becomes so intense the McCain campaign can claim she's being victimized as a conservative woman, the McCain-Palin campaign stands to reap plenty of monetary and electoral rewards.

Khaki Elephant said...

If the questioning of Palin's qualifications, capabilities and past performance, and criticism of making her No. 2 on the GOP ticket becomes so intense the McCain campaign can claim she's being victimized as a conservative woman

True. It's a tightrope walk of criticism to go after Palin without appearing sexist, anti-blue collar or condescending.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.