July 12, 2004

Character and the Campaign

Overview

If presidential campaigns are about character and control of message, neither candidate has had much success so far, according to a new study of the media coverage of the 2004 campaign.

Heading into the political conventions, the presidential campaign has been largely subsumed inside coverage of other news events-particularly the conflict in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the September 11th Commission.

One consequence is that President George W. Bush has dominated the coverage, but much of that reportage, at least when linked to character traits, has been critical-by a margin of more than three to one.

This may not have damaged the President markedly yet. People still tend to associate positive character traits with Bush more than negative ones-in particular that he is decisive and won’t shrink from a fight.

There is some bad news for Kerry. He has not been much of a presence in the news, and this problem has grown with time. As a result, most people surveyed have difficulty associating any character traits with Kerry as opposed to Bush. The only major theme that even a third of the public links to him is that he flip flops.

This leaves Kerry with much ground to make up as he tries to project himself more clearly to the American public this month with his choice of John Edwards as running mate and his party’s convention. It also suggests he remains vulnerable to being defined by the Republicans.

These are some of the findings of a new study of the media coverage, political advertising and public opinion in the 2004 presidential election conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism in collaboration with the University of Missouri School of Journalism and twinned with a survey of public attitudes by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The study examined how the major narrative themes about the character of the candidates were portrayed in the news media, advertising and late night comedy programs spanning four months from March to June 2004. In collaboration with the Pew Research Center, the study then surveyed the public about these major campaign themes to see which themes people believed and which ones they did not. It further analyzed their ad and media consumption behavior, controlling for various factors, to isolate which messages and which forms of media might be having an impact on public attitudes.

Among the findings:

  • There is evidence that the press is having an impact: the more people pay attention to press coverage, the more likely they are to match the character traits with the candidates the same way the press has.1
  • The impact of the press coverage may be greater in battleground states, where the survey data shows people are paying closer attention to candidate news.
  • Advertising, on the other hand, has had only a limited impact on the public’s thinking.
  • Undecided voters at this point tend to consume news less, see slightly fewer ads and are generally less engaged in the political process. They also have the most indistinct impression of both candidates at this point.
  • Journalists were almost as likely as the campaigns to be the source asserting these character traits about the candidates.
  • More than four in ten character assertions were made with no evidence cited to back them up.

1. To test what features were associated with people identifying each thread characteristic with the candidate it had been linked with (i.e., Kerry with flip flopping; Bush with refusing to admit he was wrong), we added up for each respondent how many characteristic-candidate links they got correct (which ranged from 0 to 6). We then used hierarchical linear regression to see first how demographics affected the scores, then how party affiliation affected them, and finally how much Kerry and Bush advertising people had seen and how much attention they reported paying attention to the news.