July 12, 2004

Character and the Campaign

Rebuttal

Another truism of modern political campaigning is that any charge should not go unanswered lest it be believed.

This has given way to the political black art of quick response: If your opponent says something about you, how effective are you at rebutting it? To some degree, campaigns judge their effectiveness today by the extent to which they never leave a charge unchallenged and always succeed in getting their point of view inside the story about the other guy.

The study measured the responsiveness of the campaigns in the media by examining the degree to which each of these narrative character themes about the candidate were directly rebutted in stories.

The answer is, not that often.

Percent of Themes By Candidate
(Excluding refuting themes)
Theme

Number
of Themes

Number of
Rebuttals
% with
Rebuttals
Bush is arrogant
309
25
8%
Bush lacks credibility
228
11
5%
Bush is a strong & decisive leader
153
18
12%
Kerry hems and haws, can't make a decisive statement
112
11
10%
Kerry is very liberal
101
39
39%
Kerry is a tough guy who won't back down
42
7
17%

Overall, while these candidate themes appeared in stories nearly 1,000 times in the period studied, only about 10% were accompanied by some kind of rebuttal.

The charge rebutted most often was that Kerry is liberal. Overall, 39% of the time that charge appeared in a story it was accompanied by some refutation.

Why this is the one charge that was frequently challenged is harder to say. It may be that since it was leveled in the first wave of advertising, the Kerry camp felt it was particularly important to rebut. It may be that both journalists and the Kerry camp felt that the Bush campaign had twisted facts, many of which had to do with the gas tax, in putting the ad together. Or it may be that as a national candidate, Kerry and his team felt this charge was particularly damaging, and they were most eager to deny, above all, the dreaded "L-word."

Whatever the reason, the frequently rebutted charge of Kerry as a liberal was also the one negative message that seemed to dissipate in the coverage over time. That may suggest that successfully rebutting a charge in stories will make it go away, discouraging reporters from continuing to assert it.

Kerry did not fare so well in rebutting other messages, however. Only 10% of the charges that he hemmed and hawed were challenged and only 12% of the time that Bush was praised for strong leadership did the Kerry camp manage to rebut that.

Bush, on the other hand, did not fare well in rebutting any of the negative messages against him. Only 5% of the time that a story asserted that Bush lacked credibility did the story also contain a rebuttal to that charge. And only 8% of time that the assertion that Bush was arrogant appeared was that rebutted.

There are several possible explanations. One is that since many of the negative messages about Bush came in news stories involving Iraq or the 9-11 Commission, and from journalists rather than the Kerry campaign, it was more difficult for the White House to be primed to rebut them than if they had come from news sources or the Kerry campaign.

Another reason may be that the Bush White House may feel that it doesn't need to rebut every charge.

Whatever the reason, this may prove a disadvantage for President Bush if that trend continues.