July 12, 2004

Character and the Campaign

Sources for the Narrative Themes

Who was making these assertions about the candidates? Are the journalists offering these messages on their own, or are they coming from the campaigns, neutral experts or others, such as bloggers writing their own personal opinions?

Generally, the campaigns were the most likely sources, either from the candidates or their surrogates, a sign that the master narratives are, in part, the creation in part of the campaigns. In all, 39% of the time we saw these narrative themes, the candidates or their surrogates were the source of the assertion.

Sources for The Themes
Source Bush lacks credibility Bush is arrogant Bush is a strong leader
Journalist analysis/opinion
35%
46%
27%
Campaign related
34
22
48
Expert statement/named
11
11
9
Author's opinion
6
6
5
Others
14
15
11
Total
100%
100%
100%
  Kerry is very liberal Kerry hems and haws Kerry is a tough guy
Journalist analysis/opinion
14
29
24
Campaign related
73
52
55
Expert statement/named
9
9
5
Author's opinion
2
3
7
Others
2
8
10
Total
100%
101%
101%
Numbers may not add to one hundred due to rounding.

But the campaigns are not alone. The second most likely source of the character themes was journalists themselves. Fully a third, 34%, of the assertions came from the reporters.

Experts were used only minimally to establish the themes-accounting for just 11% of the assertions overall and never exceeding that for any individual theme (excluding Kerry as an elitist).

Other outside sources, such as voters, were an even smaller factor, suggesting that the establishment of these themes so far has been mostly inside baseball-the campaigns themselves or journalists.

When it came to the positive messages, these tended to come more from the campaigns themselves-48% of Bush's positive message and 55% of Kerry's.

The sources for the negative messages, however, differed for the two candidates. Journalists played a larger role in putting forth the negative assertions about Bush, especially the notion that Bush is arrogant. Nearly half of those assertions (46%) came from journalists, versus 22% from the Kerry camp.

When it comes to Bush's credibility, journalists and the Kerry campaign had roughly equal influence-35% from journalists and 34% from the campaign.

The negative images haunting Kerry, on the other hand, were much more driven by the Bush campaign. Fully 73% of the statements asserting Kerry as an extreme liberal came from the Bush campaign, as did 52% of those suggesting problems sticking with a decision.

Why is this? There are several possible explanations. One is that the Bush camp was more willing and more relentless at going negative at Kerry, both in ads and in their conversations with reporters. Some more ideologically minded critics, in contrast, might see in the data proof that journalists are liberal and thus likely to interpret events to the detriment of the President on their own.

It is also possible that the nature of events, particularly the testimony of Richard Clarke, was so pointedly critical of the President, that reporters felt they could connect the dots analytically without sourcing. The Kerry campaign, in turn, decided it had no need to get involved. When your opponent is on fire, stay out of the way, goes the political adage.