July 12, 2004

Character and the Campaign

The Major Character Themes

The press coverage, for now, has focused far more on Bush than on Kerry. Seven out of ten (72%) of the character themes identified in the coverage were about the President.

In part, this is a reflection of the fact that Bush dominates the news as the incumbent, whether he is governing the country or campaigning as a candidate. Kerry, as the challenger, can only make news while campaigning. This reinforces the axiom that campaigns involving an incumbent are largely referendums on the sitting President.

Four years ago a similar study by the Project found the coverage to be much more evenly divided between Bush and his rival, the sitting Vice President Gore.

Yet the imbalance of reportage toward Bush also reflects the degree to which the coverage this year has revolved around news events rather than campaign activities.

While this is a potential advantage for an incumbent, this year the bulk of these messages studied were negative. Roughly a third, 32%, made claims of Bush's arrogance. Another quarter, 24%, asserted his lack of credibility. Just 16% were the positive message his campaign has been trying to assert.

Four years ago, by contrast, the positive image of Bush as a "compassionate conservative" clearly outweighed the negative traits Gore was trying to project about him.

Percent of Themes By Candidate
(Excluding refuting themes)

Description of Themes Percent
Bush is arrogant 32.4%
Bush lacks credibility 23.9
Bush is a strong & decisive leader 16.0
Total Bush Themes 72.3
Kerry hems and haws, can't make a decisive statement 11.7
Kerry is very liberal 10.6
Kerry is a tough guy who won't back down 4.4
Kerry is an elitist, not like you and me 1.0
Total Kerry Themes 27.7
Total 100%
(Total # of Themes = 955)  

Kerry's candidacy, on the other hand, has largely been absent in the news so far, accounting for just 28% of the themes overall.

When the press did choose to include Kerry in stories that talked about the presidential election, the message was most often negative, just as it was for Bush. Statements about Kerry's tendency to change his mind on issues made up 12% of all themes. Similarly, those presenting him as very liberal made up 11%.

The supportive image of him as a tough guy who won't back down, on the other hand, made up a mere 4% of all messages.

The study also initially looked for the theme that Kerry, a product of prep schools and Yale and married to a multi-millionaire, is an elitist. The Bush campaign said it intended to tar Kerry with this image. In the end, however, this theme did not receive significant play: just 1% of the reportage-10 mentions in all the 1,073 assertions studied.1

Another feature of the campaign coverage this year is that rather than producing conventional campaign stories such as stump stories or background pieces about the candidates, news events are dominating the coverage. The campaign sits in the background while the war in Iraq or the 9-11 Commission is the lens through which the race is discussed.

Part of this no doubt has to do with the nature of the news today. Yet that may not be the whole explanation. The focus of a campaign also reflects the nature of the sitting president.

In the wake of the presidency of Bill Clinton, whose charms and failings were more personal than policy oriented, character may have seemed a more important concern in choosing his successor.

President Bush's perceived strengths and weaknesses, in contrast, may have more to do with policy and approach, such as his emphasis on tax cuts, his embrace of unilateralism in foreign affairs and his more squarely conservative approach at home. Thus the coverage has focused more on these issues rather than on their perceived personal characteristics.

1. Incidentally, these master narratives showed up equally as often in newspapers as in television. About 40% of all the assertions studied appeared in newspapers and another 40% in television. Internet blogs accounted for just 20%. The one message that was more likely to appear in print (about twice as likely) was that President Bush lacked credibility. In all, 62% of these assertions were found in newspapers, compared with 29% on TV.