July 12, 2004

Character and the Campaign

The Message Changes Over Time

Since March, the biggest change in the campaign character narratives is that they have been lost in news events. Instead of picking up the emphasis on campaign messages, as the candidates refined their rhetoric and the conventions and elections draw closer, the press has been moving away from it.

And it is not that the seven themes we first examined have been replaced by others, or that negative messages were replaced by positive ones.

Indeed, while the negative messages trailed off as time went on, so did the positive ones.

Instead, news events have overwhelmed everything.

Even with this, there was some ebb and flow of each of the themes.

Bush Lacks Credibility

The question of Bush's leadership qualities arose early on in the coverage and then trailed away. Roughly three-quarters of the assertions about Bush lacking credibility came in March and April, peaking in March, during the testimony of former National Coordinator for Counter Terrorism Richard Clarke and the debate over whether National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice should testify.

The source of this charge was just as often journalists themselves as it was the Kerry campaign.

Sometimes it was simply the message that journalists interpreted out of all the events that seemed to be transpiring, as on April 13, when CBS' John Roberts reported, "At stake tonight, the president's credibility, chipped away at in recent weeks by the twin issues of Iraq and the 9/11 investigation."

Other times, Kerry himself raised this charge directly against Bush, though his speaking style was so tangled, it made it difficult for reporters to get a clean quote.

AP reporter Mike Glover did his best on April 14, when he quoted Kerry as saying, "I think we've already made it clear, many of us, that the way the President went about this was more than a mistake, in the sense that when the President broke promises…He promised he would go to war as a last resort. He broke every one of those promises."

Bush is Arrogant

The same basic arc over time was true of the theme that Bush is arrogant. Fully 79% of the assertions came in March and April.

Here journalists seemed even freer to bring the charge on their own volition, often interpreting events, as did Caryn James in the New York Times analysis of Richard Clarke's book on May 14, in which she reported that "Mr. Clarke's forceful narrative and behind the scenes details allow him to make a strong case that the Bush White House dangerously neglected terrorism in favor of going after Iraq."

Bush is a Strong and Decisive Leader

The notion that the president was strong and decisive most often came from his own surrogates and aides, and usually was proffered not with any concrete evidence but largely as opinion.

A typical example came April 14 on the front page of the Washington Post from political reporter Dan Balz quoting a Republican Senator. "Sen Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) said she thought Bush 'showed he was a leader in every sense of the word,' and said he 'outlined and justified a bold and ambitious plan to combat terror around the world.'"

Sometimes, of course, one person's vision of stubbornness is another's sign of decisiveness, as in a front-page story by David Sanger in the New York Times from April 14, assessing a presidential press conference. "With those words," Sanger analyzed, "Mr. Bush drove home the singlemindedness that has become the hallmark of his presidency, his greatest strength in the eyes of his admirers, and a dangerous never-change-course stubbornness in the eyes of his detractors."

For Kerry there is a slightly different story, one that suggests that while negative accusations may not be haunting him as much as Bush, he risks failing to create any image of himself whatsoever.

Kerry is a Liberal

In March, the most likely impression one might have found in the press about the expected Democratic nominee was that he was a liberal. Nearly three quarters of the projections of this message in the press came in March.

Many of these assertions were tied directly to the Bush campaign's advertising released at the time, which talked about the gas tax and where Kerry might take the country. Once those ads had been released, however, that message virtually disappeared.

Usually, the source for this was the Bush campaign. Or it might be journalists characterizing Republican strategy, as occurred May 15 when Paul Farhi in the Washington Post reported that, "Republicans are likely to tie the worldwide publicity over [Massachusetts's ruling on gay marriage] to Kerry in an effort to paint him as a northeastern liberal who is out of touch with the values of the rest of the country."

Kerry is a Flip Flopper

The biggest problem Kerry may have is shaking the idea that he epitomizes the stereotype of the equivocating politician.

This was the most consistent character message about Kerry over the four months of press coverage studied. According to polls, it is perhaps the clearest impression the public holds of him at this point. It is also the one notion about the Democratic candidate that seems to have penetrated the public consciousness enough to make it to the late night comedy programs. And it is the negative message hit on most consistently in Bush campaign ads, using Kerry's own words.

Thus, Kerry the flip flopper might have made what could be called the perfect four-corner bank shot of political communication, a negative impression coming at you from all sources-news, ads, fellow citizens and comedians.

Listen to Tim Russert on April 11's Meet the Press. "And the Republicans pounding away on the flip flops of John Kerry, day after day." Sometimes it was reporters citing Kerry's voting record, as on April 14th, when NBC's Carl Quintanilla noted, "For weeks, Kerry's position on the war has been criticized even by Democrats as too vague as he's wrestled with the question on television… Kerry's own voting record on the war is inconsistent."

Kerry is a Tough Guy

The glimmer of good news for Kerry is that, while not large, the one positive message he wants to project-the idea of his personal toughness-remained relatively steady in the press coverage. If Kerry is to find a way to create a more lasting and more upbeat impression with the American people, at the moment, this is the message for which he has laid the most groundwork.

As was true with both of the positive character themes for the candidates, often this one was projected by the campaign itself, as when on May 14 the AP's Mike Glover quoted fellow Democrat Wesley Clark. "'John Kerry has been in the company of heroes his whole life,' Clark said. 'He saw real action; he was in combat virtually every day. When you've done this, you don't have to go around saying you're a leader.'"

The Master Narrative in News versus Commentary

One might have thought that these master narrative themes about candidate character, since they are basically interpretive messages, would be more the province of editorials, talk shows or analysis pieces in the newspaper, rather than in news stories.

Not so.

A breakdown of the types of stories in which these narrative themes appear shows that they were as likely, and in some cases even more likely, to appear in news stories and TV segments than in analytical pieces or editorials and op-eds.