July 12, 2004

Character and the Campaign

What the Study Examined

To a large degree, journalists and political scientists have noted that presidential campaigns are dominated by a handful of themes, usually those that revolve around the character of the candidates. These might be called the "master narratives" of the campaign and they can raise or sink a candidacy.

In a way, these master or metanarratives are the modern equivalent of pack journalism. While the reporters are no longer all standing together in a group, literally looking over each others shoulder as they write, they tend to synthesize and react to each other's coverage to such an extent that it can be difficult for candidates to escape the impression created by these narratives or to project a different one.

In 2000, a study by the Project found that Vice President Gore was dogged by the notion that he was tainted by scandal. Then-Governor Bush was portrayed primarily as a different kind of Republican but he was also tagged with the idea that he was dim.

For this year, we identified seven themes about Bush and Kerry that we expected to be most prevalent. We then verified that these were the most dominant character themes in the press coverage. We also examined advertising to see whether these were the themes the candidates themselves were trying to project–either about themselves or about their rival. The seven most prevalent themes were:

  • Bush is a strong and decisive leader
  • Bush is arrogant and unwilling to admit mistakes
  • Bush lacks credibility and twists the facts
  • Kerry is a tough guy who won't back down from a fight
  • Kerry hems and haws and can't make a decisive statement
  • Kerry is very liberal
  • Kerry is an elitist, not like you and me

The study examined how common each theme was in the press, the basis for the theme and the source who tended to make it.

The study also examined the degree to which each of the themes was rebutted in each story.

In addition, the study examined the advertising of each campaign to see to what extent it projected these themes and looked at late night comedy shows to see if they were mirroring these themes in their satire.

The results were then twinned with a companion survey of public attitudes about the candidates by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The two studies together allow us to explore how much these press messages, ad messages and comedy messages are shaping public opinion of the candidates.

The study examined a mixed media universe of six newspapers, twenty TV and radio programs and five Internet sites over a period of four weeks–sampling one week of each month from March through June.1

Due to the nature of the probe, the content study examined each occurrence of these character themes within stories. A given story might contain more than one theme or assertion about a candidate, or contain assertions about both candidates.

Overall more than 1,500 election stories were examined. In all, 506 of these contained at least one theme for a total of 1,073 themes.2

Footnotes 

1. The fourth week, scheduled to be from June 1 – June 7, was cut short due to the death of President Ronald Reagan. Both campaigns suspended all activities for several days following his death on June 5. This final week of coding ended June 5 for a 5-day week.

2. Of the 1,073 total assertions, 118 were refutations of the threads and are analyzed separately in this report. Therefore, for most of this analysis, the total n is 955 specific assertions.