Character and the Primaries of 2008
If the overall message in the press was positive for both Democrats, the momentum shifted markedly. Clinton’s coverage was relatively stable, with a brief exception. Obama’s, in contrast with what some critics might think, got steadily more negative as time went on, beginning as early as mid-January.
In looking at the two Democratic contenders, we divided weeks into four main time periods:
- Jan 1 – 13: Momentum shifts dramatically from Obama to Clinton with different verdicts in Iowa and New Hampshire.
- Jan 14 – Feb 11: The realization that there is no clear winner and likely won’t be for some time.
- Feb 12 – Feb 24: Obama’s primary winning streak make him the clear front-runner.
- Feb 25 – Mar 9: Clinton saves her campaign in Texas and Ohio while questions about Obama emerge.
Obama over Time
For Obama, the good news is the heavy dominance of positive character messages overall. The bad news is that over time, his positive narrative has been steadily eroding.
The year started off with pro-Obama assertions representing 77% of the narratives studied about him. But by early March that figure had dropped to 53%, a 24-point decline. The battle for control of the Obama message was clearly getting more difficult. The last period here, February 25 to March 9, encompasses the days after Clinton accused the media of being soft on Obama and his campaign faced questions over ties to a controversial Chicago developer and the consistency of his stance on NAFTA.
Much of the drop came from a fall off in the prevalence of Obama’s message of hope and change and a rise the opponents’ claims that he is too inexperienced for the job. In the first two weeks of the year—the Iowa and New Hampshire contests—the idea that Obama represented change accounted for a remarkable 38% of all the assertions about him that we studied.
That number fell slightly (to 32% of assertions) during the South Carolina and Super Tuesday battles—hard-fought, contentious contests that reinforced the sense of deadlock and drama in the Democratic race. By mid-February, even while Obama racked up impressive victories in the Potomac primaries and Wisconsin and emerged as the clear front-runner, the dominance of his hope message dropped by half, to only 20% of assertions about him.
As the message of hope lost force, what rose, particularly from February 25 through March 9 (the final time period of this study), was closer scrutiny of Obama’s character and preparedness for the job. From the “Saturday Night Live” skit on February 23 suggesting Obama was getting an easy ride from the press (a skit Clinton seized on during a debate on February 26), to an “endorsement” from Louis Farrakhan, to a photo of Obama wearing traditional African attire, Obama found himself more on the defensive.
Criticism about his youth and lack of experience roughly tripled in the coverage compared with the first weeks of 2008. Whereas from January 1 through February 11, only 9% of the personal themes focused on his lack of experience, from February 25 through March 9, it jumped to 25%, making it the dominant thread during this time.
This turnabout also came the week before the Reverend Wright videos began to circulate.  It seems safe to imagine that as March wore on, things only got harder for the Illinois senator, as the press focused on his comments about “bitter” blue collar Americans and the issue of Rev. Wright and association with a former a former 1960s radical Weatherman member continued. Indeed, our separate analysis shows that these storylines got substantial coverage. Though these later events are not included in this analysis, even Obama himself called them distractions from the message he was trying to project.
One personal narrative that did not wane was the idea that Obama was an unusually charismatic figure with the ability to move audiences with his rhetorical skill. Throughout the 10-week period, the presence in the press of this personal narrative about Obama wavered only slightly. It accounted for 18% of the Obama narratives studied in the first weeks of January and was still at 15% by early March.
At several distinct points in the campaign, opponents tried to challenge the sense of charisma attached to the Illinois senator. The biggest challenge came in mid-February when the Clinton campaign felt her chances sliding away as Obama captured unexpectedly strong wins in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin. During this time the Clinton campaign struck hard at Obama’s rhetoric, and made considerable inroads. Assertions casting doubt about the substance of his rhetoric nearly matched statements praising it (13% doubting versus 16% praising).
But by early March, the challenges to Obama’s appeal waned to 7%, or about only half as many assertions acknowledging his charisma.
Clinton over Time
Unlike Obama’s downward slide, the trajectory of the character themes surrounding the former first lady over the 10-week period might be better described as hitting a single pot-hole in the middle of an otherwise fairly smooth road.
In the first two weeks of the year, her narrative was almost as heavily positive as her opponent’s. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of the prominent personal themes in the coverage were positive. As she rebounded from the Iowa loss with an upset win in New Hampshire, more than half of her character coverage focused on two traits: her preparedness to lead the country (28%) and her likeability (26%). Yes, it was her likeability—not her un-likeability—that commanded press attention. Assertions refuting the idea that Clinton was unlikable appeared five times as often as statements about her unlikeability (6%) in these two weeks. One factor here was a moment that Clinton herself created, appearing to break down on camera when asked about the rigors of the campaign trail.
But from January 14 through February 11, as Obama stacked up primary wins in the Super Tuesday states and South Carolina, Clinton’s personal narrative hit tougher times. In the heated and sometimes frankly personal exchanges between the two Democrats over race and character, comments by Black Entertainment founder Robert Johnson on behalf of Clinton ended up backfiring; Bill Clinton’s attempt to take on a larger role in the campaign—largely as the daily attack dog—also appeared to misfire, leading ABC reporter Dan Harris wonder “whether Hillary Clinton can rein in her husband even if she wanted to.” 
During this bruising time, her opponents hammered away at all three of the most prominent negative character traits. Charges of her un-likeability more than doubled from early January to 13%. Accusations about her lack of core beliefs increased nearly five-fold to 14%. And, the claim that she is stuck in the past continued its drumbeat (15%). Overall, the positive tone of her narrative faded to 55%, versus 45% that were negative.
The one saving factor during this time period was that, despite all that was happening, the campaign was able to increase (to 37% of all Clinton messages we studied) the attention to her preparedness to lead the country. The press may have portrayed Clinton as unlikable and opportunistic, but the idea of her experience and competence during this time grew, not waned.
In mid-February, the coverage of her leadership, history and character rebounded to 74% positive.
Indeed, during the next two-week period of big losses for Clinton in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin, and Obama’s emergence as the front-runner, Clinton somehow managed to wrestle back on top of her message.
The dominance of the idea that she was ready to lead the country nearly doubled during this period from the first weeks of January, to 51% of all character assertions. The influence of Clinton as a skilled politician also doubled to 16% of all assertions. The only negative theme that garnered nearly that much press attention (14%) was that she represented the status quo.
It could be as well that some of her rebound had to do with the heavy focus on the primaries themselves. With the press and the Obama campaign so caught up in the primary results, much less attention was devoted to her personal themes at all—one-third as much.
In the last two weeks of the study (February 25—March 9) the positive tenor of Clinton’s personal narrative fell only slightly to 69%. As references to Clinton’s narratives increased (to 236 assertions), the sense of her as a ready leader remained steady (51%) and her image as a strong politician who could beat McCain dropped only slightly (to 13%). The theme that re-gained the most traction during these weeks was her un-likeability, though it was only a small fraction of her personal narratives (8%).
In the end, the Clinton campaign headed into the final weeks of the primary battle not only surviving a huge surge from her competitor that nearly put her out of the race, but also more in command of her message then the candidate known for his rhetoric.
1. The Reverend Wright video began circulation the week of March 10. Obama’s speech in Philadelphia was on March 18
2. ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson, January 21, 2008. See video at http://abcnews.go.com/video/playerIndex?id=4167987.