July 10, 2008

Two campaign speeches, one JFK moment?

Through the 2008 primary election season, two candidates—Democratic Senator Barack Obama and Republican former governor Mitt Romney—received more media attention about their faith than any of the other candidates combined.

For both, the attention raised concerns about their religious identities and culminated in public speeches delivered at pivotal points in their campaigns.

To better understand the media’s role in raising these concerns, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life closely examined newspaper coverage in the months—and years—leading up to each speech as well as in the weeks that followed.

Using LexisNexis, we traced each candidate’s religion narrative back to earlier days in public office and then tracked the ways in which these narratives ebbed and flowed over time. What we found were two very different trajectories.

Romney’s campaign had hinted for some time that he might give such a speech, but they held out until Mike Huckabee began to surge in the polls and the Iowa caucuses approached. But even before the speech was delivered the press had saddled him with comparisons to John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech on faith, a comparison that only worked against the former governor. And while the speech was deemed a necessary hurdle, it solidified religious concerns which the once GOP front-runner was ultimately unable to surmount.

The media narrative leading up to Obama’s speech was somewhat more complicated, as it was fraught with racial and ethnic issues that often obscured the religion angle on the story. A sudden one-two punch, with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s semi-endorsement of Obama followed by a media-created event releasing clips of Wright’s sermons, drove Obama to give his speech. But what had been damage-control proved surprisingly successful for the candidate. The JFK comparison that had hung like a millstone on Romney’s image was bestowed on Obama, this time, as a compliment.

But Wright returned to the spotlight for Act Two, this time to clear his name. The story’s re-emergence suggests that Obama’s church, religious affiliations, and even his overall faith background may cast a shadow over his campaign in the general election.