Winning the Media Campaign
For Governor Sarah Palin, her best days in the national spotlight were her first. After being named McCain’s running mate, she quickly became a major part of the campaign narrative, and a positive one as well. When her problems came, as it turned out, she was already largely beginning to recede from center stage.
Overall, for the six weeks studied here, Palin was a significant factor in only half as many stories as the main contenders, or 28% of all of the election stories. That, however, is about three times that of Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden (9%).
That percentage might have been even higher were it not for two factors—the emergence of the economic crisis and the apparent limits of Palin’s impact on the polls. In addition, the campaign strove to shield Palin from the press, granting just two interviews in the weeks following the convention. This likely dampened some coverage but also increased the press impact of the two main interviews granted.
A week later, as the economic crisis took hold of Washington and the two presidential contenders responded, stories involving Palin dropped by more than half (to 23%) of the coverage.
Some might have imagined she would have seen a resurgence with her much-talked-about interview series with CBS anchor Katie Couric. Not so. The week the bulk of those interviews aired (Sept. 24-28), press attention to Palin fell even lower, to 15%.
Part of the further decline was likely tied to the economic crisis and McCain’s dramatic announcement that week that he would suspend his campaign to focus on the proposed economic bailout package. Yet this number may also reflect another phenomenon. Much of the impact of those Palin interviews came from people replaying and emailing them from YouTube and other websites, including CBS’ own. That kind of viral media flies somewhat below the radar of traditional measurements of the news agenda.
Attention to Plain did spike briefly again with the October 2 vice presidential debate. Anticipation for the event was high after even some conservatives criticized her performance in the Couric interviews. Viewership for the Biden-Palin encounter hit record levels. And afterwards there was a fair amount of discussion about whether the Alaska governor had exceeded the lowered expectations. When the week was over (Sept. 29-Oct. 5), Palin was a major newsmaker in more than half (51%) of the coverage—more than any of the other candidates during the period. It was Joe Biden’s high water mark in exposure as well, though he remained far below that of the governor (31%).
Yet in some ways, Palin’s passing the test of the debate seemed to have the effect of reducing her importance as a key player, at least to a degree. She was now less controversial than she had been when there were more acute doubts about her, but she was also receiving less coverage. By the next week (Oct. 6-10), Palin’s presence in the news fell back down to just 18% of the stories and then to a mere 8% by mid-October.
Tone of Palin Coverage
How did Palin fare in the press? In the end, Palin’s coverage was more negative than positive during the six weeks examined.
Roughly four-in-ten stories about Palin carried a clearly negative tone (39%). That is slightly more than the percentage that were neutral or mixed (33%), and fully eleven points more than the percentage that were positive (28%).
Thus Palin’s coverage was twice as positive as McCain’s (28% vs. 14%), and nearly twenty points less negative (39% vs. 57%).
Palin also received slightly more positive coverage than Biden (28% vs. 25%), as well as more negative coverage (39% vs. 32%). Arguably the effect of these differences was more important since the volume of her coverage was triple that of Biden’s.
What was the trajectory? Did Palin, after burning brightly at first, just fade away?
Not really. Instead, what began well for Palin turned negative and then began to bounce more up and down.
Palin’s best week in the press came the week after the GOP convention, when Palin received more positive coverage than McCain, Obama or Biden. During that period, Sept. 8-14, which ended with the candidate’s interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson, 41% of the campaign stories about Palin painted her in a positive light. McCain was close behind (37% positive), while only 20% of Obama’s coverage was clearly positive. Joe Biden was virtually invisible.
The following week, September 15-23, when the economic crisis exploded into the headlines and changed the campaign dynamic, the tone of her coverage reversed itself: 41% of her coverage was negative versus just 23% positive.
Questions about her aptitude for the job, her knowledge of foreign affairs and her negative impact on the race dominated the media. On MSNBC’s Hardball September 29, guest Joan Walsh of Salon remarked, “I thought she absolutely did not understand what was in the bailout . . . It was a complete disconnect.” And Fox News correspondent Carl Cameron observed on the Special Report with Britt Hume that same day that Palin’s foreign policy response, “continues to raise eyebrows.”
Palin regrouped some with the vice presidential debate, though in the days leading up to the event, many strategists questioned the governor’s readiness. The day before the debate, ABC commentator George Stephanopoulos remarked on World News Tonight that the “number of Americans questioning her qualifications, her readiness is steadily rising ….There is no question she’s become a bit of a drag on the ticket so far.”
Palin proved at least some of her skeptics wrong. Linda Feldman of the Christian Science Monitor wrote a story the day after the debate titled, “Could there be two Sarah Palins?” The candidate in the debate, she says, was “articulate, charming, and well-prepared.” Her performance, however, wasn’t enough to even out the tone of the press coverage. The week of the debate (September 29-October 5), negative stories about Palin still outweighed positive, 47% versus 28%, with 25% neutral or mixed. (Biden’s coverage, by contrast, was largely neutral, 53%, and twice as positive as negative, 33% positive versus 15% negative.) The debate helped Palin, but it did not erase the doubts audiences might be seeing in the press coverage.
What the debate appeared to do instead for Palin was help her enter the final days of the campaign with something of a more mixed image in the press, tending toward negative. As the spotlight turned back to the presidential nominees, the majority of coverage about Palin (56%) was neutral or balanced in tone, though negative stories still outweighed the positive, 32% versus 12%.
During the week of the last presidential debate (October 12-16) Palin was virtually absent from the press (just 8% of the election coverage that week), but the coverage she did receive had again moved more negative—46% versus 23% positive and 31% neutral or mixed.
Explaining Tone for Palin