Once again, the game of politics—rather than the ideas or even the background of the personalities—has dominated how the press has presented the race for president.
What is new in 2008 is how quickly this has begun, nearly a year before the first votes will be cast. The early start to the race, and even the large number of candidates running, has not changed this strategic lens of the press. Simply put if one were to have imagined that this earlier beginning made the first polls even more a reflection of name recognition than they once were and thus the tactical maneuvering of the candidates less meaningful, that notion has not taken hold in the American media.
One other finding of this study is that the news media also appear to be preoccupied with the head-to-head contest of the first major African American candidate and the first serious female contender for a major party nomination on the Democratic side.
But the prospect of a dramatic ideological realignment in the GOP, in which a candidate with more moderate history on social issues is the leader in national polls in Giuliani and a formerly moderate Republican is leading in Iowa in Romney, did not similarly capture the press’ imagination.
There are other factors that may have tipped the press’ gaze more toward Democrats. The Republicans candidates with large war chests announced later than Democrats, and that would explain part of why Republicans received less news attention in the first five months of coverage. But it does not explain all of the difference, for even after the GOP race had begun, Democrats continued to get more exposure.
That tilt toward Democrats and elite candidates was truer of some outlets more than others. One news operation studied stands out as offering a contrast to these trends–The News Hour on PBS. It took a measurably different approach, focusing on all the candidates and offering audiences a broad look at their agendas for the country.
As for the more critical tone for Republicans, there are various possible explanations. The strategic context of the Republican candidacies did not always cast them in a positive light. On the plus side, Romney’s fundraising, like Obama’s, exceeded predications. The result was relatively positive coverage even though his national polling was in the single digits.
But the failure of John McCain’s campaign to gain traction led to negative coverage for his candidacy.
A good deal of the negative coverage of other Republican candidates may well have resulted from press skepticism about their chances for the nomination. Giuliani continues to be regarded possibly too liberal for the social conservatives. Romney’s religion and his former support for abortion rights is also a potential stumbling block with socially conservative Republicans. These perceived flaws of these and other candidates probably accounts for the positive treatment of Fred Thompson, who initially offered the prospect of filling that void on the right. That in turn was fueled by Thompson’s name recognition in the polls – due in significant part to his acting career.
But if, in the early stages of the race, the 2008 presidential campaign represents a possible shift away from the Republican party of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and a generational struggle in both parties, neither of these more idea-oriented themes are heavily evident in the early press coverage. If American politics is changing, the style and approach of the American press does not appear to be changing with it.