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[Washington Babylon]

The Press and the Campaign: Boosting Obama and McCain


Plus: Hillary Loses Key Endorsement

If the campaign polls are to be trusted, and they seem to be uniformly in agreement, Barack Obama will beat Hillary Clinton by a comfortable margin in New Hampshire and may well be on his way towards securing the Democratic nomination. If that happens, a few hundred thousand voters in Iowa, an atypical state bordering Illinois, will have effectively destroyed Hillary Clinton’s presidential aspirations. If fate and the two major parties had decreed that New York and Florida voted first and second, Obama might well be the one currently on the ropes. (And who knows, if Alaska had been up first we might be now discussing the inevitable triumph of Mike Gravel.)

Obama’s success so far isn’t entirely a result of the quirks of political geography. He’s a terrific campaigner, remarkable fundraiser, hugely charismatic and hard to run against. On the other side, there’s Hillary Clinton’s less than winning personality, her vote on the Iraq War, poll-driven campaign and Bush-Clinton dynasty fatigue.

Another factor in Obama’s favor is (just as the Clinton campaign claims) that the media seems to be strongly in his corner. McCain gets great press too, far better than any of the other Republican contenders. In some accounts, his fourth place tie in Iowa was deemed to be as impressive as Mike Huckabee’s triumph. “Tonight is a fantastic night for John McCain,” the Politico’s Mike Allen told Fox News. “Except for Barack Obama, there’s almost no one you’d rather be tonight than John McCain.”

Painful as it is for me to cite Howard Kurtz, he wrote a good piece about the respective coverage last month, noting, “Journalists repeatedly described Obama as a ‘rock star’ when he jumped into the race in January. His missteps — such as when his staff mocked Clinton’s position on the outsourcing of jobs overseas by referring to the Democrat not as representing a state but as ‘D-Punjab’ — generated modest coverage, but rarely at the level surrounding Clinton’s mistakes.”

Remember that big story about how “an Obama volunteer wearing a press pass asked the candidate a friendly question about tax policy at an Iowa event”? Neither do I. As Kurtz noted, citing an online posting by ABC, “[S]everal of the assembled reporters huddled and concluded that it was not a story, one of them said. Clinton faced a storm of media criticism over a similar planted question.”

You may have also missed this good piece from last July by Justin Rood of ABC, “Despite Rhetoric, Obama Pushed Lobbyists’ Interests,” which got little pick up. I suspect it would have been far more widely circulated if the name “Clinton” appeared in the headline.)

“Let’s face it. In the grand scheme of things, Clinton is The Get,” said a story in late-December in the Huffington Post. “She’s the number-one seed. The road to the White House goes through her.” The piece also criticized the media’s “hopelessly inane discussion of Clinton’s use of ‘the gender card’…If there’s advantage to be had there, why is it unfair for her to claim it?”

I’ve had conversations with political reporters whose sympathies for Obama and McCain were pretty clear. Meanwhile, reporters are far less enamored of Clinton or, to take the most obvious example on the GOP side, Mitt Romney. Of course, the Clinton campaign is partly to blame. It’s been heavy-handed and contemptuous towards the press from the get-go, and, predictably, has made enemies. And everyone seems to dislike Romney, including his Republican opponents.

How can personal opinions not impact the collective campaign coverage? (Just as my own skepticism about Obama’s commitment to “change” led me to underestimate his personal appeal). In reading election night reports from Iowa and over the past few days, the rooting for Obama and McCain sometimes seems almost palpable.

There’s no way to quantify the impact of press favoritism, or even to prove it for that matter. But I’d argue it’s a factor every bit as significant as fundraising, organization, and staff (all of which are as important as ideas and policies, as the collective media hysteria known as the Howard Dean “Scream” of 2004 proved). In this year’s race, that’s to the very good fortune of Obama and McCain.

Note: I reported two days ago that the best reason I could find to support Hillary Clinton was that I have a 13-year-old daughter who backs her. My daughter now tells me I have mischaracterized her position. She says it would be great to have the first woman president but it would also be “phenomenal” to have the first African-American president. Hence, she is neutral and will not be making an official endorsement.

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