Press's Power Over Opinion Disputed : Media Boomlet for Babbitt Has Little Impact on Polls

Times Staff Writer

The rumbling began in November, the popping noises around Christmas.

By mid-January, the "Babbitt media boomlet" was on. And for the next three weeks, Democratic presidential candidate Bruce Babbitt, dead last in the polls, enjoyed a rare crush of rave notices from the nation's press corps.

In the past week, the first polls following all the publicity were published, and they challenge the axiom that the press is the dominant shaper of public opinion in presidential politics.

Babbitt has risen modestly after his moment of fame.

But Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who lately has received perhaps the toughest press treatment of any candidate, has shot dramatically from nearly last to the front of the pack in polls in Iowa, where the first major test of the campaign occurs with the Feb. 8 caucuses.

The lesson, say political professionals, is that the press's role in presidential politics is more subtle than conventional wisdom would suggest, particularly in the early contests.

In Iowa and New Hampshire, where presidential politics is about as easy to ignore as a Shriners' convention in your living room, the press is just one voice in the party's din.

And even then, not that many are listening.

"Not everybody reads through all those long stories," said Babbitt's press secretary, Michael D. McCurry. "They may be aware there is some guy named Babbitt . . . but they aren't quite aware what they are hearing."

At times during the campaign, officials caution, the press will hold enormous sway: When matters seem uncertain, the press has a habit of imposing verdicts--and that perception becomes politics' reality.

But at least for now, events this year counter some of the conventional wisdom of presidential campaigns, which holds, in the words of George Bush's media consultant Roger Ailes, that "the public gets most of its information on presidential candidates from the news media."

Media Group-Think

Regardless of its impact, the Babbitt Boomlet offers a crash course in media group-think.

Dayton Duncan, who was one of Walter F. Mondale's chief campaign organizers in 1984 and now is writing a book about the New Hampshire primary, describes the press corps as a "campaignapede," a multi-headed insect whose antennae point inward, picking up most of its information from itself.

When the insect found Bruce Babbitt, the former Arizona governor was already in debt and dead last in the Iowa, New Hampshire and national polls.

Among the first to discover him was Jack Beatty, a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly who sometimes writes for the Los Angeles Times' op-ed page and Opinion section.

Babbitt's proposals, Beatty wrote, represent "the most imaginative program for reform since that of the New Deal." But Beatty concluded that Babbitt was dead last because the "Eastern media," which figured Arizona was all cowboy boots and cactus, had ignored him.

Then the Washington Monthly, grading the Democrats on the substance of their ideas in late December, gave Babbitt 3.17 out of 4.0. No one else bettered 1.5.

Praise From New Republic

A few days later, a long laudatory profile in the New Republic, another staple of the political press corps, praised the back-runner for having the "supplest mind, the most coherent and interesting set of proposals and the most impressive record" of any Democrat running.

Early in the new year, Time magazine called him "the only candidate offering a realistic plan for serious deficit reductions," a view the New York Times seconded. Newsweek said Babbitt was set "apart" because he had the guts to propose trimming federal benefits to the middle class.

A Washington Post feature stunned even Babbitt's aides: "He persists in the notion that speaking the truth to the masses not only makes a man a prophet, it makes him President."

Frustrated officials from rival campaigns frowned. "Reporters bought into the idea that the only intellectually honest approach to deficit reduction is through raising taxes," said Illinois Sen. Paul Simon's campaign spokesman, Terry Michael.

And then the Boston Globe, New York Times, ABC and NBC started doing stories about all the positive stories the press was writing.

Perspective From Polls

Now, with a round of polls conducted last week, some sense can be had of what difference it all made.

In early December, before former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart re-entered the race, Babbitt sat at the bottom of the pack with roughly 7% of likely Iowa caucus-goers pledging to support him.

After Hart's return, Babbitt dropped to 2% or 3%.

Now, after the media boomlet, he rose to roughly 10%. Babbitt's highest surge came in a Los Angeles Times poll of New Hampshire voters released this week. It showed Babbitt in third place, the preferred candidate of 13% of New Hampshire Democrats.

But internal polls from the campaigns show Babbitt lower. Polls conducted by Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' campaign, for instance, show Hart--not Babbitt--in third place in New Hampshire, behind Dukakis and Simon. Gephardt, Babbitt, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. are bunched in single digits at the bottom.

Even Babbitt media consultant Greg Schneiders, whose job it is to sell reporters the best interpretation of his man, is not claiming any great surge. The media boomlet, Schneiders maintained, has increased Babbitt's name recognition so that he can now surge in the polls.

Some Gains in Ohio

Rival campaigns agree that Babbitt has gained name recognition. Simon's polls show that the share of Iowa voters who knew Babbitt had risen from 44% to 54% since the boomlet.

Yet Babbitt's "negatives," the percentage of voters who say there are things about a candidate they dislike, also rose.

In more concrete terms, the boomlet "energized the troops and helped us raise money," said press secretary McCurry. Babbitt raised $100,000 the third week of January, McCurry said. The most he had raised in any one month in 1987, let alone one week, was $75,000.

But in terms of actual supporters, "It gave him a boost among the news junkies," said Simon pollster Paul Maslin, referring to well-educated, affluent urban voters who are involved in politics and pay the most attention to news.

But that group is so small in Iowa, Maslin said, that Babbitt is still in single digits of support.

"I think the effect of these media things is on the institutional players, the people who are very active, the politicians, campaign people, and the other media people," Gephardt pollster Ed Reilly said.

Some Key Variables

"But whether it trickles down to actual voters," Reilly said, depends on the many other variables of presidential politics, any one of which at a given time might prove key: organization, TV ads, debates, stump style and whether the message will appeal to citizens, not just the press corps.

The rise of Gephardt in the polls also challenges the notion that the press holds powerful sway over Iowans.

"If there is anybody in this race who over the last month has had it rough in the press, it was Dick Gephardt," said one campaign official.

Privately, many reporters on the campaign trail are suspicious of Gephardt, who has been criticized for changing his message to suit his audience. In stump appearances, in turn, Gephardt indulges in press-bashing as a way of appealing to voters.

Despite this sometimes strained relationship with the press corps, Gephardt surged from just above Babbitt in Iowa polls after Hart's return to a dead heat for first this week, jumping from roughly 6% to nearly 20%.

The most oft-cited explanation is that after Christmas, Gephardt hit Iowa TV for the first time with five sophisticated commercials widely considered as among the best produced by any candidate.

But if Iowa voters have firsthand information and are not persuaded by positive stories on TV and in Time and Newsweek about Babbitt, why should they be swayed by commercials by Gephardt?

"Legitimizing" Effect

Jackson adviser Ann S. Lewis suggested that it was because in modern politics TV ads "legitimize" people.

"It turns the man you met the other day into a real celebrity. He's on TV, he's not just someone who knocked on your door. So if you already preferred him, it will legitimize your preference."

But even Gephardt officials now say the reason for Gephardt's rise is more subtle than that.

"The key catalyst was Hart re-entering the race," said Gephardt pollster Reilly. "It ended the period of 'Waiting For Godot,' " he said, referring to the phenomenon that occurred earlier in the race when voters held back allegiance thinking some other candidate, perhaps New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, might enter.

Once Hart returned, Reilly said, the feeling was: "All the candidates running were in. It was time to start lining up."

The widely praised ads hit about two weeks later. And even then, officials said, the ads alone would have been pointless if not combined with Gephardt's generally impressive Iowa organization and Gephardt's populist message seemingly well-suited to Iowa.

'Things Fed on Themselves'

"All these things fed on themselves," said Gephardt's New Hampshire campaign director, Mark Longabaugh.

One also cannot tell at any given time what ingredient will prove crucial. While the press's kiss failed to fully wake Babbitt from his sleep in the Iowa polls, it could have the magic touch in deciding who departs Iowa with the greatest momentum.

The reason, say campaign officials, is that the press can have great power over events that lack clear meaning. If the Iowa results are split, with two or three candidates near the top, the interpretive spin the press gives the results will be as important as the caucus vote itself.

In 1984, for instance, Hart was perceived as something of a winner in Iowa with 16% of caucus delegates, because front-runner Mondale's 49% was considered disappointing.

The media are fickle too. The Babbitt Boomlet could very quickly become the Babbitt Backlash.

"The man does not walk on water," said press secretary McCurry. "When you elevate someone to a temporary status that approaches sainthood, any blemish in the record becomes all the more noticeable."

Backlash May Have Started

A backlash may already be starting. Reporters covering the first Democratic debate in New Hampshire last Sunday thought Babbitt was reducing his campaign message about candor into more of a slogan than anything else.

But McCurry defended Babbitt's shift of emphasis. The task, he said, is to reach voters, not reporters. "Babbitt clawed his way back into the story line" by offering detailed ideas. "But we are not electing a bookkeeper." Now that voters are paying attention, "Babbitt has had to raise his message up to the next level."

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