When Californians vote in November for their next U.S. senator, will they choose Bill Carrick or Larry McCarthy?
Carrick and McCarthy are the advertising consultants for Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Michael Huffington, respectively. They represent the front-line contingent in what is shaping up to be an unprecedented battle for the hearts, if not the minds, of voters. Their advertising war will probably set new spending records. It may also establish new marks for duration and intensity of mud-slinging. Disturbingly, it is a campaign in which in the candidates have been overshadowed by their media spots. Feinstein and Huffington have become little more than high-priced TV images manufactured by their political handlers, or by their opponent's handlers.
Money and media, to be sure, have always driven political messages. But never so quickly and deeply into the mire. Or with so few alternative sources of information available to voters.
Call it the bull-horn effect. The candidate who blares the loudest, the most often and whose message grabs the voters will be heard above the din. So far, it has boosted Huffington.
That's due partly to Huffington's willingness to tap his personal fortune to fund his race. He has reportedly spent more than $9 million on his campaign--all but $300,000 out of his own pocket. Feinstein, by comparison, has used only about $4,000 of her own money, according to her most recent disclosure statement, along with nearly $6 million in contributions, of which she has spent $3 million.
Remember when voters were skeptical, when not scornful, of candidates who spent their own money? Today's anti-politician electorate views personal funds as the only really "clean" campaign money. Which is why Huffington's handlers can use paid media to turn his wealth into a political asset. Consider:
Touting her assistance to Raytheon, a Santa Barbara County-based corporation, Feinstein took to the airwaves to attack Huffington for not helping business interests in his own congressional district. But he counter-attacked. Noting Raytheon's contributions to Feinstein, the ad voice-over crowed: "Mike Huffington doesn't take special-interest money. Feinstein's taken over $6 million. Feinstein's a special-interest jukebox--put in your money and get what you want."
In less than two years, Feinstein, who won election as the ultimate outsider, has become the consummate insider. By doing what senators are supposed to do--legislate and protect the interests of their state--she is tarred as part of the problem of business-as-usual in Washington.
Huffington has used his money and media to drive this point home, attacking Feinstein for supporting President Bill Clinton's health plan ("The government that gave us the welfare mess now wants to screw up health care"), and then for deserting it when she and Clinton appeared to be dropping in public-opinion polls ("It's the only principle of a career politician--save your own skin").
Feinstein's campaign has ratcheted-up its responses to Huffington's media barrage ("He'll say anything to get elected"). She now relentlessly spotlights "CONGRESSMAN Huffington," while portraying herself as merely a recent visitor ("In my short time in the Senate . . . ") unsullied by that tainted institution (" . . . I've just begun to fight for California").
Perhaps this marathon of slime wouldn't be so reprehensible if voters could weigh the fairy tales spun by media gurus against reality. But fragmentation, niche programming, viewer non-interest and the economics of television news have combined to shrink political coverage. And what happens if a major media event--say, the murder trial of O.J. Simpson--dominates the news?
When media interest and public attention become fixated on something as sensational as the Simpson case, political news virtually disappears. The California senator stands to lose from such a lack of press attention. News reports tend to influence voters much more than campaign ads, and Feinstein, already a high-profile senator, has worked hard to generate coverage for her legislative accomplishments.
But in a world almost devoid of election coverage, paid media will define the debate. The more manufactured the campaign becomes, the more it will help Huffington, who is, by and large, a manufactured candidate. From the beginning, his handlers have controlled access to him and limited his unscripted public appearances. As a result, Huffington's paid TV and radio spots, not press scrutiny, have framed voters' perceptions of his positions on the issues.
In a politics-free news environment, Huffington can buy "bundled" media--a package of advertising that uses targeted television, radio, voter slates, direct mail and even tailored videocassettes to supplement or replace both paid and unpaid mass media. Feinstein's going to have to come a lot closer to him in fund-raising to compete.
What do candidates do to interest a distracted press and public in the fall election? How can voters acquire the information necessary to make reasoned choices in November?
It says a lot about California--its politics and media--that to guarantee coverage of the fall campaign, it might become necessary for candidates to hold their events on the front steps of the Criminal Courts Building during recesses in the Simpson trial.*