A dominant candidate dominated press coverage
For a muscle-bound bodybuilder-turned-Sacramento-bound body-groper, Arnold Schwarzenegger -- Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger -- is one smart fellow ... smart enough to have outwitted all the journalists who provided coverage of the recall campaign.
From the moment he announced his candidacy on “The Tonight Show,” Schwarzenegger controlled the tenor and the agenda of the campaign.
He used his celebrity and the access it provided to circumvent the traditional political media and talk directly to the voters.
He dodged, ignored or provided only vaguely generalized answers to most reporters’ questions on the issues facing voters and talked only about what he wanted to talk about.
He dominated the coverage, in print and on television, every week of the campaign, whether he was ahead or behind in the polls and both before and after The Times published allegations that he’d groped more than a dozen women.
The Predator-as-groper stories just demonstrated anew the age-old Hollywood adage that any news is good news -- that as long as you spell someone’s name right, any coverage helps.
Schwarzenegger’s domination of the coverage was as predictable as it was inevitable. He’s a movie star, a political novelty, a larger-than-life figure; he was running, in effect, against a governor who’s smaller than life, a career politician so resolutely unpopular that he might have lost a race against Osama bin Laden.
Schwarzenegger’s other foes were a lieutenant governor who has all the charisma of a bowl of oatmeal and an assortment of freaks and fringe candidates.
Still, the extent of Schwarzenegger’s domination of the media was staggering.
The covers of Time and Newsweek. One-on-one interviews with Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Larry King. Appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s national TV show and Howard Stern’s national radio show.
Between Schwarzenegger’s announcement and election day, his name appeared in far more stories published in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and New York Times than did the names of any of the other candidates to replace Gov. Gray Davis, according to a study by researchers working under Bruce Fuller, co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a think tank at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley.
Schwarzenegger’s domination was the greatest in the New York Times, where his name appeared in almost twice as many recall stories as did Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante’s -- 87% to 44% in those stories that named at least one of the candidates. All the other replacement candidates trailed far behind.
Schwarzenegger’s edge over Bustamante was 84% to 61% in the L.A. Times, 72% to 54% in the Chronicle and 65% to 45% in the Mercury News, with the other replacement candidates trailing badly in all three.
A media-fueled victory
Fuller thinks the media’s heavy coverage of Schwarzenegger -- positive and negative -- was largely responsible for his victory.
After all, Schwarzenegger trailed Bustamante, 35% to 22%, in an August L.A. Times poll and 30% to 25% in The Times’ early September poll before surging ahead, 40% to 32%, the week before the election.
“You could argue that the voters caught up with the media,” Fuller says, “that the massive amount of coverage influenced voters. The media helped define his candidacy as viable and credible.
“The fact that editors were building the story around Schwarzenegger and that we see his jump in the polls after seven or eight weeks of this coverage suggests they had a distinct impact in giving Schwarzenegger a decisive bump in the polls,” Fuller says.
Schwarzenegger’s domination of campaign coverage was even greater when one looks at the all-important headlines that ran over recall stories, as I did with the help of Scott Wilson in The Times’ editorial library.
From announcement to election day, Schwarzenegger’s name appeared in Times headlines 218 times -- almost 40% more than the combined total for Bustamante, state Sen. Tom McClintock, Arianna Huffington and Peter Camejo.
Schwarzenegger also got more headlines than the other four top replacement candidates combined in other major California newspapers -- the Mercury News and the Chronicle among them -- although the margin wasn’t quite as great in those papers.
The New York Times put Schwarzenegger’s name in headlines 35 times -- compared with one mention for the other four top contenders combined.
I know of no analysis of local television coverage of the recall campaign, but I suspect that any such analysis wouldn’t differ radically from the newspaper coverage or from what Andrew Tyndall, who monitors the evening network newscasts, found in those programs.
Through the Friday before election day, Tyndall said the network news shows devoted 71 minutes to stories specifically about Schwarzenegger -- twice as much time as they’ve devoted to the 10 Democratic candidates for president combined and 75% more than they devoted to all the gubernatorial races in the country combined in 2002.
Waited for right moment
That coverage underscored both the advantage Schwarzenegger’s celebrity status gave his campaign and the shrewdness he demonstrated in choosing and waging that campaign.
Schwarzenegger had long harbored political ambitions, but he wisely waited until the time was right to run. This was the perfect opportunity.
There would be no primary, so his moderate-to-liberal views on such issues as abortion and gun control wouldn’t make him vulnerable to the conservatives who dominate the state Republican Party.
There would be only one winner-take-all plurality vote, so he wouldn’t have to convince more than half the voters of his qualifications -- and might even win with as little as a third of the vote in a huge, scattered field. (He wound up with 48%).
Schwarzenegger knew he could count on national media exposure, and he could be assured of the subliminal benefit of his already scheduled appearances on cable television, where his movies were ever-present -- omnipresent. I counted 72 showings of nine Schwarzenegger movies on seven cable channels between Aug. 10 and the election.
Schwarzenegger realized that in a short campaign, this exposure and his instant name recognition would give him an enormous head start; other, lesser-known candidates just wouldn’t have time to catch up. Nor would pesky reporters have time to breach his defense, force him to answer tough questions, expose his flaws.
Not that they didn’t try. There were many tough-on-Schwarzenegger stories in the press, pointing out his evasive tactics, his courtship of friendly interviewers, his refusal to debate, his hypocrisy in raising millions of campaign dollars and hiring former members of ex-Gov. Pete Wilson’s staff after saying he would campaign as an outsider and accept no contributions.
Less than a week before the election, The Times published its Page 1 story about six women who claimed to have been sexually groped by the governor-to-be. The Times followed up with other stories that took the total number of self-proclaimed gropees to 16 by Election Day.
Schwarzenegger handled the attacks brilliantly. He simultaneously denied many of the specific charges, apologized for having “behaved badly,” dismissed it all as rowdy, Hollywood boys-will-be-boys playfulness and blamed the media for blowing it out of proportion in an effort to destroy his candidacy.
Nothing seemed to stain his image or stem his advance. Instead of being hurt because his experience was in movies, not politics, he was helped by it. His on-screen persona made him so familiar that some newscasters even called him “Arnold” in their on-air stories, thus playing directly into his campaign effort to depict himself as a regular guy, the nonpolitician, the overgrown boy next door.
By its very existence, early media coverage legitimized Schwarzenegger’s candidacy and, over time, made him seem a likely winner. People like to side with a winner -- especially against a loser like Davis. It makes them feel smart. So voter sentiment began to show a shift in his favor. That turned the polls around, and ultimately, it all became self-perpetuating -- and self-fulfilling.
David Shaw can be reached at email@example.com.