On Super Tuesday week, with voters from about half the states weighing in, coverage of the 2008 presidential race reached its highest level to date. And when the winnowing was done, just three candidates—out of a field that once included 20—stood out in the glare of the media spotlight.
But the journalistic narratives were not really the ones for which any of those three—Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John McCain—was probably hoping.
Instead, a tone of additional challenge rather than triumph, and of continuing suspense, characterized the coverage last week, a period that began the day before Super Tuesday and stretched through a smaller series of weekend contests.
On the Democratic side, Clinton was a significant or dominant factor in 41% of the campaign stories from Feb. 4-10, just ahead of Obama, at 40%. By week's end, however, the media were depicting her as a beleaguered ex-frontrunner trying to counter Obama's momentum.
For his part, Obama fell short of some last-minute media expectations by failing to win such key states as Massachusetts or California and could not lay claim to the frontrunner mantle that some possibly erroneous media polls and excited commentary seemed to hint at. Instead, the week ended with the press contemplating a scenario that many Democrats dread—a deadlock decided by Superdelegates.
On the Republican side, McCain was every bit a match for the top Democrats in attention. A significant or dominant factor in 42% of the campaign stories examined, for the second week in a row he led all candidates in coverage—albeit by a hair. And outdistanced his nearest GOP rival by two-to-one. By winning the big Super Tuesday states on Feb. 5, McCain cemented his status in the media's collective judgment as presumptive nominee.
That should have been cause for celebration in his camp. But as the week drew to a close, much of the media narrative concerned his continuing problems with what at times was described as a hostile conservative wing of the GOP. And in some ways, the surprise in the media was McCain's inability to vanquish all challengers.
Read the full report McCain, Clinton, and Obama in Coverage Derby Photo Finish on the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.