Back on Oct. 30, 2007, in a story about that night's Democratic debate, NBC anchor Brian Williams raised what he saw as a crucial issue in that primary battle. Barack Obama had vowed “to be tougher in the campaign against frontrunner Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton?” Could he make good?
Fast forward to last week, March 6, 2008—two days after Clinton's sharp attacks on Obama helped produce campaign-saving wins in Texas and Ohio. Pundit David Gergen broached the same point about Obama, suggesting the answer was still out, on Anderson Cooper's CNN show. Said Gergen: “He's got to be a lot tougher and more aggressive…”
Clinton turned back the clock on the media narrative for the Democrats last week. For several weeks running, the press had cast Obama as a clear frontrunner, one perhaps on the verge of finishing off his rival. Almost instantly after Texas and Ohio, that narrative returned to where it was through the decidedly mixed Feb. 5 Super Tuesday results—speculating about a hopelessly deadlocked contest decided by superdelegates.
And embedded in that in the media coverage last week was a months-old question: Was Obama “tough” enough to win a nomination fight with a determined foe. In many ways, even in a strong week for Clinton, the narrative turned on questions about Obama.
As a significant or dominant newsmaker in 60% of campaign stories, Clinton narrowly won the competition for media exposure from March 3-9, a period that began a day before the Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island primaries and ended a day after the Wyoming caucus. For Clinton—credited with engineering another comeback in this roller coaster race by aggressively attacking Obama—that was her highest level of 2008 coverage. At 58%, Obama dropped 11 points from the previous week. And in a difficult stretch of coverage, he found himself facing questions about the need to make strategic and tactical changes in his campaign.
In the week that the GOP race was formally decided, the Democrats dominated coverage over the Republicans by the lopsided margin of about four-to-one (70% to 18%), a margin similar to the week before.
On the Republican side, presumptive nominee John McCain, may be settling into a temporary coverage trough as journalists focus on the Democrats. Last week, McCain—who officially went over the top in delegates—was a significant or dominant factor in 26% of the stories, which closely compares to 28% the week before. With his nomination assured and the Democrats still locked in mortal combat, McCain may have been, as MSNBC's Chris Matthews called him, “the biggest winner” on March 4. (President Bush, who welcomed McCain to the White House last week, showed up in 4% of the campaign coverage.)
Read the full report Media Admire Clinton's Resilience, Question Obama's Toughness on the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.