After weeks of focusing on the prospect of a deadlocked race with no end in sight, the media narrative for the Democratic presidential race shifted dramatically last week, anointing a definite frontrunner and an underdog.
In a week in which the Democratic candidates thoroughly dominated campaign coverage, Hillary Clinton barely edged Barack Obama in the competition for exposure. But in the period of Feb. 11-17—which included three resounding Clinton losses in Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C.—the media raised serious questions about her campaign’s capabilities and her viability. (In some corners of the punditocracy unfriendly to Clinton, her political obit was being prepared.)
Conversely, Obama—who ran his post-Super Tuesday winning streak to eight states with the Feb. 12 “Potomac Primary” and established a delegate lead—rode a wave of positive coverage, depicting him with a real, if not decisive advantage. Obama was a significant or dominant factor in 55.5% of the week’s campaign coverage compared to 57% for Clinton—the highest level of coverage for both since the Campaign Coverage Index began five weeks ago. But when it came to the tone of that coverage, he was a big winner.
Here’s one symbolic illustration of those divergent narratives. The front-page Feb. 11 USA Today story began with the news that Clinton team, after a series of primary and caucus defeats, had replaced campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle. The next day, ABC’s Good Morning America reported that the famed wax museum, Madame Tussauds, had just unveiled a statue of Obama standing in the Oval Office of the White House. (A Clinton statue had been created a year ago. But in politics, timing and momentum are everything.)
While there’s been little drama on the GOP side since Super Tuesday, John McCain, the presumptive nominee, registered at 34% of the coverage last week. An endorsement from Mitt Romney and wins in Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia, did not put a stop to stories questioning McCain’s appeal to conservatives. But he is now so far ahead in the race for delegates that remaining challenger Mike Hucakabee faced growing questions about his motives for continuing. At 18%, Huckabee had a substantial week of coverage. But after being lauded as the surprise winner of the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday contests, he was depicted last week someone on an increasingly quixotic quest.
Read the full report Media Narrative Vaults Obama into Frontrunner Slot on the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.