If we are in the summer doldrums—the period when campaign-weary Americans tend to choose the beach and fireworks and tune out politics and campaigns—that might be good news for Barack Obama and John McCain. Because last week’s campaign narrative sure didn’t offer much that was positive.
The dominant theme of the week’s election coverage revolved around the candidates’ problems—or perceived problems—and had both men on the defensive. The single biggest story was McCain’s decision to shake up his top campaign staff by elevating Steve Schmidt, a close ally of Karl Rove, to a bigger operational role. That development—covered in the context of growing concern about the direction of McCain’s campaign—accounted for 12% of the campaign newshole studied, according to PEJ’s Campaign Coverage Index for June 30—July 6.
The most heavily covered story about Obama focused on his efforts to again assert his patriotism (8% of the newshole) in the face of stubborn rumors and speculation to the contrary. Another 6% of the coverage was devoted to whether Obama was—on issues from gun control to Iraq—rushing toward the political center. Or, to put it in more unflattering terminology, whether Obama was flip-flopping. Those three story lines combined accounted for more than one-quarter (26%) of all the campaign coverage last week.
Another major story line—and controversy—that involved both campaigns was General Wesley Clark’s remark that, "I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification [for McCain] to be president." In the dustup that followed, the McCain campaign counterattacked and Obama distanced himself from Clark. Factor in coverage of that flap (12% of the newshole), and the broad theme of headaches for the two campaigns accounted for nearly 40% of the coverage.
Read the full report Both Campaigns Get the Summertime Blues on the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.