The big-media, big-name journalists who cover presidential nomination races regularly get used by politicians. Happens all the time, whether it’s 2007 or 2008.
Here’s how it commonly occurs. What happens is that candidates or their supporters deliver a message to the press, then the candidate claims to be above such a message, or disavows or apologizes for the message afterward — all the time watching the message amplify across press outlets. I call this the “echoing press” approach to U.S. politics, in which journalists become inevitable tools of the campaigns.
The Clinton campaign has done it in recent weeks, with supporters raising questions about Barack Obama’s religious past and his drug usage when younger. In each case Hillary Clinton has stayed free from the communications, but nonetheless benefitted from press echoing of the original messages. Virtually every Republican candidate has used this approach to knock Rudy Giuliani (is he still running?) off his high perch in national GOP polls.
Even when the press knows it’s being used it still nonetheless plays along. Journalists tend to strike back, impetuously, when this occurs, but they still echo the original message — which is all the candidate’s campaign cares about. It’s a dynamic widely documented in my new book, The God Strategy: How Religion Became A Political Weapon in America (Oxford, 2008).
This is exactly what happened Monday with a press conference by Mike Huckabee.
The Huckorama campaign spent Saturday talking about the need to respond to Mitt Romney’s campaign ads criticizing Huckabee. Huckmeister himself said he was saddened (saddened!) by having to do so, but had no choice. He canceled all his public events Sunday to cut some ads (these presumably wouldn’t have floating crosses in them.) He called a press conference for Monday morning to present the ads to the media throngs in Iowa. When the press conference came, Huckabee announced that he had created the ads — but that he had decided not to run them, because he was above such campaigning. He then said that he would show them just once — at the press conference, so that he might prove to the media that the ads were genuinely created. If news crews with cameras happened to want to capture the ads, so be it.
Reporters laughed. They figured that Huckabee wanted them to show the ad while he skated along on the moral higher plane, supposedly above it all. The media were exactly correct. And it’s at exactly this moment that the media got played, like a naive kid holding a mint condition Mickey Mantle rookie baseball card.
Several journalists seized on this moment as Huckabee’s version of the Howard Dean scream — an event in which the candidate loses control of his campaign and the press takes over and pummels him for being out of his political depth. Joe Klein at Time called it a “monumental implosion”. Veteran AP reporter Ron Fournier said it was “the day a crowd stopped laughing with the witty Republican and laughed at him.” These kinds of comments were merely the tip of the news media’s iceberg.
But Huckabee actually got exactly what he wanted: he wanted the media to repeat, over and over and over and over, the words he had delivered: he would not run the negative ads, he was above it all, he was the better man than Romney, and so on. Sure, they pointed out the hypocrisy, but that didn’t matter to Huckaman as long as his message got out. And boy did it.
For example, the New York Times quoted Huckabee thusly:
Mr. Huckabee, with his wife standing silently off to the side, said that the “conventional wisdom” was that when you are attacked, you attack back. But, he said, an hour before the press conference, which was scheduled for noon, he just decided not to go that route.
“It’s not worth it,” he said.
Polls regularly show that Iowa voters do not reward candidates who go negative, and perhaps Mr. Huckabee saw some of those polls. “The people of Iowa deserve better,” he said.
Asked if he wasn’t being hypocritical by showing the ad to a roomful of cameras that are likely to record it and show it – for free – around the country, Mr. Huckabee said he was showing it to reporters only because reporters were so cynical that if he didn’t show it, they would not believe that he really had made such an ad.
“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” he said.
The Boston Globe wrote this:
Huckabee said that just two hours before the campaign planned to unveil the TV spot, he had a change of heart and pulled the plug because he wanted to elevate the level of the campaign.
“It’s got to start somewhere,” Huckabee said. “It might as well start here, and it might as well start with me.”
Asked if he risked losing more ground to Romney by failing to fight back, Huckabee said, “If you gain the whole world and lose your soul, what does it profit you?”
And in the Des Moines Register, we see this:
In the ad, Huckabee criticized Mitt Romney’s “dishonest attacks” even against “an American hero, John McCain.”
Huckabee said he decided about an hour before the noon press conference, which was originally planned to unveil the ad, to pull it.
“At some point we have to decide, can we change the kind of politics and the level of discourse?” he said. “I’d like to believe we can, and it’s got to start somewhere, and it might as well start here, and it might as well start with me.”
And so it went and continues to go: big-name journalists and pundits laughing at Huckabee’s move, while his message echoes widely. It’s not risk-free, but he can be confident that the media mockery hurts him not at all among conservatives, who think the news media are nothing but liberal flacks. Meanwhile, Huck’s message of he and he alone making the “right” choice plays hugely well among Iowans and particularly conservative Christians.
In the Des Moines Register poll that came out last night, fully 46% of likely GOP “voters” on Thursday said that it was “very” or “fairly” important for a candidates’ religious beliefs to agree with theirs. Another 29% said it was “somewhat important.” Among “fundamentalist Christians” in the DMR poll, the Huckster’s lead over Romney was 47 to 20. That’s the difference between the two in Iowa.
Take a look again at those words by Huckabee. Who do you suppose he was talking to? His message came through loud and clear. HuckaJesus’s campaign rolls on.
DAVID DOMKE is Professor of Communication and Head of Journalism at the University of Washington. He is co-author, with Kevin Coe of the University of Illinois, of the just-released book The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America.