Spotlight on Herman Cain shows four stages of campaign coverage
Herman Cain probably should have seen the crisis coming, considering he's given some thought to the stages of political campaign coverage. In a recent speech Cain identified four phases of coverage, reported Politico's Roger Simon:
First, “they ignore you,” then “they ridicule you,” then they try to “destroy you” and in “the fourth phase, they accept you.”
Although Cain has been an official candidate since May and was campaigning well before that, he received little coverage until recently. It's not that no one wrote about him; they just wrote about top tier candidates more.
There's good reason for that. Some campaigns flame out on their own, so why spend time digging into someone if she'll be on the sidelines in six months? Better to spend your limited time on the real contenders, the ones who are getting voters' attention and shaping the debate.
Cain started to do both about six weeks ago.
I used Google News' Archive search to approximate how much media attention Cain has received, focusing on how often his name appeared in headlines between May 1, a few weeks before he officially entered the race, and August 30. Rick Perry's name appeared 40 times more often than Cain's; Mitt Romney's appeared about 14 times more.*
The disparity wasn't as extreme in The New York Times, but it was still significant. For the same time period, Cain's name appeared in many fewer stories than most of the 10 Republican contenders. Romney was mentioned in about five times more stories; most others were mentioned about 3 times more than Cain. The only candidates mentioned less frequently than Cain were Gary Johnson and Jon Huntsman. (Who?)
But as the Republican candidates started sparring in debates, Cain performed well. He had a catchy name for his tax plan. He won the Florida straw poll. And he started to rise in the polls, with voters responding positively to him even though they knew little about him.
But people were trying to learn more. From mid-September to early October, Google searches for “Herman Cain” grew by four or five times, to their largest volume of the year. News coverage followed. The week of Sept. 9-15, Cain's name appeared in headlines of just three news stories in Google News' archives. For the week of Sept. 23-29, that jumped to 187.
Early coverage of Cain was characterized by skepticism. With his most distinctive characteristic being CEO of Godfather's Pizza, he became the “pizza guy.”
The New York Times' Kate Zernike reported in June that his business-minded public policy solutions “make it sound as though solving the nation’s debt crisis is as simple as streamlining the number of pizza toppings on offer, as he did to improve performance at Godfather’s.”
If few people think Mr. Cain can win the nomination, he is satisfying voters’ desire to fall in love with a candidate. Their passion for him says as much about what the Republican field is lacking as it does about any specifics he is offering.
The Atlantic Wire's Elspeth Reeve wrote in May, “Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain once led a pizza empire but has never held office, making him the subject of a lot of snack food jokes but no serious coverage.”
As the summer wore on, some reporters did do serious stories, particularly about Cain's claim that he had turned around Godfather's Pizza. Businessweek concluded that it was hard to say the pizza chain improved much under Cain; PolitiFact ruled that the claim was “mostly true.”
Cain's gaffes didn't help. He said that President Barack Obama was raised in Kenya. (Jeffrey Goldberg's response: “Indonesia, Kenya, whatever.") He suggested building something like the Great Wall of China on the border with Mexico, along with an alligator-filled moat.
Recently, there was an ad that depicted Cain's campaign manager exhaling cigarette smoke toward the camera and Cain breaking into a slow smile.
But with Cain polling well in mid-September, the media started to look harder at him.
The basic question driving this stage is simple: Who is this guy?
This is when the spotlight shines and the flashlights come out, when reporters take a candidate seriously enough to start looking into his record, his résumé and his statements. Opponents do their own research, feeding leads to reporters. And opinionators weigh in.
For candidates with established records, this process takes place over multiple campaigns and years in office. With Cain, it's taken just weeks.
The natural place to start: the candidate's own narrative, summarized by an Oct. 6 story in The New York Times: "He has an eclectic, intriguing resume: chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, conservative radio host and chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Mo."
This story shows the shift in coverage on Cain, as reporter Susan Saulny tries to figure out whether Cain is a serious candidate, considering he didn't seem to do much campaigning. “This could be Mr. Cain's moment," she wrote. "But it is not clear that Mr. Cain, 65, has any particular plan to seize this moment, beyond using the attention to sell books.”
The story underscored the skepticism that has followed Cain throughout his candidacy: Is he running for president or a show on Fox News?
That skepticism is missing from a Times story a couple of weeks later, which described the difference between Cain's portrayal of himself as a Washington outsider and his three years as a lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association.
A week later, Politico reported on the sexual harassment allegations; that story has dominated the news since.
If the “ignore” and “ridicule” stages represent the reality of reporting, the so-called “destroy” stage represents its ideal. Now we have reporters jockeying for the latest break, adding to each others' reporting and developing new stories, such as one about the financial relationship between the campaign and a Wisconsin corporation.
This vetting, wrote Quin Hillyer at The American Spectator, "is a good thing":
We don't really know the man -- yet. We have had no chance to see how he actually behaves in elected public office. Without that record, we have not just a right but a duty to probe even more deeply into any other part of his background that seems relevant.
So what does acceptance look like? Probably not like Cain envisions.
Back in 2008, FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver decided to examine the emerging mini-scandal over Sen. John McCain not paying taxes on one of his houses. (Remember that? Barely, I bet.) Silver came up with "The Electric Minor Political Scandal Acid Test,” with five questions to judge how bad a scandal will damage a candidate. One of the five questions: “Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate’s brand?”
Silver recently put Cain to the test and concluded that the sexual harassment allegations probably will hurt his candidacy, principally because it contradicts the favorable characteristics that made people think well of him.
“The problem for Cain is that his personal favorables had been his greatest asset. And that's what gets hit hardest in a scandal,” Silver tweeted.
The scandal matters little if you believe that Cain is as strong a candidate as polls indicate, Silver wrote. It matters little if you believe he's weaker than that because he would have flamed out anyway.
But if you’re like me and thought the truth lay somewhere in between — Mr. Cain had a legitimate shot to win the nomination, but not as good a chance as his polls suggested — that’s when they could make the most difference.
A new poll released today indicates that the scandal has so far not damaged Cain with men as much as women, and he continues to rise in polls.
There are fewer reporters following candidates around the country as they stump. There's a lot of opinionating and not enough investigating. But so far, Cain's case shows that the system still works – whatever the denouement looks like.
(*Because of the way Google News groups similar stories together, I compared those groups rather than a raw count of articles.)