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Sound and Fury: Feeding Frenzies In The Presidential Silly Season

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik

In the beginning, there was the Etch A Sketch.

After the Illinois primary on March 20, which signaled the beginning of the end of the Republican presidential nominating process, Mitt Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom discussed how his candidate would pivot toward the general election: "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."

Several days later, there was President Obama, who told Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he would have "flexibility" to negotiate on missile defense after the election.

Then there were the comments from Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist, who said that Ann Romney (wife of Mitt) "never worked a day in her life."

And last week, after his vice president pushed him into a corner, Obama surprised no one by endorsing gay marriage, a Darwinian evolution from his earlier position of supporting just civil unions. The very next day -- in a bit of timing we'll simply call curiously coincidental -- the Washington Post reported that Mitt Romney, as a prep school boy, cut the hair of a purportedly gay classmate in an act of bullying at his elite boarding school.

What do all of these things have in common? They are all, to at least some degree, "feeding frenzies."

Candidates beware: With the presidential silly season upon us, you are entering what can be described, contra Bill O'Reilly, as the "All-Spin Zone." Without actual news, the press will fixate on any gaffe, big or small. But how many of these frenzies actually matter?

What is a feeding frenzy?

A feeding frenzy -- as defined by the book of the same name -- is "the press coverage attending any political event or circumstance where a critical mass of journalists leap to cover the same embarrassing or scandalous subject and pursue it intensely, often excessively, and sometimes uncontrollably."

Not all feeding frenzies are the same, but they generally can be classified into three levels of severity:

  • Mega Frenzy: The infrequent "black hole" frenzy that sucks in most available media light and dominates the news for weeks or months. It is remembered as the dominant story of a particular election or era: Watergate, the Iran-Contra Affair, and Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky all qualify.
  • Full Frenzy: A major event that connects to a candidate's existing subtext -- that is, the way journalists think the real person underneath the public exterior is defined. An example is Gary Hart's reckless extramarital relationship with Donna Rice, which he was pursuing even as the candidate invited reporters to "follow me around. You'll be very bored." The revelation effectively knocked Hart out of the 1988 Democratic presidential nominating contest and confirmed lingering suspicions about his character.
  • Frenziette: The summer squall of feeding frenzies, which seems important at the moment but fades quickly and has no real impact. A New York Times article about John McCain's interactions with a lobbyist in 2008 is an example. The story, which seemed to suggest far more than it proved, didn't appear to hurt McCain in the slightest.

The context matters

So far at least, all the examples listed above from the 2012 campaign season probably belong in the "frenziette" category. But that doesn't mean they are meaningless.

When assessing media feeding frenzies, the context matters. Incidents that seem to confirm or reinforce an existing stereotype about a candidate have a better chance of being covered. For instance, when President Gerald Ford said during a 1976 debate that "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe," it played into the (false) image of Ford as a clumsy bumbler. In the same election, Jimmy Carter gave an interview to Playboy saying that he had "committed adultery in my heart many times." In an interview setting that was clearly designed to change Carter's image as a sanctimonious, holier-than-thou candidate, he came off sounding… well, sanctimonious and holier-than-thou.

The four incidents from recent weeks all have important subtexts:

  • The "Etch A Sketch" comment attracted attention because of Romney's well-known propensity to flip-flop on major issues.
  • Rosen, though little-known outside the Beltway, expressed a critique of Ann Romney's traditional motherhood and wealth that was custom-made to rile conservatives and fire up the nation's recurring culture wars about the role of the modern woman.
  • Obama's overheard promise of "flexibility" to the Russians played into a conservative fear about Obama, which is that he has partly hidden his real agenda and that his second term will be more liberal than his first. Obama's turnabout on gay marriage, his hand forced prematurely by Joe Biden, has reinforced those same apprehensions.
  • Romney's high school bullying is more proof for his critics that he is a spoiled rich guy with no empathy for those who are different or poor. As was once said about George H.W. Bush, Romney is characterized by his foes as someone who was born on third base and thinks he's hit a triple. That the target of this "prank" was thought to be gay made it an irresistible contrast to Obama's new gay marriage endorsement. Romney can expect more of this since Democrats plan to build part of their campaign around the Republican's alleged inhumanity while heading up Bain Capital -- which is also why Romney's earlier comments during the presidential campaign about how he liked to fire people who do a bad job became another frenziette.

From a policy standpoint, President Obama's embrace of gay marriage is not a minor issue: It is a notable shift that might have some bearing on how some voters will vote, even in an election that almost assuredly will be dominated by the economy. For instance, we can imagine that Obama's decision will boost his fundraising and help him turn out the youth vote. It also might play well in some libertarian-leaning states, such as Colorado (where white evangelicals, probably the main group that will react negatively to the announcement, made up only 21% of the 2008 electorate, according to exit polls). Meanwhile, Obama might be hurt in states with bigger evangelical populations, such as two states he won in 2008: Indiana (43% evangelical in 2008 exit polling) and North Carolina (44%). For context, exit polls indicated that white evangelicals made up 26% of the national electorate in 2008, and they favored John McCain, 74% to Obama's 24%.

But the ephemeral stories wrapped around Obama's announcement -- Joe Biden's forcing Obama's hand by announcing his support for gay marriage a few days beforehand, and the revelation about Romney as a high school bully -- probably do not matter much. Biden put his boss in a box by undercutting him and forcing him, reportedly, to make his announcement before he wanted to. But barring a switch in Veeps prompted by Biden's goofs -- a possibility we see as nearly inconceivable at this point -- Obama's actual change in opinion is the only thing that is important.

Timing is everything

Some elections are defined by major issues and profound disagreements about policy. For instance, 2004 was largely about the Iraq war and 2008 was about the economic collapse. The Iran hostage crisis and stagflation defined 1980. This election, as we've mentioned, is likely to be dominated by the slow recovery.

But not all elections are that way. The election of 1988 was largely about social issues such as crime. The most memorable artifact of that election was the Willie Horton ad, which stirred passions about race, law and order, and punishment. A dozen years later, the campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore was considered so vapid it was called the "Seinfeld election"-- an election about nothing.

In 2000 Gore's "frenziettes" received substantial negative attention: his kissing now ex-wife Tipper at the Democratic convention, his "creating the Internet" and his odd sighing and creeping up on Bush during a debate, among other things. Meanwhile, Bush suffered a full-blown frenzy just days before the election, when reports surfaced of a drunk-driving arrest from the 1970s. Again, this played into the existing subtext some reporters had about Bush -- that he was an unserious partier who had simply capitalized on the family name -- and, because of the timing, it's possible that the revelation actually cost him many votes.

Bush strategist Karl Rove claimed, in the days before the election -- and the DUI story -- that his candidate was on track to win 320 electoral votes. Obviously, Bush ended up losing the popular vote, and he barely won the presidency (271 electoral votes) after a legal battle over the razor-thin Florida result. Bush campaign officials believed that the DUI story undercut Bush's main anti-Clinton campaign theme of "honor and integrity" and depressed turnout among evangelical Christians, possibly costing Bush the popular vote. Whatever the truth of that, the disclosure just before Election Day had to be damaging. If the story had surfaced in, say, July, it probably would have been forgotten by November. Former Bush spokesman Scott McClellan was correct when he argued in his memoir that Bush should have disclosed the drunk-driving incident earlier in the campaign so that he could have discussed it on his own terms.

Returning to an earlier example, Ford's gaffe about Eastern Europe in 1976 clearly hurt him in his close race with Carter, given that the post-debate media frenzy changed viewers' first polled reactions to that debate: They initially thought Ford had won, but days later gave the debate to Carter after the negative press coverage of Ford's gaffe. The controversy went on and on, partly because of Ford's stubbornness in refusing to admit he had misspoken. Given the closeness of the election -- Ford would have won if he had flipped roughly 18,000 votes in Wisconsin and 6,000 in Ohio (both places with significant populations of voters with Eastern European lineages) -- the gaffe might have cost Ford a full term as president.


One of the reasons why campaigns can be so boring and scripted, with candidates rarely saying anything interesting on the trail, is that they are desperate to avoid even a "frenziette." Similarly, in frustration with the buttoned-up campaigns, journalists will jump on any little slip-up and report it as a gaffe. Call it a frenzied Catch-22 of the contemporary campaign.

Media storms and squalls will inevitably burst in the next few months, even though the only candidate-initiated move that might change the electoral calculus before the conventions is Romney's selection of a vice president. Even that big announcement may not move the electoral needle very much, though we all recall the list of modern VP candidates who generated major controversies and full-fledged frenzies: Spiro Agnew (1968), Thomas Eagleton (1972), Geraldine Ferraro (1984), Dan Quayle (1988) and Sarah Palin (2008).

Therefore, if you like significant media frenzies that can have an impact on the election, you may have to wait for Mitt Romney's running-mate unveiling. Until then, you'll have plenty of frenziettes to occupy your time and attention.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Commentary by Larry Sabato

Kyle Kondik is the House Editor  at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik .

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