News

Manipulating the media, California style: Impact of traditional role dips with each cycle

California is Ground Zero this year for changes in media and technology that have fundamentally altered the way political campaigns are run and covered.  

From Jerry Brown’s internet roll-out launch to the Boxer Blimp or Demon Sheep on YouTube to the viral, no-frills spread of  Level the Playing Field, the 2010 campaigns are as much a clash of technology as ideology. Blogs, Twitter, emailed videos, Facebook, YouTube, targeted cable ads, mailers and TV spots —  they’re all here. Add to this the turmoil from a billionaire candidate with unlimited resources.

And the year is still young.

What this all means is that Republicans Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, along with supporters of Democrat Brown, are looking for new and creative ways to get media attention – and they are finding them. While the fracturing of the media landscape has led to the reduction in the number of reporters, it has also meant the blossoming of political blogs. With fewer reporters stretched ever thinner amid increased blog competition, there is pressure on bloggers and reporters to refresh their Web sites with interesting content.

No group has done more with less than Level the Playing Field 2010.

What was billed as an independent expenditure committee with a $20 million budget – some newspapers even suggested $40 million, or more — has, thus far, been a group of well-known Democratic consultants with a $200,000 war chest.  

But in these early days of the campaign, the group has served as Brown’s default band of merry pranksters, turning limited radio and television ad buys into front-page stories in the San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times and elsewhere.

Whether Level the Playing Field or any of the other pro-Brown independent groups ever turn into the promised, multimillion-dollar behemoths remains to be seen. In 2006, Democrat Phil Angelides was touting a rumored $25 million labor-funded campaign assault on his behalf that never came to pass.

“That never happened because the people who fund these IEs don’t throw good money after bad,” said Garry South, who ran the campaign of Angelides’ primary rival, Steve Westly. “They’re not stupid.”

Another independent group, dubbed California Working Families 2010, has its own team of well-known Democratic consultants. That group has not yet raised any money, according to records with the Secretary of State’s office. But a spokesman for the group, Roger Salazar, says that will change soon.

South says these pro-Brown committees that have formed are “basically bets on the come. They spend a little money in hopes of attracting more money down the road. So far, we have not seen the resources behind any of these efforts that was initially promised. That may change, but we just haven’t seen it so far.”
 And there is some competition among these groups as well.

Though they all are working toward the same goals, there are some serious strategic differences about how best to help Brown — and damage Whitman — during this campaign. That can lead to fractured messaging that can ultimately hurt a campaign.

“Voters aren’t going to distinguish between Level the Playing Field, California Working Families and the Jerry Brown campaign,” South said. “It’s all going to be seen as Jerry Brown’s message, and that’s always the danger with independent expenditures.”

But Level the Playing Field has proven adept at leveraging their individual relationships with political reporters, along with a keen understanding of how the media operates, and turning that into coverage.

Whitman campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds says he can appreciate the group’s effort to “try to become part of the campaign story.” But ultimately, he does not distinguish between the independent groups and Brown’s actual campaign. “They represent the same interests that are financing Jerry Brown. Practically speaking, these so-called independent groups are Jerry Brown’s campaign,” he said.

Bounds said Brown “has a tentacle-style campaign operation propped up by union activists. It’s innovative in its cynicism.”

If success is measured in coverage, Level the Playing Field has been wildly successful. But it’s unclear whether they’ve had any impact on the campaign itself. The group’s campaign manager, Sean Clegg, believes they have.

“At this stage, we’re trying to reach opinion leaders and potential donors,” he said. In discussing the focus by his group on Meg Whitman’s travel by private jet “is a powerful metaphor for the culture of arrogance and profligacy that creates the jobs crisis on Wall St.”

Salazar says the fracturing in the pro-Brown movement comes with “different ideas bout how to be most effective with an independent expenditure committee at this level.” He applauds the success of Level the Playing Field in goading the Whitman campaign to respond to some of their attacks, and says his group is preparing a more traditional, paid television campaign later this year.

The wide coverage of Clegg’s group stems in part from the media’s constant desire for a good political fight.

The primary contest between Whitman and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner has not materialized – at least not in terms of a competitive race thus far. Coverage is also increased by the blogification of the media, which has led to chronicling more of the blow-by-blow press release wars between opposing campaigns.

The antics and tactics of these independent groups – and in many cases the campaigns themselves – underscores a larger problem for political pros.

“The impact of paid, commercial media is diminishing with each cycle,” says Chris Lehane, another Level the Playing Field consultant. “So increasingly, you have to leverage old media and new media as creatively as possible.”

Steve Poizner has launched a Web site, RealMegWhitman.com, aimed at pointing out contradictions in Whitman’s record. Whitman has also launched a site separate from her campaign page called Can’tTrustSteve.com, complete with a barber-shop quartet jingle aimed at undermining Poizner’s credibility.

Whitman has backed up her novelty site with a series of paid television ads. But increasingly, many of these attack sites are aimed at getting free press coverage – or at least some coverage in one of the state’s many political blogs that could lead to larger stories in print or on television.

It is a quirk of our political system that in order to get a chance to govern you have to first prove yourself to be a competent campaigner – even though the two skills arguably have little or nothing to do with each other.  

Similarly, covering a campaign is not like covering the nuts and bolts of government. Government coverage is usually about something empirical – an actual bill or regulation, a specific policy proposal or legislative deal. Campaigns are about narrative story telling. The winning candidate is typically the one who has succeeded in telling his or her version of their story, and their opponent’s story, to the voters.

While the governor’s race will not be decided until November, the current struggle for that early narrative is already underway. That is what the Whitman, Brown and Poizner campaigns are all doing with their candidates. And like the Chihuahua at the heels of the Whitman campaign, Level the Playing Field has tried to use anything and everything against Whitman. They even designed an animated “Meg-a-Tar” to star in it
s campaign commercials, aimed at painting Whitman as an out-of-touch, jet-riding elistist.

“Political ads are stuck in the era of Walter Cronkite and we’re living in the era of Jon Stewart,” says Clegg. “Increasingly, you have to entertain in order to persuade” voters.

But the group plays into the story Whitman’s campaign is trying to tell as well. If the Whitman campaign has its way, November will be a referendum on labor unions and their hold on Sacramento. “These are his people,” Bounds says of Brown’s relationship to Level the Playing Field. “These are the same groups that have contributed to the atmosphere of dysfunction in Sacramento.”

Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford dismisses the Whitman critiques, but does acknowledge the rise of independent groups in this campaign. Much of that, says Clifford, is a consequence of Whitman’s vast personal wealth and her record-setting spending in her bid for governor.

“I’m concerned that one candidate dumping $150 million of her personal fortune in the race raises the cost for every candidate to get their message out,” he says. “Candidates now must try to get their message through to an audience that will have been overwhelmed by one candidate’s attempts to buy the airwaves.”

It’s not just media and technology that’s changed. It’s state campaign finance laws as well. This is only the second gubernatorial race in which strict campaign limits will be in place for candidates. Those limits do not apply to candidates’ contributions to their own campaigns. So much of the money from unions and individuals that went to Gray Davis’s campaigns in 1998 or 2002 now must be spent through independent committees.

But South cautions independent committees cannot serve as a surrogate for a strong campaign. “Brown has to prove himself,” he said. “The people who fund these groups aren’t stupid, and they understand that if the underlying campaign in inadequate, incompetent, insufficient – or all three – an independent expenditure cannot save a campaign.”
Clegg says he understands that, but that groups like his will be pivotal in keeping a pro-Brown – or anti-Republican – presence on the air through the summer.  “The original idea was to provide a bulwark against being mugged in the summer, like what we saw happen to Angelides,” says Clegg. “In that post-primary window in the summer of 2006 the California Republican Party drove a nail into Phil with a big June push. He never recovered from that.”

Clifford says Brown is concerned about Whitman’s campaign spending because it serves as a surrogate for substantive debate. But, he is also confident Brown’s campaign will be able to get its message out. “Jerry Brown is not a billionaire and does not have an unlimited fortune to pour into this race, so it requires some strategic thinking, “ he said. “But he will get his message across.”


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