Behind the Scenes of Presidential Campaigns: Politics and the Power of the Media
Maeve Allsup | 12/7/15 6:40pm
| Updated 12/7/15 6:40pm
American Word Magazine
The American public’s fascination with politics is a phenomenon that is seen as simultaneously baffling and amusing to many, both within and outside of the nation. Our obsession with pop culture is rivaled only by our obsession with politics, as evidenced by President Barack Obama’s lofty spot on the list of top 100 Twitter handles, with far more followers than Harry Styles, Oprah Winfrey, or any of the Kardashians. This obsession continues outside the realm of reality, as political television shows including Scandal, West Wing, and House of Cards become increasingly popular. However, for over 18 months every few years, the entire nation develops a more grounded obsession, more entertaining than anything Shonda Rhimes has ever created – presidential campaigns.
For these months, it is impossible to turn on the television or open up the computer without being flooded with news and footage about the different candidates and their campaigns, however we rarely consider how that information gets to us. Because only a small portion of the public attends most political events, debates, and rallies, we rely on others to relay the information to us. Although the number of citizen journalists providing breaking information and opinions to social media users across the world is rising, when looking for facts about campaigns and statistics, many Americans turn to accredited news organizations.
Daniel Merica is a journalist for CNN and is assigned to two of the most prominent campaigns this season: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. In an interview with American Word Magazine, Merica gave insight into the true influence of the media when it comes to public opinion and the realities of life on the campaign trail.
“For a campaign, every image matters,” said Merica. “With Twitter and instantaneous media, every image they put out can make news. A good example of this was July 4 in Gorham, New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton was marching in a parade and a few staffers decided, in order to control the media, that they would use a rope to corral the press. The image of reporters with ropes around their waists being pulled down a street went viral and dominated the coverage of the Clinton campaign for a few days.”
Because so few people actually follow campaigns to every event, there are many aspects that the public doesn’t necessarily consider when comparing campaigns, including size. Merica cited this as one of the biggest technical differences between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns, and says it has a big impact on media coverage, which Sanders supporters often complain he doesn’t get enough of.
“Bernie Sanders’ campaign started as a shoestring operation and has had to quickly expand as the Senator’s standing in the polls grew,” Merica explained. “So while they started out with only a few press staffers and even fewer people in the early states, they have had to expand quickly, hiring people in Nevada and South Carolina most recently.”
When it comes to the Clinton campaign, Merica explained that they were far more prepared to handle the amount of media attention focused on a front-runner. Due in part to the fame associated with the Clinton name and the amount of time Hillary Clinton has spent in the public eye, the Clinton campaign receives an incredible amount of media attention, which Merica said could be because of their extensive preparation. He also said that Clinton’s top aides had an advantage because they knew the campaign would be a “financial juggernaut.” Because the campaign had media people on the ground in influential states including Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada from the very beginning, they have also spent a large amount of money.
“They spend around 90 percent of the money they bring in,” said Merica. “But their organization has impressed other Democrats and made it more difficult for other campaigns to get traction.”
Journalists like Merica also have a different view of the importance of certain events. Although many in the public were disappointed by Joe Biden’s decision not to run for president, Merica said this decision had the greatest effect on the Clinton campaign. “Not much changed when former Virginia Senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee got out of the race – both were polling in the low single digits,” said Merica, “but Vice President Biden’s decision not to run was consequential – and a win for Clinton.”
October was a momentous month for the Clinton campaign, says Merica, because it combined Joe Biden’s decision with the first Democratic debate and the seventh Benghazi hearing. Following the debate, social media exploded with outraged Sanders fans, claiming that CNN had deleted polls showing Sanders as the winner and published headlines declaring Clinton the victor instead. Additionally, many Clinton supporters worried that the media’s focus on her testimony at that hearing and her association with the 2012 incident would have a negative effect on her campaign. However, Merica stated otherwise, explaining that the combination of these events “made the first three weeks of October the most important moments of Clinton’s campaign. If she wins the Democratic nomination in 2016, the first three weeks of October may be the reason why.”
However, it isn’t all smooth sailing for campaigns. Merica said that a complaint frequently heard from campaign aides is that their campaigns aren’t covered with enough substance. Following the most recent Republican debate, the type of questions moderators asked frustrated many candidates, and this has sparked movement among contenders to change the format of future debates. While the Republicans may be frustrated, this focus on details meant to trip up the candidates is seen as a good thing for Democrats. “Opposing campaigns love it when the campaign they are up against is having to deal with a seemingly small story that has grown out of control,” said Merica.
Despite all the action seen in the past few months, there is still a long road ahead for both the candidates and the journalists who covers them. “Life on the trail could be described as an enjoyable grind,” said Merica. “There are exhausting moments, where you are on your third flight of the day and getting to a hotel after midnight. But you know that many of your colleagues are going through the same thing and that bonds you together. Working with talented reporters from other outlets has been one of the highlights of life on the trail.”