Inside Story: The people who sell presidents
Behind every 'Super Tuesday' there's a hidden PR bunfight to sell the US presidential candidates' strengths and conceal their frailties. Stephen Foley unveils the spinmeisters
Monday 04 February 2008
It was by courting a string of influential columnists that the little-known former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee first got into contention in the Republican race. The average political beat reporter had written off his presidential bid even before they had written about it, but columnists including The Washington Post's widely-syndicated E J Dionne picked him out ("a southerner with unassailable Christian evangelical credentials" and therefore "the Republican to watch", Mr Dionne wrote a year ago). David Broder, another senior Washington Post columnist and TV pundit, was also charmed into praising him in print.
And so the momentum was built, with Kirsten Fedewa, a long-time press adviser from Huckabee's days with the Republican governors' association, at his side, and Alice Stewart, a glamorous Arkansas TV anchor, adding to this underfunded media operation. Fedewa kept up the outreach to journalists, luring them with promises of easy access to her candidate, hunting for free coverage because there was no money for ads. For a brief moment, the Huckabee operation threatened to be overwhelmed – now it is back to begging for coverage.
Hillary Clinton: 37,400. Barack Obama: 30,400. John McCain: 5,100. Ron Paul: 111,000. If convention delegates reflected YouTube clips, then the 72-year-old Congressman for Lake Jackson, Texas would be on the verge of becoming 44th President of the United States.
The libertarian Congressman's insurgent campaign, while never likely to trouble the main contenders in the Republican field, has been the most surprising phenomenon of the primaries. His media operation is staffed by "true believers", lobbyists and policy wonks rather than PR campaign professionals, making it a turn-off for mainstream journalists, who have all but ignored his candidacy. And yet Paul's anti-war, anti-government message has energised a fervent, mainly young, segment of the Republican party.
Internet-based fundraising events have netted $6m in a single day, and Justine Lam, his tech-savvy e-campaign director, has used YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and all the other burgeoning opportunities for viral marketing to spread Paul's message. In his most recent address on YouTube, Mr Paul said "things have gone much better than I ever dreamed".
The tension between the new politics that Barack Obama promises and the sharp elbows of traditional debate is felt most keenly inside the Obama media operation, where veteran Democratic party spinmeister David Axelrod has had the resources to build an operation as large and sophisticated as that of the Clinton campaign, but where he has also been trying to instill a calmer, less aggressive approach to dealing with the media.
In conversations with journalists, the media team is left contorted into chatting negatively about how terribly upset they are that the Hillary Clinton campaign is being so negative – an approach that reached its zenith when Bill Clinton injected race into the South Carolina primary tussle.
Still sporting a defiantly out-of-fashion moustache and cultivating a laid-back air, Axelrod is a must-catch figure in the "spin room" where hacks and flacks mingle after the candidates' debates. "Must-catch" because many journalists complain that Obama relies on an inner circle of advisers and messages on strategy do not necessarily filter down through the operation. Having started his career as a political reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Axelrod tied himself to several rising Chicago politicians in the Eighties and is now an acknowledged genius in the marketing of a political "personality".
He may hold the keys to a reconciliation atop the Democratic party after this divisive race is behind it. He has previously advised no fewer than five of the candidates who were on the initial slate this year and has particularly close ties to Hillary Clinton. The former first lady and her husband have regularly done fundraising for the epilepsy charity set up with his wife and two other mothers with children who suffer from the disease.
The headlines that resurrected John McCain's presidential campaign weren't ones massaged by his press team, they were the headlines coming out of Iraq. Before Americans decided the surge was working, McCain was a dead man walking, and the abdication last July of his entire communications team had appeared terminal for an already near-bankrupt campaign.
Amid unpaid bills to advertising consultants and other advisers, campaign manager Terry Nelson quit, followed by comms chief Brian Jones and his two deputies. It was left to his loyal New Hampshire staffer Jill Hazelbaker to field the calls from hacks asking when her man would announce he was bowing out of the race.
Hazelbaker is a toughie, having gone through the fire when PRing the Senate campaign of Republican Tom Kean in New Jersey at the 2006 election. Fake blog postings on a Democrats website, calculated to sow disillusion among party supporters by criticising the incumbent Senator, were traced to the same IP address from which Hazelbaker was emailing New Jersey journalists. However, she never wavered from her insistence that the dirty tricks were nothing to do with her.
McCain has always made himself accessible to the press corps, and although he has parked the Straight Talk Express bus of his earlier campaign, he often carves out 15 minutes between events to stop and chat.
The press office, though, continues to have a shoestring feel. Hacks hope that the belated influx of money, now that he has become front-runner, will be channelled into a beefed-up news operation.
The best public relations operation money can buy – natch – for the multi-millionaire private equity mogul who has poured more than $20m of his own money into this campaign.
They may be styling their candidate as a Washington outsider and an agent of "change", but his press team leaders are the quintessential DC insiders. Communications supremo Matt Rhoades is a former research director at the Republican National Committee. And national press secretary Kevin Madden has an impressive pedigree that includes working for two former Republican leaders of the House of Representatives and as a spokesman for George Bush's 2004 re-election campaign.
Unsurprisingly, they have built the most sophisticated of all the press operations – so sophisticated that hacks complain about being spammed during Republican debates, their inboxes filling up with Romney's rebuttals of rival arguments even while the candidates are still on stage. Once named (by The Hill newspaper) as the "second most beautiful person on Capitol Hill", Madden, in particular, is genuinely liked and respected by the press pack. He does that most basic of things: calls you back promptly and answers your questions. There's a pay-off from all this niceness.
When John McCain used an eight-month-old Romney quote to suggest he was flaky on the Iraq war, the media largely agreed that McCain was using it out of context.
Howard Wolfson, Hillary Clinton's communications supremo, hails from the Alastair Campbell school of spin doctoring, and the Hillary '08 press strategy is styled in his pugnacious image. Journalists complain about being cajoled, blackmailed and yelled at, and no negative story – hell, no negative sentence – goes unpunished. Access to the former first lady is strictly controlled, favours repaid, grudges nursed. Most notoriously in the campaign so far, GQ was made to pull a negative story on Hillary's presidential bid by a threat to stop co-operating with a Bill Clinton profile the magazine was also working on.
Wolfson is steeped in the politics of the New York Democratic Party and has flitted between campaign work and the private sector, where he is a partner and "crisis management" specialist at the New York office of PR firm Glover Park. Scared of flying, he will drive cross-country for hours, yelping on his cellphone at errant journalists. Other eccentricities include wearing bad jumpers on national television.
Also in the mix, devising an advertising campaign to complement (or redress) what's in the press, is media strategist Mandy Grunwald. A longtime friend of the Clintons, she was an adviser on Bill Clinton's nomination battle in 1992 and was the model for the sweetheart Daisy Green in the "fictionalised" exposé of that roller-coaster campaign, Primary Colors.
Team Clinton's "PR-as-power struggle" approach cuts both ways, of course. When you are up, even Rupert Murdoch will organise a fundraiser for you; when momentum flags, Murdoch's tabloid New York Post feels emboldened to endorse Barack Obama as an "anyone but the Clintons" candidate for the Democratic nomination.
Political PR rule No 1: Don't deliberately goad powerful people inside Rupert Murdoch's media empire. When it comes to tit for tat, it is the politicians that ends up looking a tit.
After John Edwards called on his rivals to hand back campaign cash from NewsCorp executives, NewsCorp revealed that its publishing arm had paid Edwards $800,000 (£400,000) for his book Home published in 2006. An indignant Jonathan Prince, deputy campaign manager to Edwards, fired off a furious email threatening to wage a PR campaign against Fox News; News Corp's spin chief Gary Ginsberg inquired "How do you spell 'hypocrite'?" The exchange degenerated even further and ended up splashed all over Murdoch's tabloid New York Post, accompanied by a picture of the Edwards book with the title rendered "Hypocrite".
Edwards' PR never got any better, and David Ginsberg, his communications director, a veteran of the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign, enjoyed a testy relationship with most of the media, who he complained were freezing Edwards out in their fixation on the Clinton-Obama slugfest.
Katie Levinson came to Rudy Giuliani's campaign with an impressive pedigree. Formerly director of television at the White House, she was fresh from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's successful re-election campaign, but her career cul-de-sac as the former New York mayor's communications director was hamstrung from the start – even though you couldn't have known it from the polls, which at the time put him well ahead of the Republican field.
"Secretive." That was the view of the communications team from one Washington press corps veteran. "That secretiveness was part and parcel of the whole campaign, actually, and I think it was a tone set by the candidate."
Levinson's relatively small team made their share of missteps in what will surely be seen as one of the most spectacularly ill-judged political campaigns. They eschewed a full-on campaign in the early primaries, sending a blizzard of mailshots but making little contact with the local media and hardly setting foot in the states. Instead, Giuliani bet it all on Florida and lost that bet.
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