Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rick Davis on New Media

This is part two in a series of posts on Rick Davis' recent visit with political science students and faculty at Wake Forest. See part one for some of Davis' thoughts on Sarah Palin's selection as McCain's vice presidential running mate.

The most underrated portion of the hour with Rick Davis this past Tuesday was his discussion of running a presidential campaign in the era of the 25 hour news cycle. [FHQ likes to add an extra hour for emphasis.] But to the McCain campaign (and I'd assume any other campaign for president or House or Senate or governor), this is something that has changed dramatically in the internet age. What he described taking place made me think of the masters of rapid response, the Clinton campaign in 1992, or more to the point, how they would have fared sixteen years in the future with Gennifer Flowers' and Paula Jones' accusations. It would have been completely different than simply going on 60 Minutes prior to New Hampshire.

Needless to say, Davis seemed to conjure up a vision from the campaign's perspective of both apprehension of and flat out animosity toward new media. Honestly, you can't blame him; it made his job more difficult. But Davis did seem to echo some of the same sentiment that came out of the White House earlier this week concerning liberal bloggers*. Davis called them, "guys who don't comb their hair and work from mom's basement." [Of course, I took exception to this as a blogger. I'll let you decide my ideological persuasion. I've certainly had the liberal label thrown at me. When I asked him my strategy question later on, I introduced myself as "Josh Putnam, Visiting Assistant professor ... and blogger. And (touching my head) I'd like to think I combed my hair this morning. I have a class to teach after this." He laughed it off and said I looked good. I'm so insecure.]

But Davis went on to describe the dilemma the McCain campaign was in and what most presidential campaigns must face these days. Bloggers and their "breaking stories at 2 in the morning" were only part of it. They had a warroom of sorts set up to monitor blogs and an in-house studio to respond nationally or to a targeted media market affiliate at the drop of a hat. The big deal, though was the media pool that was with them on the Straight Talk Express or on the campaign's plane en route to the next campaign stop. Davis drew a line between the Express of 2000 and the 2008 Express; that in 2000, the insurgent campaign and the bus were a novelty worth following. As such, they career journalists following them. But in 2008, in the new era and after old guard journos of 2000 had either retired or been laid off, they were being followed by a group of folks whose "average age must have been 25" and who were "carrying these little handheld cameras."

It was this latter point that Davis stressed the most. The campaign was just not ready for the changes since 2000. Senator McCain was fine, but without make up "looked like Caspar the Friendly Ghost" or "looked a hundred years old" on the tape shot on those cameras. What compounded matters was that the Obama campaign or their surrogates would quickly "release statements after one of these videos appeared on the news/web saying 'McCain looked frail today.'"

"That really bothered me," Davis said. [All the while I had two thoughts going through my head. One serious: The 2008 campaign really had a delicate nature to it in the face of two historic candidacies. Much was made of Barack Obama's race and even though it received attention, McCain's age often took a back seat. But there really was this weird racism/ageism undertone to the race. And one not so serious: Bobby Bowden knows how McCain felt.]

So the McCain camp, Davis in particular, had a dilemma: "Ban them [the reporters]" or "spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to rip seats out of the plane and put in a small studio" so McCain could do those interviews. They chose the latter.

What all this really drove home was the idea of the standard presidential candidates are held to. It isn't falling down stairs or eating unshucked tamales anymore. No, those are things you can kinda sorta help. But age or race or weight or baldness aren't things you can help (or help easily sometimes -- Sorry Chris Christie. I tried.). It's a different era and that came through in what Rick Davis spoke about.

*"And for a sign of how seriously the White House does or doesn't take this opposition, one adviser told me today those [internet left fringe] bloggers need to take off their pajamas, get dressed and realize that governing a closely divided country is complicated and difficult." (from John Harwood at NBC, via Ta-Nehisi Coates)

Recent Posts:
Rick Davis on Palin: VP Selection is easy when you're up 15 points, but is tough when you're down 15

Rick Davis at Wake Forest: A Series of Postscripts

State of the Race: New Jersey Governor (10/14/09)


Robert said...

These notes on Rick Davis are great. I can hardly wait for the next segment.

Josh Putnam said...

The strategy post based on his answer to my question and some other comments he made should be pretty good. We'll see if I can get it up shortly.

But yeah, it really was a fascinating glimpse inside the McCain campaign and its though processes last year.