The “elite media” has had a resurgence this cycle and not just as a stimulant for the GOP base. The splintering of the media landscape in the 21st Century was expected to shift power back to candidates. Office seekers, the thinking went, could shape favorable coverage easier than ever before through social media and other online tools.
But the 2012 Republican presidential primary has repeatedly seen media coverage changing the dynamics of the race. Think back to Rick Santorum’s resurgence in the polls ahead of Tuesday’s primaries in Michigan and Arizona. That only happened after he won surprise victories in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota earlier this month. Afterwards, reports portrayed him as the most credible alternative to Mitt Romney.
Back in January, media coverage also shaped the outcome in early voting states. Santorum and Newt Gingrich won the Iowa caucuses and South Carolina primary, respectively, after benefiting from last-minute surges of press attention. In the case of Iowa, the former Pennsylvania senator went from largely under-the-radar just before Christmas to the surprise, belated winner of the caucuses.
The media had long been feeding an anybody-but-Romney storyline to add excitement to the primary campaign. Santorum just happened to be the last candidate competing in Iowa for the media to float as a frontrunner.
Gingrich, too, harnessed a flurry of media coverage to his advantage, albeit in a different context. In the lead up to South Carolina, Gingrich used his attacks on the “elite media” to gain momentum. He had been put into the spotlight after ABC News decided to air an exclusive interview with the former House Speaker’s second wife days before the first Southern primary. The rest of the mainstream media spun the story to make the former Mrs. Gingrich look like a bitter ex-spouse. As a result, what was supposed to be a devastating expose against the candidate backfired and ultimately helped an energized Gingrich go on the attack and win the state.
In their dealings with the national press, Republican presidential candidates have shown their down ballot colleagues a few tricks for the 2012 campaign. Whatever your race, forge strong relationships with the political reporters covering the campaign. This way, your camp has a better chance of controlling the storyline, and in turn the final outcome of the race.
But even in a hostile environment, engaging the media is essential because, if this keeps up, pretty soon we won’t need primaries and caucuses – the press will make those decisions for us.
Katie LaPotin is an account executive at Advocacy Ink, a full-service public relations, communications and political consulting firm in Alexandria, Va. Previously, she worked at a Republican polling firm and on several campaigns in southeastern Pennsylvania.