Bullet points on the election results (details follow, below the jump:)
– “Straight” news reporting on Bachmann by leading Minnesota media worked to her advantage (again.)
– Another advantage: Minnesota media publication of pre-election polling indicating a six-to-nine point lead for Bachmann over Graves. (On election day her actual lead proved to be less than two percentage points. Minnesota media publication of wildly misleading polls probably discouraged vital last minute money and support for Graves.)
– As always, Bachmann’s national fund raising capability made a huge difference. Bachmann was running in an 8+ conservative Republican district that she’d represented for three terms. She had a 12-to-1 money advantage over her opponent. (Her campaign funds may have totaled as much as $20 million, and she seems to have spent most of that.) Even so, she barely squeaked by her opponent with less than two percent. Another million for her opponent (well spent) might have ousted her.
–The Bachmann campaign was successful in keeping Graves “free” media exposure to a minimum. (The campaign was correct in its decision to delay public debates with Graves until a week before the election.)
– The Bachmann campaign was correct in choosing to market a “Bachmann is bi-partisan” message during the months immediately preceding the election. (That message is absurdly untrue, but it was the correct choice as a matter of strategy.)
– The absence of an Independence Party candidate on the ballot may have made a big difference this time out.
Here’s the details.
Minnesota news reporting on Bachmann:
The baby knocked over a glass of water. Without missing a beat, Rep. Michele Bachmann crouched down to mop up the mess.
“I’m used to it,” said Bachmann, who is facing an unexpectedly tough re-election campaign for her fourth term in Congress. “Just like I’m cleaning up the mess in Washington. How many times have I cleaned up spilled milk at home? I was fully prepared to do what I do in D.C.”
Bachmann dealt with the puddle, then ran a wet wipe across the baby’s cake-covered face for good measure, all while answering a constituent’s question about the medical device tax in the president’s health care bill. It was Thursday afternoon in Forest Lake, and Bachmann was on the third stop of a daylong swing through the Sixth District…
That’s the lead from a Minneapolis Star Tribune news story on Bachmann that appeared this year. (To be clear: it’s not an excerpt from a pro-Bachmann editorial in the newspaper written by a conservative columnist. It’s the lead from a piece of “straight news” coverage on the election; it ran in late September.)
As a representation of what candidate Michele Bachmann’s “about,” this piece of reporting was even worse than usual. But it was symptomatic. Minnesota voters cannot hope to understand what Michele Bachmann is “about” (in terms of character, worldview, and political agenda) if they rely on the state’s leading news icons for their information.
Bachmann is a political extremist of the right. Leaders in Minnesota news media know that and have known it for years. The occasional publication of “fawning” and “puffing” news coverage about an extremist is nauseating and dangerous. But that’s only part of the state’s news reporting fail on Bachmann, and it’s not even the most important part.
The most serious and dangerous fail in straight news reporting on Bachmann by Minnesota’s leading news icons is an unofficial policy they seem to have adopted en masse. It’s a twelve year tradition in Bachmann news reporting that might be summed up as follows:
We don’t endorse Bachmann on the editorial page. As members of the state’s leading news media we are more informed than our readers; we know that she’s a lying kook. But in our straight news coverage of her: we will downplay or suppress the most damaging facts about her.
It’s impossible confuse this unofficial policy with “objectivity or even-handedness in reporting on politicians and candidates.” Objectivity would require that Bachmann’s most “controversial” statements and positions receive regular and timely news coverage in Minnesota’s most influential news media. And because Michele Bachmann is Minnesota’s most famous and nationally influential political figure: objectivity would also require that reporting on her latest “controversial” statements and positions receive prominent placement.
But the unofficial Minnesota news media policy is to avoid timely, regular, and prominent news coverage–coverage of the very claims and statements that have made Michele Bachmann famous and influential. Such a media policy actually operates in Bachmann’s favor from election to election. The policy is not “objective” or “even-handed;” it operates to the detriment of any Bachmann challenger.
If the Minnesota media’s straight news reporting on Bachmann had been at all comparable in objectivity and quality of content…
…to out-of-state professional media’s reporting on Bachmann, turned in regularly, over the years…
…that would have made a difference in this very close race, this year.
It seems clear that the people who operate and staff Minnesota’s leading news media want to keep Michele Bachmann in government–even though they know she’s a right wing extremist.
How about the effect of all that money? Bachmann’s fundraising base is national and incredibly lucrative; rooted in America’s Christian Right. By October 31st, Politico was reporting:
Bachmann (has) raised more than $12 million – much of it from her extensive national network of conservative activists – compared with the $2 million or so Graves has collected, which includes his own funds.
The day before the election the MinnPost reported findings from OpenSecrets.org:
Bachmann has raised $20.7 million and spent $19.3 million this cycle.
That compares to Graves’ $2 million raised and $1.5 million spent.
Bachmann continued to fund raise through election day, frantically telling supporters that she needed still more of their money. Some of that money was turned into a stream of air time purchases and negative ads aimed at discrediting Jim Graves. Graves found himself portrayed as “Big Spending Jim” (even though he’d never held public office.) One of the Bachmann campaign’s ads even tried to associate Graves (a Minnesota hotelier) with outbreaks of riots and terrorist violence in the Middle East.
Graves used some of his far smaller war chest to run ads portraying Bachmann as a publicity seeker, out of touch with the people she was supposed to be representing in Congress. Graves most high profile TV ad criticized Bachmann for failing to meet with employees in Sartell after a deadly disastrous fire wiped out the mill that supported the town’s economy.
Perhaps Graves would have done better by using his limited budget to confront Bachmann directly–running ads calling direct attention to her endless stream of nuthouse statements.
That approach has always been my own favorite “armchair general” campaign strategy for Bachmann opponents. I’ve been recommending it since 2006, and no Bachmann challenger has ever even come close to adopting it. I understand why: all Bachmann opponents so far, liberal or conserva-Dem, have regarded such a “negative” strategy as virtual political suicide.
By the way: I think they’re right about that–that’s why I’ve regularly referred to it as a “kamikaze” campaign strategy. But it has more than one virtue. First, it would force Minnesota’s professional media to engage in a sustained discussion of whether or not the state’s most influential politician really is an extremist nut. So even if kamikaze Dem goes down in flames, the interests of Minnesota voters are served by forcing the state press to acknowledge that she is indeed a nut (and that supporters of Bachmann and like-minded candidates are “nuts by association.”)
Second, it would win the Dem candidate instant and national name recognition and fandom. Lack of a “fan base” and name recognition comparable to Bachmann’s have plagued Bachmann challengers from the outset. (See below.)
Finally: the “kamikaze” strategy represents free media for the challenger. Free local media and free national media–critical, in a race where your opponent can raise twenty million dollars and you can raise only about two, even if you’re a rich guy.
As for whether or not such a “kamikaze” strategy represents electoral suicide for the Dem: it is a matter of complete indifference to me whether a Bachmann challenger is a) defeated, after running a campaign documenting the fact that she’s an extremist nut, or b) defeated, after running more nuanced campaign criticism combined with a ‘positive’ message about the Democrat.
So far, all we can be sure of is that b) has never been successful. But it is worth noting that Graves came the closest to succeeding with this traditional failed strategy. His near-success will probably inspire Bachmann’s next challenger to try that same strategy again–and do so with far less money than Michele Bachmann; perhaps even less money than Jim Graves.
Name recognition and the professional media
one of the most recognizable brands in American politics. Jim Graves had no brand recognition; no state house reputation or existing political network in the state to promote him.
Worse, Michele Bachmann had Minnesota media to support for her re-election efforts. Not to endorse her (the state’s professional media don’t go so far as to do that)–but to support her. The state’s professional media support Bachmann’s candidacies by regularly spiking legit news stories about her most controversial and potentially damaging statements and positions. (You have to go out of state–or to political blogs like this one–to read regular coverage of that stuff.)
The Independence Party factor:
Bachmann’s place in a GOP congressional majority next year:
Bachmann will come back more powerful than ever in the next Congress. This probability was not addressed by the Graves campaign or the Minnesota news media.