Cavala: Campaign “Spin”: Are Political Reporters Really That Dumb??

Posted on 11 August 2009

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towashington 089.gifBy Bill Cavala
A veteran of over 30 years in Sacramento

There seems to be a widespread and growing presumption among political consultants that one of their responsibilities is to “spin” adverse facts in a fashion that fools political reporters. The gullibility of those reporters seems to be taken for granted. Gullibility has become almost a synonym for ‘neutral’ – they’ll buy it unless they’re prejudiced.

All too often the representatives of the press encourage this behavior. Some, perhaps, because they like the attention. Others because it provides a hook for a story on the campaign other than issues or qualifications. Many because the ‘spin’ is provocative and might lead to newsworthy conflict between the principals. Few, I would hope, because they lack the background and acumen to ignore it as it deserves.

A recent example -after a disclaimer: I am managing the Congressional campaign of Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi, so naturally I have an axe to grind. But I also believe telling the truth is always of value – even if it helps my candidate.

The special election for the Congressional Seat (CD 10) involves several Democrats and several Republicans. The Democrats with serious campaigns include Garamendi: Mark DeSaulnier, a State Senator; Joan Buchannan, a State Assemblywoman and Anthony Woods, a young black veteran who left the service over their “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about gays.

The first “event” that required spinning was the release of fundraising figures for the first period. Garamendi led in money raised. Buchannan was second on the basis of a Personal loan. DeSaulnier was third and Woods brought up the rear. Now the important information in that report was not who raised the most, but who had the most to spend. (The early spending by a campaign reflects outlay for consultants and the building of a ground infrastructure – not “to the voter” information). Using this measure, the campaigns showed as follows:

Garamendi - 260k cash on hand minus 54k debt = 214k to spend
Buchannan - 179k cash on hand minus 58k debt = 121k to spend
Woods - 65k cash on hand minus 58 dollars debt = $64,942
DeSaulnnier - 137k cash on hand minus 77k debt = 60,000 to spend

So if you’re dead last among the contenders in a safe Democratic seat in fundraising, what do you do? I’d suggest keeping quiet or – if pushed – saying it’s only temporary.

The spin culture tries to turn it into an advantage: DeSaulnier’s campaign argued his fundraising base had more room to “grow” because it included more local contributors who felt more intensely about the outcome and who would, as a result, ultimately contribute more.

Buy that and you’re a ripe subject for a Ponzi Scheme. But DeSaulnier must have believed someone in the media world was a sucker.

The latest example concerns a Garamendi poll. Included in the sample called was an official of the DeSaulnier campaign – who released the questionnaire to the press and demanded Garamendi release the results. He did. The results showed him with a 10 point lead in a trial heat based only on ballot labels and a 14 point lead after voters were made aware of a short list of positive information on all the candidates.

Faced with this unpleasant fact – the result of their own public challenge – the DeSaulnier campaign again reached for the bottle of “spin”, arguing that the methodology of the Garamendi survey was flawed and (if you didn’t buy that), that DeSaulnier showed “momentum”.

Now wouldn’t it have been simpler for DeSaulnier to release his own poll numbers? His failure to do so indicates the real purpose of “spin” – to take the eye of the press corps off the ball of factual material adverse to the ‘cause’. And the fact is DeSaulnier is losing. Badly.

The master of “spin” is undoubtedly Gary South – currently employed by San Francisco’s Mayor Newsom for his gubernatorial bid. The adverse fact facing Newsom is that he runs a very pool second to Attorney General Jerry Brown in all the polls. South’s spin – the latest version – was to put out a release noting all the previous frontrunners that went on to lose primary elections. Now he’s right that early polls reflect existing name recognition and not firm opinions about the candidates. But well known candidates with significant campaign resources have rarely been piped at the post. As the late Nelson Polsby once noted, “history is littered with the bodies of Frontrunners that have gone on to victory”.

The real issues here, however, is whether news coverage of political campaigns that responds to ‘spin’ has any value to the reading public looking for cues as to their choice of candidates? My experience says not. Voters look to a candidate's record as the most reliable predictor of future behavior – on issues and in his or her personal life. Promises, attacks on the opposition, efforts at fine ideological distinctions - all fall on deaf ears.

Political reporters who focus on those things and the effort to spin adverse information aren’t writing things of value to the public. They are playing inside baseball.

Bill Cavala was Deputy Director of the Assembly Speaker’s Office of Member Services where he worked for over 30 years. He attended undergraduate and graduate school in the 1960’s and received a doctorate in political science at UC Berkeley. He taught political science at UC Berkeley during the 1970's while he worked part-time for the State Assembly.

Cavala left teaching at UC Berkeley for Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in 1981 until his tenure as Speaker ended in 1995, and he has worked for his five successors as Speaker. He now manages election campaigns for Democratic candidates.