The media's midterm curse

christine_odonnell.gi.top.jpgDid the media make or break Christine O'Donnell? By Daniel Roberts, reporter


FORTUNE -- With the final results in from all but a few heated races, what may have been obvious to some is now proven with numbers: media attention doesn't guarantee victory. In some cases it may even be damaging. Although the GOP gained a majority in the House, many of the party's most talked-about candidates lost.

Too often the television and print media create a self-fulfilling prophecy: they cover those candidates deemed to be "out there" with major devotion, often to the detriment of the campaign.

For this year's midterm elections, one of the biggest factors in determining coverage seemed to be Tea Party affiliation. Tea Party favorites Christine O'Donnell, Rand Paul, Joe Miller, and Sharron Angle all captured the gaze of broadcast pundits and newspaper columnists, and held it. It's a bit of a chicken or egg question: Much of the attention came after the candidates' inadvertent blunders or controversies.

"In terms of earned media and paid media, they can be equally impactful," says Erik Smith of Blue Engine Media, who was an advisor to the Obama campaign and before that advised Dick Gephardt. "Even though there's been wall-to-wall paid television spots, what has disqualified candidates has come from the earned media."

Whether they have the press to blame or not, here are just a few candidates who received a disproportionate amount of coverage to their opponent and still lost.

Christine O'Donnell

Perhaps more than any other candidate, the Delaware senate candidate fascinated voters and gobbled up media attention. But most of it was negative. A Tea Partier, O'Donnell became an object of ridicule for many on October 17, when a video clip came to light in which she discussed dabbling with witchcraft. The candidate eventually released a hotly discussed campaign ad in which she promised, famously, "I'm not a witch... I'm you."

In the past two months, she appeared nine times in the headline or lead paragraph of the New York Times and, more notably, was a central subject of eight op-ed columns in the paper. Her opponent and now victor Chris Coons was the main subject of only two Times stories and no columns. The television numbers are equally astounding -- broadcast news covered O'Donnell over Coons by 2.46 to 1, according to AcademiClip.com in partnership with Critical Mention, which scanned for mentions on national cable networks and all 210 local markets from September 1 to October 31.

Sharron Angle

"Candidates typically live and die by television exposure," the Times wrote in a June 28, 2010 article about Angle dodging TV reporters on the campaign trail for a Nevada senate seat. Angle's bid died against Democratic figurehead Harry Reid, but certainly not due to lack of exposure.

She was famously camera-shy in the months leading up to the election, which worked, to an extent. Reid was discussed on television news by 1.39 to 1 over Angle. Print outlets, meanwhile, covered Angle more than Reid. They were especially fascinated with her after she told students from the Rancho High School Hispanic Student Union, "Some of you look a little more Asian to me." That gaffe was covered by the Times, New York, Politico, AP, and a number of others. In all, Angle had two more Times headlines to herself than Reid did in the past two months, one more Washington Post headline, and was discussed twice as much in the Times opinion pages. The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism found Angle in 80 media stories overall in 2010 to Reid's 74.

Carl Paladino

Paladino may have never had a chance in his challenge against Andrew Cuomo for New York governor. The Tea Party candidate won an upset primary by stressing his disgust with Albany, and gained widespread attention for a number of controversial moments including his offensive emails, his pit bull attacking another dog, and his anti-gay remarks at a public city parade.

Since September 1, Paladino was named in 46 Times headlines, while Cuomo got only 14. The Washington Post mentioned Paladino in 19 print articles during September and October, and Cuomo in only six. Paladino edged out Cuomo on television, too, though by the less severe margin of 1.24 to 1.

Linda McMahon

She ultimately lost her Connecticut senate bid to Democrat Richard Blumenthal, but the businesswoman and wife of bombastic Vince McMahon caught the eye of pundits and reporters from the beginning by leaving her post as CEO of the WWE to mount a political run in a preppy, traditionally Democratic state. In September and October, McMahon grabbed three Times headlines, whereas Blumenthal had one. She was also mentioned in 15 Washington Post articles in print to Blumenthal's 12. The television media, however, was less infatuated and covered Blumenthal slightly more, by a ratio of 1.25 to 1.

Ken Buck

Buck had widespread attention since the Republican primary, when his fight for a Colorado senate seat against Lt. Governor Jane Norton became a gender battle. Buck made some controversial statements about women (encouraging voters to choose him because "I don't wear high heels") and about the Tea Party (which he aligned himself with, but also insulted), but won the primary anyway, going on to garner far more media attention than the Democratic nominee, Michael Bennet.

Their race was so tight they wouldn't call it until Wednesday, but in the end Buck lost, despite winning the coverage game. He had grabbed four more Washington Post articles than Bennet, and television coverage, too, favored him by a generous gap of 1.76 to 1.

Meg Whitman

She may have had the money, but she didn't have the support to beat out Democrat Jerry Brown for Governor Schwarzenegger's spot in California. Whitman, who is not a Tea Party Republican, is the billionaire former CEO of eBay and had media attention since day one, mostly for her massive spending (more than any other self-funded political candidate in history). She was covered in 31 Washington Post articles to Brown's 23, and had four New York Times headlines to herself, over Brown's two. Pew's data has her as the second-most covered midterm candidate overall, after Christine O'Donnell, and Whitman was also the overall top Google-searched candidate in the month of October.

Joe Miller

It could be weeks before the Alaska senate race is officially called, but a possible outcome is that Miller, the Tea Party candidate, loses despite being covered far more than his main opponent, Democrat Scott McAdams. However, Miller won't lose to McAdams, but to fellow Republican Lisa Murkowski, the incumbent senator who clawed her way back through an impressive write-in campaign.

Miller weathered major bad press after his campaign security guards handcuffed a reporter in Anchorage in October. Broadcast news covered him over McAdams by a whopping gap of 3.80 to 1. Miller was also mentioned in 32 Washington Post articles in print during September and October, versus 10 mentions of McAdams. Once Murkowski came back at the 11th hour, she took away much of that limelight. Still, Miller cracked Pew's list of the top ten candidate newsmakers and Murkowski did not, and Miller was far more examined on television, too, by a ratio of 2.49 to 1.

When asked Tuesday night what hurt Miller most, his campaign manager was quick to blame the media spotlight. To top of page

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