Unsettling Insights from Perry’s Eggheads

The Texas governor gets scientific on how to work the media

At the New York Times site today, David Leonhardt has a very interesting Q-and-A with Sasha Issenberg, the former Boston Globe reporter whose forthcoming e-book on the social-scientific campaign stylings of Rick Perry is creating buzz among politics junkies.

The whole post is recommended, but Issenberg’s remarks on how the Perry team used research findings to make decisions about campaign travel were especially striking. The conventional wisdom had held that state-wide candidates in Texas should conduct short interviews with local TV affiliates from a central location, Issenberg explained:

But as part of the 2006 experiments randomizing Perry’s itinerary, the eggheads did a content analysis of media coverage in the markets as he traveled, and found that his presence had an impact. Perry just got much better press when he was in Lubbock or Beaumont than when newspapers and TV stations there relied on stories out of Austin, which tended to be much more cynical or negative. As a result, Carney came to appreciate that such an afternoon might be more effectively spent by having Perry fly to just one of the markets and appear personally there.

By 2010, the campaign operated under the principle that having Perry set foot in a coffee shop or BBQ restaurant — even if there was only a small crowd to witness it in person — was the best media strategy available.

It’s not all that surprising that the coverage in local markets was more favorable when Perry actually showed up. Having a major campaign come to town flatters local egos, in a way that’s likely to be reflected in the often-boosterish local press. The pageantry of a campaign stop also provides plenty of upbeat images. And reporters and editors or producers at local stations and papers are likely, in the aggregate, to have less sophisticated knowledge about statewide policy issues than those “cynical,” “negative” journalists in the state capitol. (I say all this as someone with abundant first-hand knowledge of both the virtues and pathologies of local newspapers.)

There may have been other factors in play, too. Perhaps favorable local coverage reflects Perry’s renowned retail-politics skills. Perhaps journalists in smaller markets were just more sympathetic to his conservative policy agenda than the hacks in Austin. Perhaps voters and activists in those markets were more sympathetic to Perry—but they only got the information they needed to act on those sentiments when the filter of the state press corps was stripped away. Hopefully, Issenberg’s book will shed more light on the mechanisms at work here.

Still, for all those potential explanations, it is a little surprising, and maybe a little disheartening, that the difference in tone was so great as to make local travel more valuable to the campaign—as measured by contributions, approval ratings, and new volunteers—despite the obvious loss in efficiency. And it’s hard not to wonder whether politicians’ savvy in gaming the media ecosystem is racing farther ahead of the press’s ability to fight back.

As Issenberg appropriately notes, we don’t know if these insights will apply to the presidential campaign. For that matter, we don’t know if they apply to candidates other than Rick Perry.

But the findings should prompt some soul-searching on the part of local reporters everywhere, to make sure that we’re appropriately skeptical when the big names come to town. The results suggest that even the stories that get told in smaller outlets really do make a difference. That’s encouraging—but it means that there’s a heavy responsibility to tell the truest, fullest, most revealing stories we can.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.