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Bad News Is Good News For McCain In The Character War

Last week, C&L highlighted the GOP's effort to manufacture a "character gap" in an election match-up between John McCain and Barack Obama. That is

McCain and ObamaLast week, C&L highlighted the GOP's effort to manufacture a "character gap" in an election match-up between John McCain and Barack Obama. That is, facing Americans' overwhelming disdain for their party's policies and its president, Republicans will invariably try to repackage the race as a contest of character. Now, two new studies from the Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism suggest that even bad news is good news for John McCain when it comes to defining himself and his Democratic opponent.

First, the PEJ analysis showed that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have enjoyed more positive press coverage than John McCain over the course of the campaign. Evaluating media coverage from January 1st through the March primaries in Ohio and Texas, researchers found that 69% of stories about Barack Obama featured "positive narratives." Seemingly contrary to assertions of bias by her own campaign, Senator Clinton similarly earned 67% positive mentions. (It is worth noting that both candidates saw a drop-off over time, including an Obama decline beginning prior to the Jeremiah Wright imbroglio.) In contrast, McCain rated only 43% positive stories during the same time period.

But the dark cloud of John McCain's press coverage during the Republican primaries contains a big silver lining for his general election race to the center. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the myth of the maverick McCain bucking his party and his President seems to be emerging unscathed:

Fully 57% of the narratives studied about him were critical in nature, though a look back through 2007 reveals the storyline about the Republican nominee has steadily improved with time.

For McCain, one master narrative stands out above all in the coverage—that he is not a true or reliable conservative. More than five in 10 of all the assertions studied about McCain conveyed that idea, about six times as many as the number of assertions rebutting it. While this narrative—not conservative enough—might have been a problem for him in the primary race, it is harder to evaluate its implications for the general election. If McCain is seen as a maverick, someone not tied to President Bush, it will likely enhance his standing among independents and moderate swing Democrats.

It's no accident that McCain, a candidate who ran ads during the GOP primaries touting himself as a "True Conservative," is now described by his senior strategist Charlie Black as "slightly right of center."

A second survey from the Pew Research Center also bodes well for John McCain and the kind of campaign the Republican Party will run against Barack Obama. Despite double-digit advantages across Americans' top priority issues, Barack Obama enjoyed only a three point lead (47% to 44%) over John McCain in the Pew survey. While both Obama (51% approval, 42% disapproval) and McCain (48% approval, 45% disapproval) have seen their approval ratings drop among all registered voters, McCain holds a narrow edge among independent voters.

More important for the Republican message machine, McCain's negatives hinge on his political views whereas Obama's are "more personal":

Unlike Obama, however, an overwhelming majority of those who express unfavorable views of McCain cite his political beliefs as the reason they do not like him, rather the kind of person he is. Fully 73% of those with a negative opinion of McCain cite his political beliefs while just 18% cite personal factors.

In contrast, 32% of those asked "what don't you like about him" cited personal factors in rejecting Barack Obama. And those likeability numbers are something the GOP can - and will - work with, just as it did in 2000 and 2004.

As the joint study from the Project for Excellent in Journalism and Harvard's Shorenstein Center concluded, the 2008 election could well turn on personalities and not policies:

In many ways, the coverage of the campaign has been dominated by a series of small storylines or boomlets of coverage that so far have raised unresolved questions but not yet framed an overall storyline - Obama’s friendships and core ideology, the meaning of his promise of change, McCain’s core ideology, his relationship with lobbyists, and a looming battle, largely quiet during the primaries, over the direction of the conduct of the war in Iraq.

So the race to define John McCain is on. The seeming imperviousness of his maverick myth and polls showing Americans view him as more trustworthy suggest McCain has an early edge in the character war. But we have not yet seen the end of McCain's "Lobbotomy," the K street taint looming over and threatening to unravel his campaign. And to be sure, the Democratic Party has yet to fully take up Lindsey Graham's challenge: "Good luck making him George Bush."

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