When Republican Linda McMahon joins New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at rallies in Stamford, Waterbury and Glastonbury Monday, it will be the first time her U.S. Senate campaign has widely publicized her schedule in four weeks.
The last time the McMahon campaign issued an advisory to the media in advance of a campaign appearance was Sept. 28, when she appeared with Sen. John McCain of Arizona at a veterans’ hall in Danbury and a hotel in Norwalk.
McMahon’s second campaign for U.S. Senate may be extreme in how it limits press access, but consultants and politicians say the McMahon approach is becoming closer to the norm, heralding a post-media political era.
“The amount of money and brute force that money buys, they don’t need the media,” said Rich Hanley, a journalism professor at Quinnipiac University. “They can go directly to the electorate with TV, emails and direct mail.”
Chris LaCivita, a senior consultant to McMahon’s campaign, cast the shrinking role of the press in the modern campaign as progress, a natural consequence of social media and campaign websites that ease unfiltered voter contact.
“No one in their right mind can say the amount information is less or not as specific than it was 15 years ago,” LaCivita said. “The difference is that it is conveyed without the interpretation of TV news or newspapers.”
Ultimately, every campaign is a fight over message, a battle waged daily — increasingly, hour to hour, minute to minute. The media is an unscripted element that campaigns try to control, though few as carefully as McMahon.
Since Aug. 22, McMahon’s campaign has given advance notice of her whereabouts only five times, including an advisory of her three rallies with Christie.
Democrat Chris Murphy, whose schedule was not regularly shared for weeks after the disclosure that he had been sued for missed rental and mortgage payments, now is available daily to the media, as is his campaign schedule.
“Where’s Linda today?” Murphy likes to ask, drawing a contrast with McMahon. “Where was she yesterday?”
The ‘Linda’ brand
With the ability to spend nearly $80 million over two seamless campaigns for open Senate seats, first for Chris Dodd’s in 2010 and now for Joseph Lieberman’s in 2012, McMahon is a brand as much as a candidate.
The campaign as an unfolding conversation, one in which the media is both a participant and a witness, pressing candidates on issues and watching voters do the same, is disappearing.
“It is a manifestation of a trend that has been developing over the last 20 years,” said Dan Gerstein, the communications director for Lieberman’s independent campaign in 2006. “When you have that opportunity to talk to people unfiltered, to become your own publishing organization, it is very tempting.”
Lieberman and Ned Lamont, the anti-war candidate who challenged the senator over the war in Iraq, each spent $20 million on their campaigns, allowing a robust presence on TV and the web. But reporters had easy and regular access to both candidates, who traveled with the press by bus or RV at times.
In the 2010 race for governor, Democrat Dannel P. Malloy and Republican Tom Foley gave reporters covering the race phone numbers where they could be directly reached, a practice that likely would leave most of today’s campaign press secretaries aghast.
“People in politics are constantly doing risk-reward analysis,” Gerstein said. “There is a feeling that too much political reportage today is about gotcha stories. It is [more] about capturing the gaffe, recording conflict, than actually reporting what is said. That’s the perception among candidates, it’s all downside.”
Last week, after the last of her four debates with Democrat Chris Murphy, McMahon left little doubt that she shared that view, when she was asked about her refusal to talk specifics about Social Security changes, for fear any substantive answer would be subject to “demagoguing.”
“Thanks to all of you folks in the media, you’re the ones who primarily do it. And bash any of the suggestions that might be made to improve Social Security or Medicare,” McMahon said.
McMahon’s team has constructed a campaign to protect against her tendency to make ambiguous statements when straying from talking points. In 2010, she famously fumbled a line of questions on the minimum wage, and at times this year has seemed open to privatizing Medicare or putting “sunset provisions” on Social Security.
Where some politicians campaign like jazz musicians, relying on experience and instinct to improvise familiar riffs into something new and fresh, McMahon is most comfortable playing from sheet music, hitting the same notes.
McMahon, 64, was the chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment until 2009, when she abruptly entered politics, declaring for the seat then held by Dodd. Murphy, 39, is a three-term congressman who was 25 when he won his first election to the General Assembly.
To admirers, her four debate performances were a study in message discipline. McMahon’s song was the same, reinforcing her bio as a former corporate chief executive and her belief that the economy is the central issue: She is a jobs creator, and she has a six-point economic plan.
When nudged off message, she can seem adrift. She was unable to say in one brief interview if she would have voted to confirm Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, even though McMahon was campaigning for Senate in 2010 when Kagan was confirmed.
This year, she has done no lengthy interviews or press conferences, though she recently resumed meeting with some editorial boards after shunning them during her primary campaign.
Lamont admires elements of McMahon’s campaign, particularly its message discipline.
“I know something about message discipline, because I was incredibly undisciplined, but you can take it too far, too.” said Lamont, who joked during his campaign that he had a bad habit of actually answering questions.
McMahon seems a caricature at times by sticking to a script, he said.
“People want to know who you are, not just your position on issues,” Lamont said.
‘A lot has been lost’
When Lewis B. Rome was the GOP nominee for governor in 1982, reporters were invited to begin the day at his house in Bloomfield before dawn. If there was room, they climbed into the back seat of his Oldsmobile, and traveled with him from event to event, questioning him throughout the day and watching voters do the same.
Those were days of unguarded moments, such as the time Rome’s campaign driver was pulled over for speeding, of small talk about spouses and children, gossip about rivals, on and off the record. All of it informed coverage, giving depth, texture and context.
“I think a lot has been lost,” said Rome, a state legislative leader who was defeated by Gov. William A. O’Neill. “Basically the campaigns used to want the public to know exactly what they were doing. They were pleased with what they were doing themselves. If I didn’t like openness, I wouldn’t have invited everyone in.”
Rome, whose running mate was the father of the state’s present Republican state chairman, Jerry Labriola, said he is appalled by the modern campaign.
“I am so frustrated. I have not contributed to anyone this year,” he said. “A plague on both their houses.”
Hanley, the journalism professor and former reporter, said the “human side of the campaign” is missing.
“The campaign has in effect become a video game. It’s a dry, airless place now,” he said. “Are we electing a real person, or are we electing an avatar?”
An essential part of McMahon’s campaign is her postings to her 55,349 fans on Facebook and, as of Sunday, her 35,079 followers on Twitter. (Murphy, an early congressional adopter of Twitter, has 5,817 followers.)
Her Twitter feed offers chatty postcard accounts of her interactions with voters, a running account of her direct voter contact at high school football games, parades and festivals, even if no reporters are there to bear witness.
“Chatted with voters and their families at the Portland Agricultural Fair!”
“Enjoying the Glastonbury Apple Fest. Great music and good family fun!”
McMahon said she does not lack for voter contact.
“I have been in more than 150-some living rooms. I have toured businesses. I have been incredibly out with the people of Connecticut,” McMahon told reporters last week after her last debate, rejecting any suggestion she is inaccessible. She smiled and added, “Just look at my Facebook page.“