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Oops, they did it, with spin

Political candidates are taking swift ownership of their blunders in an effort to regroup and refocus before mishaps go viral. In an age when campaign bloopers pop right onto YouTube, speed is key.

April 17, 2010|By Evan Halper

Reporting from Sacramento — The scene would have made any campaign advisor cringe.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner was being shouted at by a throng of students and officials from a struggling San Jose high school where he had worked for a year. The book he wrote on that experience was patronizing nonsense, the protesters said. They demanded an accounting and told him he was not welcome on campus.

The conventional campaign playbook seemed to dictate that the candidate now rush to roll out a bold initiative or make some other move to shift voter attention elsewhere, fast. But Poizner's team did not do that.

Instead, his strategists blasted mass e-mails to supporters and journalists, encouraging those who had missed the train wreck -- or as the campaign framed it, Poizner standing up to entrenched bureaucrats and teachers union bullies -- to view the unflattering news reports. Summaries of the coverage and links to YouTube video of the event were included in the e-mails.

The scene captured "one of the more dramatic events of the campaign," said a recounting sent out by Poizner press secretary Bettina Inclan. "As much as we tried to pull him away, Steve Poizner refused to back away from a hard question."

Taking swift ownership of a mishap is not a new form of spin control. But campaigns seem to be employing it more in the digital age, when an apparent blunder can be seen on YouTube by dinnertime.

Dozens of blogs and online newsletters can make news of a stumble go viral before a candidate can regroup and refocus his or her message. Embracing the embarrassment may be the best alternative.

"Candidates are finding they can't run away," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento. "With all the digital media out there, if you don't distribute [something] first, someone else will. It is probably better if you just get it out there yourself."

It just needs to be done carefully, or "you run the risk of giving opinion leaders and reporters all kinds of damaging material they may not have otherwise seen," O'Connor said.

After a particularly bruising week for attorney general candidate John Eastman recently, his campaign sent out a "Breaking News" alert that recapped an embarrassing controversy.

Although probably little noticed by voters, the dispute concerned how Eastman's occupation would be defined on the June 8 primary election ballot.

The former dean of the Chapman University School of Law had listed his job as "assistant attorney general," a title given to him in South Dakota for work on a single case there. One of his opponents in the GOP primary, Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, called the title "blatantly false and misleading."

The secretary of state rejected it. A superior court judge backed her up and ordered that Eastman's description be "constitutional law attorney."

Eastman's campaign announced the news as a victory.

"Cooley wanted John to be listed as 'Law School Professor,' a designation he no doubt calculated would be perceived as a 'liberal' academic profession," wrote Eastman campaign manager Jeff Flint. "Fortunately, Cooley's transparent effort failed."

As for Eastman's unsuccessful attempt to call himself an assistant attorney general: "Most of the media just don't understand the state law and rules over how ballot designations are governed," Flint wrote to supporters, saying state rules "compelled" Eastman to submit that particular title.

Trashing the media can be a good way to go, said Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College. That's especially effective in GOP primaries, he said, which tend to draw the most conservative voters.

"You can use unflattering publicity as evidence that the media is biased against you," said Pitney, a former Republican National Committee official. "A lot of Republican primary voters and activists distrust the mainstream media."

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina's campaign capitalized on a torrent of ridicule from the media after it released its "demon sheep" video, a bizarre production attacking one of her opponents that looked more like a spoof than a real campaign spot.

The advertisement was widely mocked, garnering enough attention that the campaign was able to frame it as a successful stunt, creating much-needed buzz around Fiorina's candidacy early in the primary contest. Several media outlets picked up that narrative.

GOP bloopers are front and center this year as Republicans aggressively fight primaries at the top of the ticket, where Democrats running for governor and U.S. Senate have no major primary challengers. Still, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown had an awkward moment recently, and his supporters seized it.

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