New Hampshire primary bonus: big media play
Washington — As the presidential candidates count down the days to the New Hampshire primary next Tuesday (Feb. 26), they are keenly aware of the high stakes for the winner.
In media coverage alone, the New Hampshire victors in the two parties will likely triple or quadruple their rivals' coverage on television and in the press , judging by past experience.
"It's winner-take-all journalism," says Thoams E. Patterson, a Syracuse University expert on media coverage of presidential elections.
Republican George Bush already has received two or three times his rivals' coverage since the Jan. 21 Iowa caucuses where the narrowly edged Ronald Reagan by 2.1 percent, Mr. Patterson says.
"The coverage is even more intensive this time," says Mr. Patterson, whose book, "The Mass Media Election," will be published by Praeger this summer.
"Last time, half the coverage before New Hampshire -- from October 1975 to Feb. 23, 1976, -- was devoted to the New Hampshire primary, where reference to a state was made," he says. "This year, New Hampshire has shared some of that with Iowa."
New Hampshire's multiplier role in media coverage will still be impressive, Mr. Patterson says, given the building drama in both parties.
"In theory, this is a 50-state contest," Mr. Patterson says. "But in practice the early stages establish the pattern of momentum, fund raising, and media attention.
"New Hampshire is a national event," he emphasizes. After the Granite State's 1976 primary, surveys showed a high 70 to 75 percent of the American people knew the outcome. The results also played back heavily into news coverage.
Jimmy Carter in 1976 got 28 percent of the primary votes in New Hampshire. Sixty percent were split among his four liberal rivals, with Rep. Morris K. Udall of Arizona only four points behind at 24 percent.
"But in news coverage, Carter's advantage was 4 to 1 in ensuing weeks after New Hampshire," Mr. Patterson says. "Carter was on the cover of both Time and Newsweek after New Hampshire. In the cover stories, Carter got 2,600 news coverage lines, Udall 90 lines -- with a total of just 300 for all the others, including Udall.
"Only 4,000 votes separated Carter and Udall, but this created a tremendous imbalance in news coverage."
In 1980, Mr. Bush appears to be repeating the Carter medium momentum of 1976. By Mr. Patterson's count, the former UN ambassador got two or three times the media coverage his opponents received after Iowa. The Newsweek cover story, which portrayed him as coming "out of the pack" to challenge Mr. Reagan for the GOP front-runner position, has typified media treatment since. In the number of media following the candidates on the New Hampshire hustings, Mr. Bush so far has outdrawn his next nearest rival, Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, by more than his 2-to-1 edge in Iowa. And Mr. Bush carried the headlines in Washington with his Feb. 17 Puerto Rico win, a relatively minor contest.
"In 1976, the cast of characters on the Democratic side were relatively unknown," Mr. Patterson says. "Carter-the-front-runner became the only newsworthy candidate and hence the only candidate that became known the following weeks."
The 1980 Democratic race got off to an early, different start for 1980 because of the unique candidacy of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. "The heightened interest last fall was a response to the Kennedy candidacy, which people had been waiting 12 years to have come along," Mr. Patterson says. But after Mr. Kennedy announced last November, foreign events upstaged domestic politics until the nomination contest began in Iowa. Mr. Kennedy also has the media disadvantage of opposing an incumbent president, who can command the front pages and TV newscasts with daily White House pronouncements on domestic policies or foreign affairs.
The impact of the Feb. 20 Republican forum in New Hampshire, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, may turn as much on press interpretation as on the public's own eyewitness response, Mr. Patterson suggests.
"The tendency of the public is to follow closely the cover-agem of debates," Mr. Patterson says. "After the second presidential debate in 1976 between Carter and [Gerald] Ford, those polled in the first 12 hours thought Ford had won it. Then, news coverage focused on Mr. Ford's Eastern Europe remark. Those people interviewed 12 to 48 hours after the debate thought Carter was the winner , with 2 out of 3 mentioning the Eastern Europe remark as a factor."