As Barrett climbs in the polls relative to Falk and Walker, media linger on candidates with conventional advantages
Post by Christie Taylor on 5/2/2012 2:40pm
It’s hard to tell sometimes that there are four Democrats running for governor against Scott Walker. Read Salon, the Washington Post, or even Isthmus, for example, and the race boils down to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett versus former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, with little or no mention of State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout or Secretary of State Doug La Follette. Stories about debates, even when they include the two, often run with headlines like, “Barrett, Falk verb some nouns.”
Aside from standalone pieces about an individual candidate visit to a city, features introducing or summarizing each candidate to a paper’s readers, or coverage of events such as forums where each of the four is quoted (but even there the coverage can skew noticeably toward Barrett and Falk), Vinehout and La Follette just don’t get as much coverage outside the opinion pages.
Meanwhile, the other two get attention far more easily: Barrett, not yet an official candidate, has harsh words about Walker’s use of the mortgage settlement? Story. AFSCME says something possibly incorrect about him? Story. A new big name endorsement for Barrett? Story. A new ad from the Falk campaign? Story. Falk reacts to a recent piece of news? Story. Barrett reacts to a recent piece of news? Story. Kathleen Falk says she’ll do X number of debates compared to Barrett’s Y number? Story. Falk and Barrett raise hundreds of thousands of dollars? Where that money came from is a story. And so on.
While Vinehout and La Follette are certainly not completely without coverage, and while this pattern isn’t true of every single news outlet, the trend is clear. The candidates with the money, endorsements, and high pre-candidacy profiles are stealing the show. And some of this makes sense--Barrett, for example, has more bona fide news to talk about, like his mayoral re-election, the controversy and not-so-factualness of the AFSCME video and the need to clarify the nuances of his previous statements on collective bargaining. Speculative media eyes were on him well before he declared.
Falk and Barrett are also ahead in the polls: a Marquette Law School poll released today found Barrett neck-in-neck with Walker, and, in a potential primary matchup, leading Falk 38 to 21 percent in the Democratic primary, while La Follette and Vinehout both polled in the single digits at, respectively, 8 and 6 percent. With 19 percent of voters still undecided, though, there’s a good deal of potential shift left for the frontrunners.
The numbers for the primary reflect almost no differences from the last poll, conducted in April by Public Policy Polling on behalf of Daily Kos, except that Barrett has a larger lead on Falk.
But when I sat down with Doug La Follette about two weeks ago to ask his thoughts on his lagging poll numbers, he said he still had plenty to offer voters.
“The choice is clear between candidates of millions of dollars of special interest money and of political endorsements, or Doug La Follette, who will listen to all the people and work with all sides to get Wisconsin working again,” he said. “We’ve got these two Goliaths fighting and here’s David-Doug out trying to talk about the issues.”
La Follette, who’s run a few television ads now, whose funding is coming almost entirely from his retirement savings, and who continues to speak out against corporate financing of elections, said when he originally decided to run, he’d been inspired by the thousands of people on the Capitol Square just outside his office.
“I decided to run because I felt first that this could be a unique election where a better way might work because we had a lot of activated, informed citizens, which is different from a typical election,” he said. “And secondly because of my record of winning elections. I got elected last time when Walker won and Russ Feingold lost, and that's a pretty strong statement that I have support."
As for why that doesn’t show up in the polls? He lays the blame on the big money, endorsements, and greater television presences of the frontrunners. But he thinks he’d still be strong if he makes it to the general, and he’s still touring the state, making appearances, and showing up to talk about his plans for fixing the state.
”I'm going to keep going,” he says. “Going to forums, talking about the important issues.”
From the beginning, Vinehout too has said that unconventional times call for an unconventional candidate: that voters who want money out of elections should vote for the candidate with no money, and that her background, which brought her to politics late in life and with a firsthand appreciation for the struggles of rural Wisconsinites, makes her a good match for a state tired of politicians. She’s still saying it.
The Vinehout campaign was approached for comment on this story but had not replied as of publication time.
One interesting exception to this polarization of media attention is, actually, the Wausau Daily Herald, which on Monday endorsed Vinehout, starting by noting her disadvantages--that she is not leading in the polls, and does not have the organizational support of the unions or statewide recognition--but concluding that she would still be best for the state, as “the only candidate in this compressed gubernatorial campaign to dig in with both hands” to the problems facing anyone who might be the next governor, noting both her charismatic personality and wonkish attention to policy. Madison radio station WTDY reported that the endorsement appeared to have been the first newspaper endorsement in the state, and so far no other papers appear to have released their endorsements.
Regardless, University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Barry Burden says, it’s no surprise that Barrett and Falk are the focus of the race.
“They are the only candidates who have run statewide before,” he says (though that neglects that La Follette has run statewide for Secretary of State for years now). “They have much more name recognition and have demonstrated ability to raise money. Both have been lining up prominent endorsements. Both are running near the top in surveys of likely primary voters.
“These are the things that get candidates to be taken seriously.”
The different segments of the Democratic Party to which Falk and Barrett are appealing, Burden says, also adds a “convenient narrative” for members of the media to frame their stories around.
In other words, he says, despite the historical and unconventional nature of the recalls, the usual factors are, even in this most unusual of elections, still running the show. Only Mahlon Mitchell, running to unseat Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, is a strong contender from outside the Democratic Party establishment.
“Although the recall environment is unusual, in a short campaign the traditional heavyweights are probably advantaged,” he says. “The conventional candidates are dominating.”
Christie Taylor (@ctaylsaurus) covers science, environment, and, depending on the season, state politics for dane101. She verbs a lot of nouns, including rollerskates, radio, and Kurt Vonnegut. A Madison native, she's not sure she'll ever quite manage to leave Wisconsin, and that's just fine by her. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.