Tea Partyers helped put Michele Bachmann on the national map, so tonight's CNN/Tea Party Republican presidential debate could be an excellent place for her to regain lost ground. Polls show that Bachmann has lost substantial support over the last month, while Texas Gov. Rick Perry's popularity has skyrocketed. At the same time, data also shows, Bachmann andformer Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have lost ground to him in the mainstream media.
Data compiled by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism shows just how much Perry has taken over the national debate, at the expense of Bachmann and Romney. From the moment he announced his candidacy, Perry has received far more media attention than his fellow candidates. In a broad sample of news stories from print, broadcast, and online media studied by Pew, Bachmann and Romney have appeared nearly equally often as lead newsmakers in 2011 (through September 4), with 151 and 153 stories, respectively (in Pew's analysis, a "lead newsmaker" is a person present in 50 percent or more of a news story). Perry has received moderately less coverage, with 126 stories. However, Perry declared his candidacy on August 13, far later than Bachmann or Romney. Since his entry, he has been the lead newsmaker in 90 of Pew's stories, more than four times Romney's level of coverage (20 stories), and nearly seven times Bachmann's (13 stories).
Media coverage of new presidential candidates tends to follow "an almost natural progression of events," says Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of Pew's journalism program. "The candidate explodes onto the scene, they essentially generate a significant amount of coverage if they show certain indices of viability," like successful fundraising and polling. "So the first thing the media tries to figure out if his person is a serious candidate or not, or has potential to be a serious candidate." After that, says Jurkowitz, "there kicks in another process, and that's the vetting process, particularly for candidates who aren't particularly well-known."
This process has played out differently for the biggest Republican candidates, and Bachmann's trajectory seems to have suffered the most during this process. Perry is still only one month into his candidacy and is only beginning to feel the in-depth scrutiny of media vetting. Romney, meanwhile, did not burst onto the scene in the way that Perry did, but as a 2008 top-tier Republican candidate also may not require the vetting that Perry will. "The press doesn't feel like it has to introduce Mitt Romney to the American public," says Jurkowitz.
Bachmann, however, was relatively well-known on a national scale prior to her presidential campaign, having made a name for herself as key Tea Party fixture and conservative firebrand. That image may have put her at a disadvantage in the current campaign. Much prior media coverage of Bachmann had focused on her propensity for making outrageous statements espousing what some consider to be extreme viewpoints. That preconstructed narrative, says Jurkowitz, is hard for the media to shake. "That would create the impression in many people, in many media quarters, that she's not going to be a likely successful presidential candidate, simply because of where she is in the ideological spectrum," he says.
And this is where the damaging circularity of media coverage and popularity comes in. "I think clearly the news media does have the effect of priming the attention that voters give to candidates," says Christopher Arterton, a professor of political management at The George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. "The press both follows and leads what's happening both in the polls and other indicators of candidate success."
In other words, to some extent, any publicity is good publicity. So Bachmann's key to regaining her footing with voters may be regaining her place in the spotlight. She does have a proven ability to attract the news media's attention, and with numerous economic battles awaiting on Capitol Hill this fall, Bachmann may have plenty of opportunities to make a media splash. For example, she seized on President Obama's jobs speech last week, as well as the lack of a formal Republican response, to hold a press conference at which she delivered her own reaction.