Spin Cycle

When Steve Grossman pulled the plug on his campaign during the summer, well before last month’s primary election for governor, there was blame enough to go around. The former Democratic National Committee chairman sank two years of his life and more than a million bucks of his own money into the race but rarely, if ever, even drew double digits in the polls. Grossman’s schizophrenic message and lackluster TV ads left voters confused and bored.

But there’s no denying one key factor in his demise: the “can’t win” label hung on him by Boston’s political media. His fate was scrawled in wet cement when another Jewish liberal with national credentials, former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, jumped into the race and soared ahead of Grossman in the polls. It was set in concrete when Reich ate Grossman’s brunch in the February party caucuses.

Grossman soldiered on for another five months. But he never recovered from a crippling political blunder: failing to meet the minimal expectations of reporters and analysts, and thus losing his footing in the rip tide of campaign spin. Subsequent successes — including an endorsement from former President Bill Clinton and a strong showing at the state party convention — couldn’t goose Grossman’s anemic poll ratings or reshape the Fourth Estate’s dismissive perception. Whichever came first. “They decided early on that he was not going to be a front-runner,” says former Grossman campaign spokesperson Alex Zaroulis. “The media plays a very large part in shaping the race.”

Dealing with that reality has been a bedrock challenge for the candidates in the primary campaign that ended last month and now in the general election race. It’s an often petty, sometimes demeaning process. Witness the fact that Grossman’s political corpse had barely begun to cool on the Friday he pulled out when the spin game began in earnest among the remaining campaigns. Their goal: convincing political reporters and pundits that their candidate was the likeliest heir to the meager Grossman base and thus endowed with that all-important political intangible, momentum.

Shannon O’Brien’s campaign moved fastest, lining up a slew of endorsements from former Grossman supporters. By the next day, Saturday, the Boston Herald was echoing her basic pitch to Democratic primary voters: Better get on the bandwagon that’s got the best chance of reaching the promised land. “Many of those Grossman soldiers were breaking yesterday for O’Brien, driven by her front-runner status and the overriding imperative to seize back the corner office after 12 years of Republican rule,” read the piece.

On Sunday, the Reich campaign, which had spent the summer trying to position its man as the field’s only legitimate outsider, scored with an op-ed Herald column by veteran journalist Wayne Woodlief concluding that “Reich is the biggest winner of all with Grossman gone. . . . Now, Reich becomes the outsider in a four-candidate field.”

Come Monday, the Grossman story had largely run its course, but not without a final word from the Boston Globe‘s Adrian Walker. The significance of Grossman’s exit lies not in who will inherit his supporters, wrote Walker, but in the fact that no one ever really cared about his candidacy. “Grossman attempted to build a campaign on substantive issues . . . [and] seized on the soaring cost of prescription drugs. Everything he says about the issue is probably true, but voters yawned.”

This was just too much for poor Alex Zaroulis, who had spent most of the previous year besieging columnists and reporters with e-mail and faxes detailing Grossman’s earnest policy positions. “For the past 10 months, I’ve been trying without success to get Adrian Walker to write about Steve because Steve has been doing interesting things,” she moaned. “Voters aren’t paying attention because you guys aren’t covering the best candidates.”

No doubt, the paramount importance of media spin speaks to the shallowness of political discourse. Even in Massachusetts — where politics is famously viewed as spectator sport — the coverage and analysis often, in fact, descend to the level of the sports page, emphasizing the horse race and the clubhouse brawl over the more sober matters of content and message. And yet, for better or worse, for all the oversimplification and idle speculation that accompany the spin game, the importance of manipulating it cannot be overstated — especially in the microwave oven of Massachusetts politics, where controlling the heat can make the difference between cooking your meal perfectly or blowing it up.

The backroom of the 2002 gubernatorial race is a high-stakes hamburger factory where political spin and its byproducts — unflattering leaks by one campaign about another, the lobbying of reporters and commentators, and a rapid, multifront response to unexpected stories of any kind — are fed through the media grinder to form the meat of public opinion. Campaigns that can get a handle on the process instead of being manhandled by it have the best chance of competing. Managing the coverage has become a major part of this campaign’s daily grind, every bit as important as fundraising, field organization, even the candidate’s message itself. “It’s not necessarily that one big story that threatens you,” says John Moffitt, campaign manager and then a top advisor to Bill Weld’s successful gubernatorial campaigns in 1990 and 1994. “It’s an accumulation of things that people see that kicks in down the road when they finally start to pay attention.”

The campaigns’ competition for their fair share of the Steve Grossman postmortem buzz was just one instructive example.

Monday morning’s Herald featured a major event in the campaign news cycle, a poll with eyebrow-raising results. Tom Birmingham’s major investment in TV advertising hadn’t done a thing to improve his anemic showing in past polls. In fact, his favorable rating had slumped to the bottom of the Democratic field, while more voters viewed him unfavorably than any other candidate. Worst of all, in head-to-head matchups with Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Birmingham lost by 31 points — the same margin as the newly minted poster boy for electoral futility, Steve Grossman. These numbers, wrote Herald State House bureau chief David Guarino, “are most perilous to Birmingham, who saw a marked pressure to bow out of the race with Grossman’s exit.”

Publicity like that was a nightmare for the laboring Birmingham campaign, but the campaign did little to stop the bleeding. By midafternoon, Birmingham held a lackluster “press availability” at his Charlestown headquarters. As a show of support, he produced obscure Melrose Mayor Rob Dolan, who endorsed Birmingham as dour campaign workers looked on. Then it was question time, and Herald political reporter Elisabeth Beardsley zeroed in.

“Steve Grossman dropped out last week, citing his rock-bottom poll numbers and saying it’s important to coalesce around the candidate with the best shot of beating Mitt Romney,” she said. “Why should that same logic not apply to you?”

“We’ve got very different numbers than are suggested here,” replied a stone-faced Birmingham. “I’m not fazed at all by the up-and-down polls.” The next day’s Herald featured Birmingham’s quote, followed by this: “But there’s no ‘up’ in Birmingham’s numbers — either in polls or fundraising, records show.”

Ouch. It was only the latest in a series of fumbles by a campaign that often seemed indifferent to media coverage. Unlike his three competitors, who often lingered to schmooze with reporters at length after press conferences, Birmingham bolted from the microphone as soon as the questions were exhausted, leaving morose press secretary Paul Wingle to rebuff reporters’ requests for copies of those allegedly “up” poll numbers. Mayor Dolan was left shaking his head. “It’s gonna be tough,” he said prophetically.

Consider, by contrast, how O’Brien’s campaign handled the potentially damaging release that same day by state auditor Joe DeNucci of a report that sharply criticized the state’s Pension Reserves Investment Management Board, which O’Brien oversees, for its role in major pension-fund losses on Enron stock. Those bum stocks, some of which the state bought as Enron’s price was collapsing, were a sore point for O’Brien, whose husband had been a lobbyist for Enron. So the campaign moved fast. In Tuesday morning’s papers, the findings of DeNucci’s report shared space with the claim by O’Brien aides that the auditor was taking political revenge on the treasurer for past differences, including her refusal to promote his son-in-law to a better job at the state lottery. Press secretary Adrian Durbin was on the phone all morning with reporters, reinforcing the DeNucci payback angle. By the time TV news crews arrived at O’Brien headquarters in South Boston that afternoon, Dwight Robson, a veteran political press aide who serves as O’Brien’s campaign manager, was ready with copies of a memo purportedly documenting threats against her by DeNucci’s staff. Then the candidate herself was produced to fire back at DeNucci.

The counterattack worked. Television coverage featured dueling sound bites of a visibly angry, somewhat tongue-tied DeNucci and a crisp, professional, but wearily resigned O’Brien waving off this old-style political affront. Whatever the merits of DeNucci’s critique and the flaws in O’Brien’s performance as treasurer, the story had been turned into a clash between a Beacon Hill pug-ugly and the field’s only female candidate. It vanished from the radar screen after a 48-hour flurry of columns and editorials largely sympathetic to O’Brien. “You have to talk about the things the media are interested in, and the media are interested in conflict,” notes John Moffitt. “The trick is to put out a spin that works because it makes sense to the media.”

“You just gotta go with the flow,” adds Michael Goldman, a veteran Democratic spin doctor and adviser to the Reich campaign. “Reporters really do go out of their way to be fair.” That is, when they’re not kicking the crap out of the candidates. Pity poor Reich, who wrapped up that particular week inside the burger factory by delivering a sober speech detailing his anticrime plan, which, in part, called for taking federal law “a step further” by imposing a mandatory two-year minimum sentence on convicted felons caught carrying a gun. Problem is (as the next day’s Globe noted under the headline “reich’s proposal for gun crackdown goes awry”), state law already calls for a three-year sentence. It was a nasty little embarrassment for Reich, who suffered from the persistent perception that he didn’t know Massachusetts from Transylvania. His anticrime plan didn’t even get a mention in the Herald, which had received a dime-drop from a competing campaign about Reich’s failure to get an inspection sticker for its campaign RV, the “Reich Reform Express.” “reich gets busted on inspection snafu,” blared the headline beneath a photo of the candidate beaming in front of his illegal vehicle. “Sometimes it goes your way and you’re able to get out the message you think is important, and sometimes the press will interpret things very differently,” sighs Reich campaign press secretary Dorie Clark. “It’s unfortunate when that happens.”

Don’t feel too bad for these beleaguered campaigns. Relatively uncritical treatment is still available from smaller news outlets. Assiduous massaging of the major media can at times lead to flattering coverage. And down the stretch, live debates and paid advertising often overshadow free media spin in competition for the attention of voters just as they begin to focus on the race. But when you consider the amount of thought and energy that goes into navigating the media meat grinder, and compare it with often-anemic candidate efforts to develop creative ideas and coalitions, it’s worth listening to the lament of Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees as he watched his Democratic colleagues manipulate the timing of this summer’s tax-hike vote and budget cuts to minimize press coverage of the unpopular moves.

“That’s what’s wrong with this place,” said Lees. “Everything is thought of as how it will play in the press, as opposed to what is right or wrong.”