In campaign 2012, the Romney campaign and the Obama campaign both have to worry about driving the news rather than being driven by the news.
Yesterday's decision by a super PAC not to use Jeremiah Wright's past friendship with the president as an attack and the subsequent news coverage of that decision served as an excellent way to use Wright and President Obama's past friendship as an effective attack. In order to explain the non-decision, the media retold the unflattering story of their friendship.
There is such an appetite to move the 2012 campaign story every day that even a decision not to mount a particular ad campaign can be big news and send the campaigns scrambling. More than ever, campaigns are faced with the challenge of how to constantly fill their news hole every day. If they don't fill it, others will fill it for them. There are multiple stories that emerge every day. The media are competitive and pretty smart, so they won't just republish the pablum offered daily by the campaigns. The campaigns need to continually offer something fresh to stay on message, even when there is nothing fresh to offer.
This week, the campaigns had to comment on items out of their control, including several stray polls, the Facebook IPO and the Facebook billionaire who is taking his money and leaving his U.S. citizenship behind, JPMorgan's trading loss, California's budget woes, the John Edwards trial, something about Greece and the euro, and more.
How to find daily placement for a carefully crafted campaign message is very difficult. Obama had some success this week with the attack on Romney and Bain Capital, but even that story only lasted about half of a news cycle. In developing the narratives that they want, the campaigns are challenged by speed and clutter. Speed caused by unlimited media — from cable to Twitter — and clutter, the colorful stories that catch the attention of the media and voters like a bright shiny object. Voters are bombarded by information. Some is true, some is not. They have to filter through it, consider how the news applies to themselves and try to form sensible opinions and fair conclusions.
In politics, more news is better than less news. It is impossible to argue otherwise. But 2012 will test the limits of what voters find useful in making decisions vs. what they find to be annoying and phony and what might give them a reason be turned off and decide to sit out the elections altogether.