How ABC Gave Newsom a Big Fat Spin Bounce
When the Gavin Newsom campaign put out the notice that former President Bill Clinton was endorsing the Prince of Prides for governor, it appeared our old friend Teddy Davis, deputy political director at ABC News, was first to break the news on abcnews.go.com.
Which was a smart play by the Newsom campaign because the story got a big, national bounce and it was cast exactly the way Newsom’s campaign Rasputin, Garry South, wanted it framed.
Why? Well it didn’t hurt that the story was written by Teddy, who cut his teeth in big-time politics as South’s personal right-hand man during Gray Davis’s (no relation) 1998 campaign for governor.
Surely the smart, honest and honorable Teddy –- who has since crossed over to neutral territory as an ABC news maven — did not set out to write a propaganda piece for the Newsom campaign. But that’s the practical effect of his article. And because of our astonishing seismic impact in shaping the story for national reporters and others looking in from outside California, Calbuzz feels an obligation to explain why this piece of reporting was all spin. (Our own analysis is available here.)
1. The first and crucial quote that frames the ABC story comes from Ben Tulchin, another old friend, who is cast as “a California-based pollster who is unaligned in the 2010 governor’s race.”
That may be technically true, but the estimable Tulchin is also very close to South: when Teddy Davis was South’s right-hand man, Tulchin served in the same capacity for Paul Maslin, who was Gray Davis’s pollster in the ’98 race. In addition, anyone following the race knows that Tulchin has been arguing for months that Newsom is the stronger candidate for governor and that voters will see Attorney General Jerry Brown as over-the-hill.
Tulchin’s second-graph quote: “This is huge. It’s a potential game-changer.” On this, the story hangs.
Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll or Mark Baldassare at PPIC would have been what you might call “neutral” polling sources. Tulchin is not.
2. To bolster the argument that Clinton can help Newsom expand his appeal to Latinos – especially now that LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has dropped out of the race – who did ABC quote but state Sen. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles, who happens to be chairman of Newsom’s campaign!
3. To further burnish the value of the Clinton endorsement, ABC turned to another Calbuzz friend, Chris Lehane, who joined Mark Fabiani (now his business partner), in the Clinton White House in 1995 as part of a rapid response team developed to deal with the growing number of investigations into bimbo eruptions, lying and indiscretions.
During the Gray Davis administration, Lehane and Fabiani were hired at $30,000 a month – the kind of expense Davis did not make without consulting Garry South — to run communications during the energy crisis. Until the controller refused to pay them because of a conflict of interest: they were already working as consultants to Southern California Edison which was negotiating with the state to avert bankruptcy.
Lehane, who is both brilliant and quick, also later helped South during the 2002 re-election campaign – playing the part of GOP opponent Bill Simon during debate preparation. He also worked against the Gray Davis recall the following year.
Whether Teddy Davis knows that Newsom often seeks Lehane’s counsel and that his press secretary, Peter Ragone, is a Lehane protégé, Calbuzz is not sure. But Joe Garofoli wrote about it in detail in the SF Chron back in 2004. He also noted that Lehane’s wife, Andrea Evans, was a Newsom appointee to the Commission on the Status of Women.
So using Lehane as a neutral political commentator on this story is bogus.
4. Calbuzz found it curious that in discussing the impact of Clinton’s endorsements on various races, ABC neglected to mention the most obvious one: the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign – Terry McAuliffe – who got waxed in the Virginia governor’s race this year, despite big-time support from Bill and Hillary.
5. There’s no argument by or even a response from anyone in the Brown camp about the effect of the endorsement. Nor is there any serious description of the 1992 campaign in which Jerry Brown attacked Clinton relentlessly – right up into the New York convention – creating tremendous bad blood between the Clintons and Brown.
As if to acknowledge this failure of reporting and balance, Teddy twice mentions 1992 – without explaining the background or what actually happened – only to swat it down.
“If the Brown campaign portrays the Clinton endorsement as lingering sour grapes over the 1992 campaign, Lehane said he thinks it could backfire.
“Bill Clinton is one of the most popular Democrats in California,” Lehane said. “The last thing in the world you would want to do is inject some conflict into this endorsement, because it would just get it out there in a bigger way.”
Also, ABC reported: “… the Brown camp may try to dismiss Clinton’s endorsement as simply the latest obligatory stop on the former president’s ‘payback tour.’ Tulchin said, however, that the Clinton endorsement cannot be dismissed so easily. ‘Clinton could have easily taken a pass,’ Tulchin said. ‘The fact that he is coming out now is a bold move.’”
Instead of serious argument, ABC created reportorial straw men, which were then destroyed with quotes from Lehane and Tulchin.
Calbuzz tried to talk to Teddy about the story but was informed by Ms. Emily Lenzer of ABC News Media Relations that, “it is ABC News policy for media relations to approve and/or handle all media requests.”
So Calbuzz sent an email outlining our critique and Emily replied with Teddy’s responses (summarized here):
— Tulchin is not polling for any of the current gubernatorial candidates and besides, Calbuzz quoted him as a “nonaligned Democratic pollster” back in March. (That’s true, Calbuzz did quote Tulchin — in a story about why Dianne Feinstein would not run for governor. So what?)
— Lehane was identified as a “former Clinton adviser,” and is quoted as saying: “Jerry Brown is still very much the candidate to beat and has run a great campaign to date.” (We didn’t say he wasn’t identified.)
— The ABC News story refers to the major 2010 races in which Bill Clinton has already made an endorsement. (But not the McAuliffe 2009 race.)
— Brown’s identity as a “1992 rival” of former President Clinton is reported throughout the story starting with the headline. (But who knows what that really means?)
— If an allegation is made about someone, ABC News makes a point of including reaction from the person or entity criticized. By contrast, this Clinton endorsement story does not include any criticism about Brown or his record. (ABC said the endorsement is a potential game changer that could upend the race. No one, from anywhere, argued otherwise.)
“ABC News stands by Teddy Davis’ reporting of this story,” said Lenzer. We’re glad that his employer is standing by our friend Teddy who, after all, worked for at least half of us back in the Davis administration.
I felt this piece was badly off-base for a variety of reasons and thus feel the need to respond and set the record straight on several items.
1) The story completely missed the forest for the trees because THE CLINTON ENDORSEMENT IS A BIG DEAL. There is no way to minimize that. ABC News reported a major event in the CA governor’s race – the biggest race in the country. For Clinton to endorse Newsom in a competitive primary against a former governor and sitting AG and clear frontrunner, that is a big deal. That is why several prominent sources went on the record – myself, Chris Lehane, and Art Torres (the former Chairman of the California Democratic Party who somehow was not mentioned in your piece – because all of us came to the same conclusion that this is a big deal) among others.
2) There were several comments you made about me that were flat out wrong and I felt that I must correct them for the record.
a. My quote captures what I see is a huge event, and an event with which many other people who work in politics agree. The fact is the Newsom campaign was struggling to raise money and had just gone through a major staff shake-up. Many insiders were questioning whether Newsom could continue and would even make it to the end of the year. And then what happens? The former president of the U.S. comes along and endorses him – one of the most popular Democrats in the country and someone who, if he follows through, could turn Newsom’s campaign around. That is my analysis of the impact of the Clinton endorsement – and why I accurately described it as a potential “game changer”, because it fundamentally changes the dynamic of the campaign from one where Newsom was riding a wave of bad news to one where, all of a sudden, he can get back into this race.
b. For the record, I am “unaligned” – there is nothing “technical” about that fact. I am not working for nor have I ever worked for either of the Democratic candidates for governor. That is a fact, plain and simple. In fact, what is ironic is that Phil Trounstine quoted me as an “non-aligned pollster” in a story he did about the governor’s race just a few months ago when Gavin Newsom was a candidate for governor and Jerry Brown was a potential candidate for governor (same as he is now). The fact is I am unaligned and that is why many reputable media outlets and reporters (LA Times, SF Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times, The Ventura Star, among many others) have quoted me on the record on a regular basis on the governor’s race.
d. You incorrectly characterize what I have said about the governor’s race. What I have said is easily available on the Internet. To set the record straight:
i. I have NEVER said Newsom is a stronger candidate than Brown. Ever.
ii. I have always said that Jerry Brown is the frontrunner and it is his race to lose (see my opinion piece in the Chronicle, 6/29/09, easily available online). I said the same thing to the reporter in this interview – he didn’t use it because he quoted Chris Lehane saying the exact same thing.
iii. This spring, when I released my poll on the Democratic primary race for governor prior to the convention, I never said Newsom was the stronger candidate than Brown. What I said was that Brown had the lead but that Newsom appeared to be emerging as the leading contender among the rest of the field. Guess what? NEWSOM EMERGED AS THE LEADING CONTENDER!!! Garamendi switched to run for Congress and Mayor Villaraigosa opted not to run, leaving Newsom as THE remaining contender. I was 100% accurate in my assessment of the race.
iv. I also said that Newsom benefited from a 2-way race. In the Chron opinion piece, I said Brown was the frontrunner but that Newsom would benefit from a 2-way race, even though a lot of the conventional wisdom was saying Antonio dropping out would help Brown. And look what happened – it becomes a 2-way race and CLINTON ENDORSES NEWSOM. Clinton would NEVER have endorsed Newsom had Antonio stayed in the race (both had supported Hillary). But in a 2-way race, Clinton has the option, and he took it. Thus, I was right again – based on my “unaffiliated” status in the campaign and my ability to see the dynamics of this race and understand them.
Thank you for the opportunity to set the record straight.
A Democratic pollster who is unaffiliated with any of the candidates for governor in California
Ben is correct when he notes that he has consistently said Brown is leading Newsom in the polls, including his own. We didn’t mean to imply otherwise. But Ben also has argued, as the New York Times put it, “that the dynamics are shaping up as a potential reprise of the national Democratic primaries in 2008 — an old guard vs. the up-and-comer scenario, with Brown playing the role of Hillary Clinton and Newsom the role of Barack Obama.” And who won that one? In Ben’s words — even before the Clinton endorsement — Newsom was the up-and-comer who was emerging as the leading contender. Perhaps he meant to say Newsom was emerging as the leading challenger to Brown. No matter — Calbuzz wasn’t and isn’t arguing with Tulchin: he’s a smart and honest pollster with his own analysis of the race.