"Spin Zones" in American Presidential Elections

Kara E. Stooksbury, Lori Maxwell, Cynthia S Brown


If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: "President Can't Swim". —Lyndon B. Johnson


The term “spin” implies manipulating the truth, and this concept, along with “spin doctoring,” is now common in media and public discourse. The prevalence of “spin zones” in American politics is undeniable; media outlets themselves, such as Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” on Fox News, now run segments on the topic. Despite this apparent media certainty about what constitutes “spin” there is a lack of conceptual clarity regarding the term among those who study media and politics. This article will draw on previous literature to identify two competing yet overlapping spin zones in American politics: the media’s spin zone and the President’s spin zone. Highlighting examples from the two most recent American presidential election campaigns, the article will evaluate the interplay of these zones and the consequences for future campaigns. 

Spin Zones 

In the United States, the press and the President are engaged in a struggle over providing information. Ever since the Watergate Scandal, the media is increasingly expected to be a “watchdog” that informs citizens and keeps the Executive accountable (Coronel 13) The President, conversely, may attempt to use the power of his position to set the discursive agenda or frame the political debate in his favor. Furthermore, with the rise of multi-media access and information provision, the lines between the spin doctoring of the Executive and the media have become even more blurred. Because of the complexities of these overlapping spin zones, many scholars disagree on how to define and/or precisely measure these effects. The following section briefly describes the ‘spin zone’ tools of agenda setting, framing, and priming, and then considers the example of a candidate who failed to prime his negative evaluation and a President who primes his image and successfully counterattacks his negative evaluation. 

The literature recognises two separate, yet interrelated zones that are integral to understanding these media/presidential relations: what we term the presidential spin zone and the media spin zone. The interplay between these zones comes together around three key concepts—agenda setting, framing, and priming. A key difficulty for scholars is that the President, his electoral challengers, and the press are engaged in agenda setting, framing and priming, sometimes simultaneously. Agenda setting is a broad concept and refers to focusing on certain issues to the exclusion of others. Framing is defined as the decision by the news media to “emphasise certain elements to define the ‘public’s belief’ about social and political issues” (Van Gorp 488). Other scholars describe priming as “a disproportionate amount of public comments with the hope . . . of causing voters to base their selection among the candidates on [that] issue” (Druckman et al. 1181; see also Druckman “Framing Effects”; Nelson, Clawson and Oxley; Van Gorp). Candidates may also undertake “image priming,” which is proposed by James Druckman et al., as a tool that can be used to counteract negative candidate evaluations (1182–1183). 

The definition of the media spin zone is, in most instances, synonymous with priming. Defining the presidential spin zone is more complex. Clearly the presidential spin zone involves both the previously-discussed “issue framing abilities of the president” and how he “set[s] the agenda” (Miller and Krosnick 301; see also, Gamson and Modigliano, Baumgardner and Jones; Druckman, “Framing Effects”). Mark Rozell, for instance, found that the Ford and Carter administrations had difficulty controlling the public agenda since many issues were either beyond their control, or because the president and his advisors lacked the strategy or skill to affect media coverage. The Reagan White House however was able to use his “image” to control the media (85–86). Similarly, George W. Bush’s administration was able to implement policies concerning the invasion of Iraq after the 9-11 through “issue framing” scare tactics, which were constantly reinforced by media outlets (Kellner 643). 

However, the President can also be engaged in priming at any given time. In other words, the President (or candidate) may attempt to prime what the media has already spun about him/her. A problem, of course, is that the President or candidate, in attempting to prime an issue that has already been spun in a sense tacitly admits they have lost the opportunity to set the agenda in the first place. However, this is when he can seize the aforementioned opportunity to use “image priming” to counterattack the media. In the examples that follow we examine whether the President or candidate can use priming to effectively counterattack the media spin zone, with a focus on two political tools that have been historically reserved for the President or candidates, namely, holding the base and wedge issues. 

Holding the Base and the Media Spin Zone 

Holding the base has been defined as a way in which candidates or Presidents can use the media to strengthen support among voters who already identify with their political party (Iyengar and McGrady 246). A classic example of this is the 1984 Reagan/Bush re-election campaign, the “The Bear.” This featured a bear in the woods that “some” could “see” and others didn’t “see at all” which was an implicit threat regarding Soviet communism and a reminder that Reagan was tough on foreign policy (“The Bear”). However, the evidence indicates that the media has increasingly begun “holding the base” on its own to facilitate its partisan framing and priming of candidates or Presidents. 

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attack advertisements on 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry is a key example of a media attempt to “hold the base.” In these advertisements, former “Swift Boat Veterans attack[ed] his [Kerry’s] military record” (Muravchik A17). While this initiative began as a means to collect Republican donations, Shanto Iyengar and Jennifer McGrady maintain that the amount was “trivial” and that the real impact came with “the torrent of news reports across the country” (150). Indeed, Kathleen Jamieson and Joseph Capella found that by August 2004, “viewers of Fox News were more likely than other network viewers to say that candidate John Kerry did not earn his Vietnam medals” (279). Their evaluation of this data demonstrated the power of the media spin zone: “He (Limbaugh) employs intense language, disparaging information and negative framing to distance perceptions of the Democratic candidate from those of the anointed Republican candidate” (Jamieson and Capella 228). 

The coverage of disputes surrounding Kerry’s military record was augmented by the media’s simultaneous coverage of the threat of terrorism. This priming “in the media continued, reaching a high peak of 55 threat messages in August 2004, a month later 25% of the public was very concerned about another major terrorist attack in the US—two months before the presidential election” (Nacos, Bloch-Elkon and Shapiro 120). Both President Bush and Candidate Kerry acknowledged that their respective win/loss could be attributed in some measure to the press coverage of the “war on terror” (Nacos, Bloch-Elkon and Shapiro 124). 

While questions loomed about his military experience against the backdrop of the war on terror, Senator Kerry won the first two Presidential debates by significant margins. Alec Gallup and Frank Newport suggested that the Kerry camp had “won the spin contest … to characterize their own candidate as the winner” (406). So, what happened to Kerry? The media spin zone stopped him. The presidential debate wins were 30 September 2004 and 8 October 2004, respectively. Iyengar and McGrady demonstrate that before the debates even began the number of Swift Boat veteran stories primed in the national and international press went from under 100 to over 500 (151). 

According to Kim Fridkin et al. the media’s spin was a significant factor in the third debate. They found that media coverage concerning Senator Kerry’s response to one question on whether homosexuality was a choice affected citizens’ evaluations of the candidate. In the post debate coverage, the tone “in newspapers, on the Internet, and on television was uniformly negative in its assessment of Senator Kerry’s comments” (Fridkin et al. 30). The impact of this negative framing was sufficiently strong to override positive evaluations of Kerry held by those who watched the debate. In sum, the “perfect storm of media coverage lessened the bounce that Senator Kerry received from the actual debate and led people to develop negative impressions of Kerry a mere three weeks before Election Day” (Fridkin 43). 

Despite these liabilities, Kerry should have counterattacked the media spin zone. He should have “counterpunched,” as noted by Drew Westen, priming the media that he was “a different kind of Democrat”—“one who knows when it’s time to take off the gloves” (337). Westen’s advice is echoed in Druckman’s call for further research in this area as well as by his own research findings. The media’s framing and priming led to negative evaluations of Kerry, which afforded him the opportunity to prime his “image” in a counterattack, as Druckman suggests (1183). 

Overcoming the Wedge Issues of the Media Spin Zone 

President Obama, however, orchestrates a different outcome in dealing with the media spin zone attack against him which centered on a “wedge” or “us verses them” issue. Iyengar and McGrady note that “wedge issues are designed to pit groups against each other, to appeal to voters’ sense of group identity” (145). However, they define wedge issues within the context of presidential spin zones; thus, the candidate or the president would be framing the “us versus them” topic. In this instance, the media framed a wedge issue, the status of President Obama’s citizenship, against him. 

In this case the birther movement, oft-promoted by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, argued that President Obama was not a US citizen. This issue became so prominent that it was soon adopted by the media spin zone. The media framing demanded proof in addition to the short form birth certificate that the President had already released (Wilson 109). 

For his part, President Obama handled the media spin zone’s wedge issue with great aplomb, responding in a brief statement to the public on 27 April 2011: “We do not have time for this kind of silliness” (Shear). Moreover, he did not alienate the media for framing the birther movement, but he placed the blame implicitly on Donald Trump who had taken up the birther gauntlet thrown down by Rush Limbaugh. It was “clearly Trump” he was priming when he indicated that he did not want to be “distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers” (Shear). Moreover, his strategic focus on “silliness” is an illustration of “image priming”. He did not allow himself to be drawn into the race-baiting or religious controversy that was a component of some of the media talk show discussions. 

The Washington Post reported after Obama’s speech that the percentage of Americans who questioned his legitimacy to serve as President dropped from 20% to 10%—thus legitimating his choice to address the nation. This result meant that the President responded to an attack from the media spin zone with a counterattack of his own; he effectively counterattacked to prime his image. Interestingly, Stephen Ansolobehare and Iyengar have indirectly demonstrated the efficacy of counterattacks in presidential spin zone situations by evaluating situations where one candidate attacks another and the “victim” of the attack either, does not respond, responds with a positive message or responds with a counterattack (143). They found overwhelming evidence that voters prefer their party’s candidate to counterattack rather than be victimised. 


In this paper we have furthered the call for conceptual clarity in the field by joining Druckman et al. in emphasising the need for more research on “image priming” on the part of candidates and Presidents in the interplay between the press and the presidency. If used properly, image priming seems a viable way for the presidency to counterattack against media framing and priming, but squandered opportunities may irreparably harm candidates. President Obama faced a difficult wedge issue that had undercurrents of both racial and religious tensions, but he deftly avoided those issues and found a way to “use Trump as a foil and present the president as a more serious leader” (Shear). His counterattack against the wedge used by the media spin zone was successful. Senator Kerry, on the other hand, failed to counterattack the media spin zone’s rallying of the base. His silence allowed the media to generate both issue and image frames and priming against him. This is an important lesson for future candidates and presidents and the media and presidential spin zones are important topics for further research. 


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American politics; media; zone

Copyright (c) 2011 Kara E. Stooksbury, Lori Maxwell, Cynthia S Brown

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