Even in the world of political journalism, rife with unnamed "advisers," "aides," officials," and "friends familiar with so-and-so's thinking," it's been a dizzying few days of anonymous blame going around. Given the competitive nature of the ever-churning political news cycle, journalists are quick to publish such anonymous grievances and insider dirt which, taken together, suggest frustration, or even turmoil, within the Romney campaign.
BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins reported Thursday how "top aides" in the Romney campaign are now "privately grumbling that they have given up the hope of a level media playing field." In this case, "privately" also means speaking anonymously to a reporter granting said adviser "anonymity to criticize a press corps the campaign still relies on every day."
"I love all these reporters saying that they thought the Democratic convention was better," one senior adviser "sarcastically" told BuzzFeed. "Of course they did. It's like a steak lover saying they like a steak house. They served what 90 percent of reporters love. And they liked it? Shocking."
But regardless of reported frustrations with the media, the campaign -- or at least some within the campaign -- will still go to reporters to voice internal disputes or assign blame to a staffer or faction.
On Sunday, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen of Politico reported on how Romney "stumbled" in recent weeks, with "aides, advisers and friends" anonymously placing much of the blame on senior adviser Stuart Stevens.
Hogan Gidley, a Republican strategist with BrabenderCox and former communications director for Rick Santorum's presidential campaign, told The Huffington Post that while some in the Romney campaign complain about media coverage -- which he also believes to be stacked against the Republican candidate -- others are then "giving the media everything they want to attack Romney on."
"You feed the beast and then get angry the beast is feeding on you," Gidley said.
There may be no election story political journalists and cable news producers love to feed on more than campaign infighting, something made evident Monday by the CNN chyron suggesting "turmoil" in the campaign and MSNBC noting "Trouble In Romneyland." The Politico story had immediate reverberations within the chattering class on Twitter -- especially since the conservative Drudge Report both teased and then prominently linked it.
Given that Matt Drudge is said to be close with Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades, political tea leaf readers saw evidence that the Romney campaign had sanctioned -- or at least turned a blind eye to -- the anonymous attempt to publicly hold Stevens responsible for omissions in Romney's original RNC acceptance speech, namely Afghanistan, and the Clint Eastwood debacle. (The Politico story describes how Rhoades "is as disciplined and methodical as Stevens is improvisational and disorganized.")
A few hours after the Politico story was published, The New York Times spoke to a Romney senior adviser "who discussed the internal workings of the campaign on the condition of anonymity." The anonymous adviser then pushed back against those other anonymous advisers (or aides or friends).
“In the inner circle of this campaign, the people who are on the phone calls and really making the decisions, there’s not infighting, there just isn’t,” the adviser told the Times.
While quick to downplay internal strife, the Sunday night stories, with insiders arguing that change is desperately needed, neatly dovetailed with the campaign signaling a strategy shift.
Senior adviser Ed Gillespie told the Times how the Romney campaign would soon be “very future oriented" and held a conference call with reporters Monday morning in an attempt to bring the campaign back on message. Allen and VandeHei followed up Monday morning with a piece on the Romney campaign "abruptly" shifting strategy, less than 12 hours after their earlier report.
In the 2008 election, then-newcomer Politico emerged as the go-to conduit for campaign griping -- a role it's continued to play in 2012. On Sept. 8, Allen and VandeHei reported that "top advisers to Mitt Romney privately concede" that President Barack Obama has a clearer path to re-election following the conventions, a suggestion a "top Romney adviser" -– also anonymous -- called "horses**t" over on the National Review's site.
But this election cycle, Politico is also competing with BuzzFeed to drive the online political conversation. Helmed by former Politico reporter Ben Smith, BuzzFeed is similarly quick to grant anonymity to advisers strategizing or sounding off.
Around 1 a.m., Coppins wrote that "three Romney advisers told BuzzFeed the campaign's top priority now is to rally conservative Republicans, in hopes that they'll show up on Election Day, and drag their less politically-engaged friends with them." The advisers, he noted, "discussed strategy on the condition of anonymity."
But as the Romney campaign uses the media to promote a strategy shift or place blame, the campaign simultaneously criticizes the media for so-called liberal bias, a move that veteran Republican and Democratic strategists say can be disruptive.
Former McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt, who wasn’t shy about criticizing the press on occasion four years ago, told The Huffington Post that "when you get to a place in the campaign, down in the polls, you're frustrated, there's a tendency -- especially in a Republican campaign -- to make a criticism, broadly speaking at the media."
But, Schmidt said, "all winning presidential campaigns ultimately have to navigate an environment where it's a baseline reality that the overwhelming majority of the people covering the race are going to vote for the other candidate."
Focusing too much on the media, Schmidt said, not only consumes energy, but can lead a campaign to assume a "victim mentality" that undermines the candidate's "leadership qualities."
"No one's going to vote for a victim to be president of the United States," Schmidt said.
"When things go bad, one of the easiest things to do is shoot the messenger instead of dealing with the message," said Bob Shrum, a veteran of seven Democratic presidential campaigns.
Shrum said that media bashing may appeal to "the hardest part of your base, the conspiracy mongers, but it’s not going to get you any swing votes" and "distracts you from making arguments."
While knee-jerk press bashing serves as red meat to the conservative base, it's a tactic that doesn't convey the actual, workaday relationship between a sophisticated campaign just as quick to exploit reporter's hunger for news as to bash them. And while the reporter-campaign staffer relationship is by nature adversarial, it can always be convivial.
Shortly after BuzzFeed published the Romney advisers' anonymous press criticism on Thursday, campaign staffers surprised Politico reporter Ginger Gibson with a birthday cake on the flight from Washington D.C. to Long Island's MacArthur Airport. The pineapple cake featured both Politico's and the Romney-Ryan campaign's logos in icing. Mitt Romney even walked to the back of the plane and hugged Gibson, leading to a photo quickly tweeted and retweeted by reporters and staffers alike.
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