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The art of the spin in U.S. presidential primaries

by

Reuters

New Jersey

On Feb. 9 at around 8:30 p.m., as the New Hampshire primary returns were still coming in, an aide to Jeb Bush told CNN that the former Florida governor’s double-digit percentage showing amounted to “something of a win already.” Bush ended up finishing fourth, more than 20 points behind the GOP winner Donald Trump.

When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was projected to lose her race against Sen. Bernie Sanders, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a Clinton supporter, pointed out that New Hampshire is 2 percent African-American and 1 percent Latino — unlike the key states ahead.

And in the coming days, the spinning of the New Hampshire primary results is sure to intensify. After all, spinning results and resetting expectations is a quadrennial New Hampshire ritual as venerable as town hall meetings and drinks at the Wayfarer Inn.

In the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic primary, President Lyndon B. Johnson defeated challenger Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who was voicing the public frustration with LBJ’s continued prosecution of the Vietnam War. Yet McCarthy’s strong second-place finish so fatally weakened the incumbent president that Johnson swiftly chose to withdraw from the race.

Four years later, Sen. Ed Muskie, the liberal Democratic front-runner, beat Sen. George McGovern, who was allied with the party’s left wing. But Muskie’s slimmer-than-expected margin of victory in New Hampshire hurt his candidacy and helped his rival’s.

Ever since, the New Hampshire primary “winner” has been determined not just by the electorate but by what the political journalist Hendrik Hertzberg dubbed the “expectorate.”

So candidates spend each primary night spinning frantically to show that they’ve met or exceeded expectations. Though it’s easy to laugh at the candidates’ chutzpah as they try to spin a third-place showing into a big night, for example, or a razor-thin win into a cakewalk, the dirty little secret is that post-primary spin only works when the candidate has a legitimate case to make, when there’s a sizable kernel of truth underneath the rhetorical froth.

Bill Clinton did it best, as usual, when in 1992 he parlayed a second-place finish in the New Hampshire Democratic primary into front-runner status as the “Comeback Kid.” And this was actually true. Clinton, a relatively little-known Arkansas governor, had been pummeled in the media for weeks because of an alleged extramarital affair and his avoidance of combat in Vietnam. So Clinton had indeed bounced back — to finish close behind Sen. Paul Tsongas of neighboring Massachusetts. A drubbing would have made his subsequent campaign much harder.

Strong contenders can sometimes get the news media to accept the way they frame the New Hampshire results, even if it’s self-serving. In 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale, upset by Sen. Gary Hart, rationalized, “What happened was that here in New Hampshire, the voters decided they didn’t want the debate to end.” Texas Gov. George W. Bush, stunned by Sen. John McCain’s 2000 New Hampshire triumph, insisted, “He spent more time in this great state than any of the other candidates, and it paid off.” Neither man was wrong.

On the other hand, a weak finisher’s spin is usually — and rightly — mocked. In 2004, placing fifth in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, Sen. Joe Lieberman ludicrously crowed about his “three-way split decision for third place.” He ended his campaign a week later.

Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, finishing third in the 1996 New Hampshire Republican primary behind front-runner Sen. Bob Dole and the surprise victor Patrick J. Buchanan, disingenuously proposed, “Why doesn’t Sen. Dole step over to the side and let Pat and me have a contest of ideas?” Alexander himself stepped aside soon after.

The worst spin typically comes from sore losers. Even as Trump was headed for a win in New Hampshire, he did not give up on his charges from last week that Sen. Ted Cruz stole the Iowa caucus from him. But Trump was downright sportsmanlike compared with Dole who, after losing to Vice President George H.W. Bush in New Hampshire in 1988, told a reporter, “Tell him to stop lying about my record.” Bush didn’t stop, and Dole didn’t do much better in the ensuing contests.

This suggests that we needn’t be too cynical about the primary-night sound bites hurtling our way.

Virtually every theorist of spin — or propaganda, or publicity or whatever the dark art has been known as over the decades — agrees that effective messages don’t persuade us of things we didn’t believe before. Rather, they resonate with and amplify notions we’re already inclined to put stock in.

“Propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds,” explained the author Eric Hoffer in the 1950s; “neither can it inculcate something wholly new. Where opinion is not coerced, people can be made to believe only in what they already ‘know.’ “

Our everyday human skepticism helps us sift the reasonable claims from the absurd. Spin that’s egregiously self-serving or too detached from reality to be plausible is usually identified by the press and the public as such. Arguments that make sense, we take seriously.

New Hampshire’s failure to impose any clear resolution on this year’s nomination races means that South Carolina, Nevada and the Super Tuesday states will take on greater importance in choosing the nominee. And it thereby ensures another month of audacious spin.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, is the author of “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”