On the campaign trail today, prepared statements have replaced free-wheeling press conferences, attack ads dominate and reporters are kept at a distance.
These highly scripted campaigns have more in common with reality TV than with politics of the past, says Rich Hanley, a professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University. Like "The Voice" or "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," political races now have a veneer of authenticity but are actually tightly scripted productions in which everything from the policy points to the candidate's life story is plotted, rehearsed and packaged.
"It looks like reality, but it's not,'' Hanley said. "It's entirely controlled by teams of people" and the result is campaigns that are "flat, dull and information-free."
Staff members shielding candidates from the unpredictability of life on the trail are part of national politics at virtually every level, from the charter planes of the presidential contenders to the Rotary Club circuit traveled by those running for Congress.
But here in Connecticut, the practices are most pronounced in the campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Critics say that Republican Linda McMahon, who has invested more than $77 million of her own money in her successive Senate campaigns, has set a new standard for limiting press access while blitzing voter mailboxes with glossy mailers and local TV with advertising critical of Murphy.
Her opponent, Democratic U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, has strongly criticized the McMahon campaign's "bunker mentality," but his campaign has also displayed its own caution when dealing with the media, steadfastly refusing to provide details about how he ended up being sued for foreclosure for failing to pay his mortgage. Similarly, he is taking his message directly to voters through TV ads that, not surprisingly, take shots at McMahon's lack of political experience and question her commitment to women's issues.
Although the caution is an annoyance to journalists who would prefer greater accessibility to the candidates, the stakes are high for both candidates. The battle between Murphy and McMahon could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate and, in the age of video trackers and Twitter when a small slip of the tongue can go viral in seconds, neither side is taking any chances.
The 24-hour news cycle and the endless appetite for videotaped gaffes and gotchas has made even the most skilled politician skittish about public appearances. For McMahon, who is warm and personable one-on-one and in small groups but prone to occasional awkward phrases and verbal stumbles in public, the press scrum can be dangerous.
During the candidates' final debate on Thursday, Murphy criticized McMahon for preferring generalities over specifics and hiding her "right-wing Republican plans" on the campaign trail. McMahon responded that she avoids delving into details because "they get demagogued."
Asked afterward who would be doing the demagoguing, McMahon blamed the press corps. "Thanks to all you folks in the media, you're the ones who primarily do it and bash any suggestions that might be made to improve either Social Security [or] Medicare,'' she told a group of reporters.
McMahon says that's exactly what happened when a video surfaced of her addressing a tea party group earlier this year. She spoke vaguely of "sunset provisions" for Social Security, which the Murphy campaign immediately branded as a radical proposal to eliminate the program. (McMahon's spokesman said she does not support ending Social Security and would not back any proposal that cuts benefits to seniors who currently rely on Social Security or Medicare.)
On the trail, handlers for both Murphy and McMahon have been zealous about controlling access to the candidates.
Murphy was criticized after his campaign staff said he was unable to commit to an hourlong appearance on the WNPR call-in show, "Where We Live." His staff would agree only to half an hour, citing both scheduling issues and concerns that unfriendly callers from the McMahon camp would try to zing their candidate on live radio, according to the program's host, John Dankosky. McMahon, meanwhile, won't go on the show at all, despite repeated requests.
Such missteps take on outsized significance in the current climate, said Michael Serazio, an assistant professor of communications at Fairfield University and a former reporter. "The tighter the message discipline, the more off-script moments are going to be seized upon,'' he said, citing Missouri Senate candidate Todd Aiken's infamous "legitimate rape" comment as an example of a gaffe that came to dominate the discussion over the course of several news cycles.
"There's tension between candidates who want to stay on message and [journalists] who want candidates to engage instead of just regurgitating talking points,'' Serazio said.
Marie K. Shanahan, a professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut, noted that McMahon's money gives her the ability to take her message directly to voters, without it undergoing reporters' scrutiny.
But the deluge of mailers and attack ads don't necessarily provide voters with a lot of information, Shanahan said. "Imagine if this was the only information I was getting about a candidate. I certainly wouldn't be well-informed," she said. "Journalists are professionally trained to vet all this information. The regular person doesn't have the time."
With spontaneity snuffed out, campaigns try to shape their message by pitching negative information unearthed by skilled "oppo research" teams to reporters, with the caveat that the operative's fingerprints remain off the story. Spokesmen whisper talking points "on background only."
Some of those tricks have been part of the politician's playbook for decades, but in the current big-money era, they have been raised to a new level.
Hanley noted, with some irony, that it is only in formal debates, those highly organized events held on a stage and monitored by a timekeeper, where spontaneity flourishes.
"These are the only unguarded, unscripted moments in the campaign where there's some sense of authenticity, where they can't hide, or camouflage or neutralize their message through public relations,'' Hanley said.
During the first debate between the two Connecticut Senate candidates, panelist Mark Pazniokas of the Connecticut Mirror told both they had "failed a basic standard of transparency and access."
Not surprisingly, the candidates rejected that assertion. McMahon said she has taken her campaign directly to the voters, meeting them at businesses and over coffee in living rooms throughout the state.
"I am very pleased with the campaign we have run,'' McMahon said. "I'd like [voters] to be able to look me directly in the eye, to ask me the questions that they want to ask me. I listen to them when I'm out. ... It's really the voters of Connecticut who are going to make the choice.''
Murphy, who lacks McMahon's enormous personal wealth and is thus more reliant on free media to get his message out, said he has been far more accessible than McMahon. "I don't think there's any comparison in terms of access,'' he said. "I can't count the number of press availabilities I've done in a very different manner than Linda McMahon. Listen, Linda McMahon doesn't want this campaign to be about issues because if it is, she loses."