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11.06.10

To Hell With the Press

Rick Perry won an unprecedented third term as Texas governor while actively shunning the press corps. Mark McKinnon on the GOP's trendy tactic—and how newspapers are fighting back.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry beat Democratic challenger Bill White, the former mayor of Houston, for an historic and unprecedented third four-year term by a whopping 13 points, a margin that surprised even his own pollster.

But what is really surprising is the way Perry won. Sure, he did all the traditional things well. He raised a ton of money. He honed a clear and compelling message and communicated it aggressively with great discipline. And he galvanized the Republican base. But, he also did something shockingly unconventional. He told the press to take a hike.

Perry didn't receive any endorsements from the major newspapers in the Lone Star State. And, the governor went out of his way to make sure he didn't. Perry didn't attend a single editorial endorsement meeting--knowing he would, therefore, be unlikely to gain any newspaper endorsements. And he didn't. Which is what he wanted.

Mike Baselice, Perry's highly skilled pollster, acknowledged Wednesday at a public forum sponsored by The Texas Tribune that the campaign asked primary voters in Texas whether a newspaper endorsement would make them more or less likely to vote for Perry. Only 6 percent said an endorsement would make them more likely to support Perry, while an eye-popping 37 percent said it would make them less likely (56 percent said it made no difference).

Talk about a paradigm shift. This is a sea change in the way candidates have historically campaigned. Good news for candidates who never much liked kissing the rings of the media elites. But more bad news for the increasing irrelevance of newspapers and the mainstream media.

The fifth-generation Texan is unabashed and candid about his decision: "The most prized resource that you have is the candidate's time, and what is the best return on your investment that you can get with a candidate's time," Perry told The Associated Press. "It was a calculated decision, but you know the world is really changing, I mean, the way people get their information, who they listen to, etc. Put it all on the balance beam and the balance was toward not doing the editorial boards."

The response from the state’s newspapers not surprisingly was outrage. A sample, published in a front-page editorial by the very conservative Tyler Telegraph, a paper Perry calls one of his favorites: "Your position to not visit with the editorial boards of Texas newspapers may be astute politically, but it demonstrates a disregard for newspaper readers and voters across the state, who deserve to hear substance rather than silence."

Perry further salted the wound, when after a speech in Dallas to the National Conference of Editorial Writers, he refused to stick around for the traditional question-and-answer session.

"This is an affront to any notion of civil discourse, such as the kind you have called for on other occasions," wrote Tom Waseleski, the group's president.

"This is an affront to any notion of civil discourse, such as the kind you have called for on other occasions," wrote Tom Waseleski, the group's president. "We believe you and your staff have been disingenuous in the characterization of your schedule. If you had hoped to make a positive impression on this national press group, I must tell you that you utterly failed."

But failure actually seems to be what Perry was seeking. Ross Ramsey of The Texas Tribune, observed: "This dyspepsia got a lot of coverage. Mr. Perry lapped it up."

Rick Perlstein: How Obama Enables RushNot that the editors aren't trying to get some payback. Perry began a national media tour this week for his upcoming book, Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America From Washington. His publicist wrote a letter to a newspaper editor who had been at his Dallas speech asking if they were interested in an interview. Response? "Been there, not doin’ that."

Perry was sworn in as Texas governor in December 2000 when George W. Bush resigned from office to accept the presidency. Re-elected in 2002 and 2006, Perry faced a tough primary opponent in Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson before squaring off against Bill White. Hutchinson got all the newspaper endorsements and only 30 percent of the vote. White got all but two endorsements and 42 percent of the vote.

Perry's team eschewed editorial endorsements, debates, direct mail, and yard signs, investing instead in field operations, social media, and television. The governor embraced the Tea Party movement early on and campaigned against Washington—famously suggesting that Texas might have to secede.

Ronald Reagan started the idea of going over the heads of the press. Sarah Palin is tweeting her way around the press. And now Rick Perry has proved that newspaper endorsements really don't matter anymore. Because he turned his back on them and it helped him earn four more years as governor—unless he is called to a higher office. Don't be surprised if that call comes pretty soon.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.