Senate candidates wage public relations battle

Franken campaign attorney Marc Elias
Franken campaign attorney Marc Elias speaking with reporters during a brief press conference being held during the recount trial for Minnesota's U.S. Senate election.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Voters made up their minds up about Minnesota's U.S. Senate race nearly three months ago, but you wouldn't know that from all of the campaigning that is still going on.

The two campaigns have held dozens of news conferences since Election Day. They have been repeatedly appealing to supporters for money. They have not been airing TV ads, but they are online with Internet videos making their cases.

Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg
Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg answers questions at a brief press conference outside of the courtroom where the recount trial for Minnesota's Senate race is taking place.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

In just the past week-and-a-half, the Coleman campaign has churned out a video accusing Franken of trying to suppress legitimately cast votes, another of Coleman responding to reporter questions about the trial and one featuring Coleman claiming he'll return to the Senate if the rules are followed in tallying the vote.

"I fully expect that when the election contest is completed, if it is done fairly, no votes counted twice and all voters treated equally, that I will win this election," states Coleman in the video.

Franken has not been as busy producing recount videos as Coleman. It has been more than six weeks since Franken released a video calling for the inclusion of wrongly rejected absentee ballots in the recount. Franken was in the news last week though when he appeared in Washington with Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, and the two gave the impression that the race is over.

"We're talking about the stimulus package, about the calendar here in the senate so that when I do get here, I can hit the ground running," Franken said.

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Since the election ended early last November, the Franken side has held more than 25 news conferences in person and on the telephone. The Coleman campaign has staged nearly 40. Those numbers do not include all of interviews the attorneys conducted outside the canvassing board meeting rooms and courtrooms.

Norm Coleman listens to opening statements
Norm Coleman, right, and his lawyers listen to opening statements made by his attorney Joe Friedberg (not pictured) at the Minnesota Judicial Center in St. Paul, Minn
AP Pool-Pioneer Press/Ben Garvin

This Monday, day one of the trial, the Coleman campaign held two conference calls with reporters.

During the first call Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg feigned astonishment that Franken was not going along with Coleman's legal move to add thousands of rejected absentee ballots to the count.

"We, this morning, are sort of particularly surprised at the Franken campaign's decision," Ginsberg told reporters.

Ginsberg said reporters are asking for the frequent updates. But he acknowledged the effort is also intended to shape the recount stories.

"You all are going to be writing about a technical trial, in essence, and explications seem to help produce clearer and more well-rounded reporting so that the people of the state know what's going on in a process that, after all, is about an election," said Ginsberg.

Attorney Marc Elias is usually the Franken campaign's on-the-record point man for reporters. Elias held a telephone news conference ripping the Coleman campaign about an hour before the first of Ginsberg's two Monday calls.

Like Ginsberg, Elias said he holds the briefings to accommodate all of the questions from reporters. What Elias does not say is that the repeated sessions almost always begin with several minutes of spin from him.

Before taking any questions from reporters outside the courtroom on Wednesday, Elias went on for more than 12 minutes. Among other things he talked about how anyone who was in court could be left with only one impression of the proceedings and how well a Franken attorney had done in court.

"This is not about the press, and it's not about publicity and it's not about PR, it's about what happened in the courtroom," Elias told the reporters.

So what are the campaigns trying to accomplish with all of their press statements?

Washington University political scientist Steve Smith said he's not sure. Smith said the endless rhetoric might help Franken and Coleman raise money. But he said all of the charges and counter-charges threaten to harm the politicians' reputations and to cast doubt on the integrity of Minnesota's election system.

"I don't think too many Minnesotans will hold it against either candidate for fully pursuing their legal options in a race that's this close," Smith said. "But for them to charge that the other side is somehow damaging democracy by pursuing those interests or making arguments at one stage that are somewhat inconsistent with arguments made at another stage, is harming the whole process and does us all a big disfavor."

Judging from Coleman's video productions and media appearances it looks like he has chosen to ratchet up his side of the public relations war.

Ben Ginsberg, who's now doing a lot of the public commenting on behalf of Coleman worked for George W. Bush's campaign on the 2000 Florida recount.

And the campaigns' arguments have shifted 180 degrees.

Earlier this week Coleman put out a news release that read, "Is The Franken Campaign Preventing Your Vote From Being Counted." The release announced a new addition to the Coleman campaign Web site where Minnesotans who voted absentee, can check to see whether their vote was rejected.

Before he came out of the recount ahead of Coleman, it was Al Franken calling for the inclusion of wrongly rejected absentee ballots, and it was the Franken campaign that was talking about disenfranchised voters.

"It boggles my mind that Norm Coleman would be OK with Minnesotans not having their votes counted in this election," said Franken spokesman Andy Barr last month on the day the Franken campaign released its rejected absentee video.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania says eight years later, the Bush experience in Florida appears to be informing the Coleman and Franken strategies in Minnesota.

"The lesson that consultants and campaigns learned from the 2000 recount was that you can win in public opinion and, in important ways, shape the debate that's taking place," said Jamieson.

Jamieson said Franken and Coleman are both trying to publicly frame recount issues in their favor in the hope they can color the context in which the judges consider the case.

"The Bush campaign in 2000 created the sense, very effectively, in national news that the Bush campaign had won the election and Al Gore was stealing it and that was the climate in which the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court deliberated," Jamieson said. "I think that lesson, the lesson of that exchange, is shaping what's happening right now in Minnesota."

In other words both Coleman and Franken are waging competing arguments that they each are the victim of the other's effort to steal the election. And with the trial now well underway, all indications are the two sides have settled into that strategy.