When Politicians Attack: Party Cohesion in the Media

Tim Groeling

In this book, I examine how common journalistic norms affect the ability of political parties to present a cohesive, positive party “brand name” to the public, and how the resulting party messages affect public opinion. I further argue that a party’s ability to coordinate its communication has important implications for the study of political communication. In particular, for the presidential party, failure to coordinate their communication can significantly damage their leader’s standing in public opinion and actually undermine the attractiveness and stability of unified control of government. These failures stem primarily from two sources: the constitutional separation of powers, and commonly-held norms of newsworthiness among the journalists who cover the parties. The difficulties for parties are particularly acute for the governing party in unified government: in such a setting, internal disputes over the leadership of the party are more likely to arise and be featured by journalists, and the resulting stories of intra-party strife are among the most credible and damaging types of partisan stories. All else equal, I argue that moving to divided control of government decreases the likelihood that collective communication in the presidential party will break down, and also decreases the attractiveness of such stories for the news media. This argument, when combined with the decline of more overt forms of partisan bias in the American news media in the postwar period, helps explain the relative instability of unified government in the recent American context. The book has been extremely well-received, including receiving two major book awards:

  • The Goldsmith Book Prize, which recognizes the “academic book published in the United States in the last 24 months that best fulfills the objective of improving democratic governance through an examination of the intersection between the media, politics and public policy,” and
  • The Bruce E. Gronbeck Political Communication Research Award, awarded by the National Communication Association for the best political communication book published in the past two years.
When Politicians Attack