Early Media Coverage Focuses on Horse Race

The presidential race was the second-most reported news story behind the Iraq war for the first quarter of 2007, according to a recent Pew News Coverage Index study.

“This is much farther out than we’ve seen most media coverage [of campaigns] in the past, or even any coverage overall,” said Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Pew Research Group’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

As the coverage has increased, so have the ways in which the public can consume election news. Major news outlets scrutinize campaigns daily, polls are taken continuously to gauge the candidates’ popularity, and a 24-hour election coverage satellite radio station is in the works.

This intensive media coverage follows an uncharacteristically early foray into the presidential race by candidates in both parties. Many campaign exploration committees were formed in the fall of 2006, nearly two years before the general election, and in early January, candidates started to officially declare their intentions to run for president.

One of the first official candidates from any party, former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., announced his candidacy on Jan. 3, 2007, nearly six months before Al Gore kicked off his 2000 presidential campaign and over nine months prior to Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s entrance in the 2004 race.

While the stream of constant news coverage so early in the campaign season is unprecedented, Pew’s study also noted that most of the media reports have been about where the candidates stand in the polls rather than “who these candidates are, or how they might lead the country.”

This so-called horse race has historically been a staple campaign story for media outlets, hearkening back to presidential elections of the 19th century.

“[Back then], the presidential candidates would travel around the country by train and reporters would travel behind the baggage car, jump out [at campaign stops], take some notes, estimate the crowd, maybe deliver a report at a telegraph machine, then jump back on and go to the next stop,” said Stephen Ponder, associate professor of journalism at University of Oregon. “It was a simplified method of covering campaigns. Yet that model has persisted.”

Studies over the last few decades have revealed little or no change in the coverage of presidential campaigns.

“About five of every six campaign stories made meaningful reference to the [campaign] competition,” according to a 1983 study about the 1980 election by research analyst Margaret Sheehan and Michael Robinson, then-director of the Media Analysis Project at George Washington University.

During the 2000 election, 71 percent of network television stories about the presidential election were horse race-style features, wrote Stephen Farnsworth and Robert Lichter in their 2003 book, “The Nightly News Nightmare.”

This campaign season, the trend has continued.

Almost nine out of 10 stories about the 2008 election have covered the horse race aspect of the campaign, according to the Pew News Coverage Index study.

“The horse race is kind of like a promoter pushing a prize fight,” said Ponder. “There’s an assumption that the public has many things on their mind other than who will be the 12th candidate to come into the race, what state will move their primary to December ’07, so the horse race provides an appealing theme which is thought to draw the attention of more viewers.”

Horse race coverage remains popular partly due to the competitive media environment, both in political news and entertainment, where election coverage must compete with an abundance of other choices.

“A lot of what we find happening is that nowadays it isn’t the case that you can’t find anything to watch at 6 p.m. but the evening news — you can easily avoid politics all together if you want and instead watch a sitcom or a movie,” said Diana Mutz, director of the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics at University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. “So it’s a difficult sell unless it fills a different role for someone, whether it’s excitement like watching the NBA playoffs, gives them suspense.”

Aside from initial speculation over candidacy announcements, the first significant horse race story of the 2008 campaign was pegged to the first quarterly campaign fund-raising reports in early April.

The individual candidate fund-raising numbers, which were released both by campaigns and the Federal Election Commission, were covered extensively by newspapers, television channels, and online media as a way of gauging the early contenders.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was once heralded early on as the Republican front-runner by the media, had a “lackluster third-place finish,” according to an April 3 story in the Washington Post. In recent opinion polls, McCain now often falls behind GOP rivals former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

On the Democratic side, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s announcement that he raised $25 million in the first quarter, just $1 million shy of the mark set by Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., was portrayed as an underdog “shaking up the race” by the Chicago Tribune on April 5.

This type of coverage, experts say, does not help explain the substantive differences between the candidates.

“During the primary period because we know so little about the candidates a lot of the blanks are filled for us by the general idea of who’s popular and who’s not,” said Mutz at the University of Pennsylvania.

The horse race also is easier for media organizations to cover with a large field of candidates, rather than focusing on where each candidate stands on the issues, she said.

But media outlets are increasingly using the Internet to present more in-depth information about candidates, and according to Mitchell at Pew, more people are going online to find their election news.

“We’ve seen it continually grow from year to year and that’s true for this campaign as well,” she said. “Part of it is you can go in there for an hour and get a good sense of who a candidate is, read about their background and voting records.”

Nonetheless, the attraction of the horse race remains, both within news organizations and the public’s appetite.

“There is still the originating platform in which [media outlets] put news out in,” said Mitchell. “There are many people who continue to rely on those outlets for their news and what’s being pushed by those outlets is still the horse race.”