Media coverage of elections is mostly about the horse race, and has been for decades. Why so much manure instead of meaty policy? (More)

The Horse Race, Part I: Why So Much Manure?

This week Morning Feature considers the horse race media coverage of elections. Today we explore why the media focus more on the horse race than on exploring policy questions. Tomorrow we’ll unpack public opinion polls and the stories about them. Saturday we’ll conclude with how to maintain your sanity from now until November.

Annnnnnd they’re off!

“I think Cookiegate will really resonate for moms who care about teaching their children proper manners,” Political Strategist says. “I read some internal polling that showed he dropped two points among suburban mothers aged 30-50, just last week.”

“Maybe so,” replies Senior Pundit, “but Yogurtgate may offset that among young voters. One poll said less than half are excited about this year’s election, down from two-thirds in 2008. If they think Yogurtgate was set up to make him look cool, that will just reinforce their cynicism.”

Those are fictitious, but they mirror a lot of the election coverage. A Pew Research study released this week found that domestic and foreign policy issues combined for just 10% of the Republican primary coverage from November 1st through April 15th. The candidates’ personal issues accounted for another 12% of the coverage, as did issues of public record and “other.” The rest, 64%, was about the horse race.

That was actually down from 2008, when horse race coverage accounted for 80% of Republican primary coverage and 78% of Democratic primary coverage. So in the Horse Race horse race, the media seem to be gaining slightly. Or falling behind, if you prefer horse race coverage to parsing out policy distinctions.

Of course, that was just the primary and the policy distinctions between primary candidates are often trivially small. Despite the debate bombast, negative ads, and $10,000 wagers, the policy platforms of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry were almost indistinguishable. The candidates who offered significant policy differences – Ron Paul, Buddy Roemer, and arguably Jon Huntsman – never had any real chance of winning. So it makes sense that primary coverage focuses on the personalities and the horse race. Yet the horse race dominates general election coverage as well.

The risks of horse race coverage:

It’s popular to criticize the media for horse race coverage. In a 2008 Time article, communications professor Michael Nisbet summarized that criticism:

Scholars have raised multiple concerns about the impacts of horse race journalism. [They say it] undermines the ability of citizens to learn from coverage and to reach informed decisions in elections or about policy debates … portrays candidates and elected officials as self-interested and poll driven opportunists … promotes cynicism and distrust among audiences … results in a self-reinforcing bandwagon effect with positive horse race coverage improving a candidate’s standing in subsequent polls and negative horse-race coverage hurting a candidate’s poll standings … [and] unduly promotes the media as a central institution in deciding electoral outcomes.

Nisbet also cites studies showing that horse race coverage “leads to a false balance in the treatment of technical issues such as climate change or the teaching of evolution, issues where there is clear expert consensus,” and “potentially undermines public trust in the accuracy and validity of polling.”

Why the scoreboard matters:

All of those criticisms are arguably valid. Yet the horse race issues are essential information to candidates and campaign planners, just as the scoreboard is essential information for the coaches and players in a sporting event. Aphorisms like “always play like you’re ten points behind” miss the ways strategies should change based on whether a candidate or a team is winning or losing.

But the horse race issues matter to ordinary voters too, as Carl Sessions Stepp quoted in reviewing Martin Plissner’s 1999 book The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections:

“The reason anything new about the likely outcome of a presidential race tends to dominate the day’s report,” Plissner writes, “…is that this is the first thing most people want to know about.” He sees no reason to reduce such coverage, despite protests from “an academic posse bent on frustrating the natural curiosity of most Americans about how their candidates are doing.”

Consider that “Who’s winning?” is the first question most people ask when they walk in and see a sporting event on TV (or the next question after “Who’s playing?”). They may discuss details of strategy and injuries and horrible referees, but those details resonate in the context of whether your team is winning or losing.

And in a 2010 study, Harvard University global communications professor Matthew Baum and his research associates found the same dynamics apply in politics. How we feel about a political ad or news event, and how intensely we feel about it, correlates strongly to whether we believe our candidate is winning or losing. Just as we’re more likely to shrug off a bad play when our team is safely ahead near the end of the game, we may ignore a political attack ad when our candidate has a safe lead in the polls. And just as we’re more likely to feel angry or afraid over a bad play when the game is on the line, we may feel angry or afraid over bad news when our candidate is in a close race.

So while it’s tempting to criticize horse race coverage as if merely horse manure, remember that most of us are human beings and not political robots. (Pause for Romney joke.) We care whether our candidates are winning or losing, and our sense of that shapes how we respond to attack ads, news events, and even policy discussions. Horse race coverage is not a media invention. It responds to a basic need of human psychology.

But some horse race coverage is manure, and tomorrow we’ll discuss one of the most common examples: stories about opinion polls.

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Happy Thursday!