The political media often sound like the opening song from Guys and Dolls, because it’s easier to cover politics as a horse race. (More)

Hillary v. Jeb, Part II: Fugue for Tinhorns

This week Morning Feature considers the media speculation about the possible 2016 match-up between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. Yesterday we looked at the media bias for familiar stories. Today we see the ease and fallacies of political horse race coverage. Saturday we’ll conclude with how we can better encourage our media to cover politics more productively.

“I got the horse right here”

If set to music, a typical segment of a typical political news show would sound a lot like this:

Clever, funny, and brief, “Fugue for Tinhorns” is a wonderful opening number for a Broadway musical. Alas, it’s not as good a model for our political news. Aside from hosts and guests talking over each other, the coverage of politics as a horse race pushes aside policy and consequences in favor of tactics and strategy, as Paul Krugman wrote back in 2004:

Mr. Kerry proposes spending $650 billion extending health insurance to lower- and middle-income families. Whether you approve or not, you can’t say he hasn’t addressed the issue. Why hasn’t this voter heard about it?

Well, I’ve been reading 60 days’ worth of transcripts from the places four out of five Americans cite as where they usually get their news: the major cable and broadcast TV networks. Never mind the details – I couldn’t even find a clear statement that Mr. Kerry wants to roll back recent high-income tax cuts and use the money to cover most of the uninsured. When reports mentioned the Kerry plan at all, it was usually horse race analysis – how it’s playing, not what’s in it.

“It’s safer to cover the race”

It’s not simply election-year coverage, as Krugman reminded us during the health care debate in August 2009. Again, the consequences of health care policy options were often lost in the coverage which party seemed to be winning or losing based on public opinion polls. Krugman offered three reasons for the horse race focus:

1. It’s easier to research horse-race stuff. To report on policy, a reporter has to master the policy issues fairly well. […] To do a horse-race piece, you just call up the usual suspects on your Rolodex, and have a bunch of “one Democratic insider said” quotes. That’s also, I suspect, why many policy stories just consist of dueling quotes from supposed experts.

2. It’s easier to write horse-race stuff. Even if you know the policy issues, writing them so you don’t totally lose your audience is really tricky – I’ve spent years trying to learn the craft, and it still often comes out way too dry. On the other hand, horse-race stuff can be full of personal details.

3. It’s safer to cover the race. If you cover policy, and go beyond dueling quotes, you have to make some factual assertions – and people who prefer to believe otherwise will get mad. […] Much safer to report on ups and downs in the conventional wisdom.

Matthew Yglesias, then writing for ThinkProgress, added another reason:

I don’t, personally, find campaign tactics very interesting in the scheme of things. But the people who report on campaigns find this stuff fascinating. And those people set the tone for coverage. If you come along as a person who’s interested in policy debates but not so fascinated by campaign tactics, you just won’t succeed in a profession dominated by people who are fascinated by political strategy and want to write and edit stories about political strategy.

“A cut above their local counterparts”

There are journalists who cover policies and their consequences, but a 2005 Nieman Reports survey found that more often happens in local media:

The papers we analyzed for the presidential race had a significantly higher proportion (about 50 percent) of horserace stories than did those we examined for congressional races (about 25 percent). Likewise, coverage of the congressional races included a higher proportion of substantive stories – about policy issues and candidate competence – than did the presidential coverage.

A ThinkProgress review yesterday found a similar pattern in coverage of the budget sequester, with the vast majority of national media stories focused on the suspension of White House tours while local media discussed the effects of cuts on businesses and families. In a twist of bitter irony, the Nieman Reports survey also found that while reporters covering congressional races said they were influenced by the topics discussed in the presidential race, that was a one-way street:

One clear message we received was that national journalists consider themselves a cut above their local counterparts in two respects: They believe their adherence to journalistic standards is higher, as is their expertise in coverage of national issues.

Worse, local reporters agreed that national reporters had access to better sources and more expertise, despite local reporters being more likely to focus on issues and national reporters more likely to cover the horse race.

“If only I could say as much about the knowledge and wisdom of the political class”

The national media’s focus on horse race coverage might be worthwhile if they did it well. Alas, they don’t, writes Stanford political science professor Morris Fiorina:

Like many other political scientists (you know who you are), I carry on a running argument with election commentators on TV: “That’s not quite right.” “Not true in general.” “That is totally wrong.” “Not according to ANES data.” “Give me a break, what about the ____ election?” And so on, and so forth. Like all election seasons, the 2012 campaign was rich in commentary that was at odds with or unsupported by findings from political science.

Among the common mistakes Fiorina mentions:

  • Voters are not growing more “polarized,” as pundits so often say. Instead, voters are becoming more clearly “sorted” between the two parties.
  • Median voters’ opinions are more stable than the parties or candidates. “Loosely speaking, under Democratic administrations, centrist voters get too much of what they want, and under Republican administrations, they get too little.”
  • Independents are not always “centrists,” but they are less partisan. They may be independent because they find the parties too “extreme,” but they may also like different elements of each party’s platform, or pay little attention to politics except at election time.
  • Voters are less divided than political journalists. “Political journalists need to remember that most of the people they talk to professionally are abnormal, that is, that they are statistically far from the average. The political class comes from the tails of the distribution of American public opinion.”
  • The expert opinions of journalists notwithstanding, political ads really don’t change many voters’ minds.
  • Voters are better informed than journalists believe. “The collective electorate manifests a degree of knowledge and wisdom that gives those of us who have studied that electorate for decades some cause for optimism. If only I could say as much about the knowledge and wisdom of the political class.”

The next time a Beltway pundit pontificates about the frontrunners for 2016, ask yourself: “What will it cost him to be wrong?” As we’ll see tomorrow, that question could point us toward better political coverage.

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Happy Friday!