Monday, June 27, 2016

Political Science Makes Sense of the Media’s Role in the 2016 Presidential Nomination Contests

As happens every four years, the American public is subjected to a presidential election.  However, before the November election, we are subjected to at least a year and a half of campaigning (first for the nomination and then the presidency).  With the campaign comes nonstop media coverage of the candidates: their views on the issues, where they are visiting, what scandalous things they have said or done in their past, and most importantly polls and projections of who is going to come away the victor.  The nomination process can be described as a game of attrition, in which we watch the candidates battle it out until only one remains standing.  With the nomination contests coming to an end June 14, we now know that this general election season pits Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, against Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. 

Hillary Clinton (D-NY)
Donald Trump (R-NY)

The media coverage of this election cycle has received a fair amount of scrutiny from political scientists, media pundits, and the candidates alike.  This should be expected as it happens every four years.  However, this year many scathing articles have discussed at length the failings of the media and the shallow reporting done on the main news channels and in the major newspapers.  The New York Times ran an article entitled “The Republican Horse Race Is Over, and Journalism Lost.”  Huffington Post wrote about “Why the Media Got it Wrong about Trump and Sanders Phenomena” and Politico said “The Media’s Trump Reckoning: ‘Everyone was Wrong’.”  Finally, even Vanity Fair stated “The Media is Very Sorry for Getting Trump Wrong.”  So, did the media “get it wrong?”  Is the media the reason Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the nominees?  What were the media outlets actually reporting on?  Looking at the data provided for us in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government’s Shorenstein Center on Media sheds some light on these questions. 

Much of the coverage focused on the horserace and not issues.  This too should have been expected.  Usually we see about 75% of news reports focusing on who is ahead in the polls and who is on the verge of dropping out while 25% of reports focus on the actual substance of what the candidates stand for.  This year, this trend seems to play out once again.  According to the Shorenstein Center’s report, throughout the invisible primary (the year leading up to the primaries) Hillary Clinton received the most issue coverage with 28%.  In contrast, her Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders received 7% coverage on his issues.  On the Republican side, 13% of the news coverage of Trump was focused on issues, while Ted Cruz (Trump’s biggest Republican competitor) received only 9% coverage of his issue positions.

In addition to the difference between horserace and issue coverage is the difference between positive and negative coverage of the candidates.  According to the same report, 84% of the issue-related coverage of Clinton was negative in tone, while only 17% of Sanders’s coverage was negative.  On the Republican side, we see that 43% of Trump’s issue coverage was negative, compared with 32% negative for Cruz. 

This Chart shows the Percentage of Total Media Coverage Each Candidate Received

An arguably even bigger story from this the “free” advertising candidates receive through media coverage, especially when it is positive.  As the chart above demonstrates, Trump received the most media coverage of any Republican candidate in the 2016 field.  Specifically, Trump receive 34% of the total media coverage of the Republican contests.  Jeb Bush, who received the second most, only received 18% of the media coverage.  Trump received more than two times as much media coverage as Ted Cruz (Trump’s closest competitor), who received only 13% of total media coverage.  What this meant for Trump is that he received roughly $55 million in “free” advertising from this media coverage, compared with the $32.5 million in free advertising Cruz received. 

So, why did Trump receive so much free advertising?  And why was it so favorable compared with his competitors?  The short answer is because he was leading in the polls and thus winning the nomination contest.  As the Shorenstein Center’s report reminds us, covering the horserace means that journalists often phrase their articles in one of four ways: a candidate is "leading," "trailing," "gaining ground," or "losing ground."  Trump started small but quickly rose in the polls.  So, many articles were framed in a way to demonstrate that Trump was indeed "gaining ground" on his competitors and then that he was "leading" the pack of Republican contenders.  What this tells us is that Trump received a lot of positive media coverage.  He was rarely seen as "trailing" or "losing ground."  While many people may remember the more controversial statements uttered by Trump on the campaign trail (think "Build a wall," deport Muslims, women are pigs), these statements did not make up the majority of Trump's coverage.  The chart below depicts the news coverage Trump received.

This chart shows what the media focused on while covering Trump on the campaign trail

So, Trump received a fair amount of positive media coverage because 55% of media coverage focused on his activities, events, polls, and projections.  All of these would give Trump positive coverage because he was ahead in the polls and looked poised to win the nomination. 

Now, what explains the negative coverage of Hillary Clinton?  After all, Clinton was seen as the Democratic frontrunner from the very beginning of the nomination season.  Bernie Sanders was seen as a long-shot candidate compared to Clinton’s establishment background.  So, by coming in a very close second place in Iowa (49.9% to 49.6%) and soundly defeating Clinton in New Hampshire (60% to 38%) Sanders was suddenly seen as a viable contender and a number of news reports covered Sanders as “gaining ground” on Clinton, while Clinton was “losing ground” to Sanders.  So, while Clinton never fully lost the mantle of frontrunner, she did struggle to maintain the air of inevitability that her candidacy had throughout the invisible primary period.  Because expectations for Clinton were incredibly high, when she lost a contest it reverberated through the media as a major blow to her campaign.  In contrast, when Sanders won, the media often focused on growing enthusiasm for his message or increasing angst towards, and distrust of, the establishment.   

So now that the presidential selection process has come to an end and each party has selected a nominee, the focus has already shifted to the general election.  More specifically, the media is currently speculating who each candidate will choose as their running mate (Elizabeth Warren?  Chris Christie?).  Will we see the same patterns we saw in the nomination coverage play out in the general election?  Partially.  The horserace coverage is already starting.  As I write this blog post, depending on which source you look at, Hillary Clinton is leading Trump by 5 points, 10 points, or 12 points.  The horserace coverage will continue until November and will likely increase as we get even closer.  However, what will likely change is which candidate receives positive coverage and which candidate receives negative coverage.  Whichever candidate is leading in the polls will likely get the more positive coverage.  Provided Clinton maintains her lead in the polls, we could be in for a very different type of media environment from now until November. 

To keep up with the election, what the media is reporting, or if you have general questions about the election, the History and Political Science department welcome you to stop by!  We also encourage you to check out our courses in the Fall that are election-focused: Seminar on the Presidency, Political Parties and Interest Groups, and Media and Politics!  All of them should produce lively discussions all semester long!  

1 comment:

Andrew Wise said...

Very interesting and timely . . . I look forward to reading more insightful commentary about the presidential campaign from Dr. Wendland in the coming weeks.

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