October 31, 2000

The Last Lap

Policy Issues

Ironically as the debates kicked in, coverage of policy themes declined drastically, from 48% in Week One leading up to the first debate to 30% in Week Three.

As the election got closer, the press favored the "race" over the issues.

In all, about three-in-ten of the stories we studied related to policy themes. While the press still initiated most (47%) of these stories, they were much more likely than average to come from the candidates themselves (43% versus 28% overall). This would suggest a chance to commend the candidates, except that roughly half of that initiation was by way of accusatory statements from one or both.

Timing of Story Themes
 
Week 1 48% 24%
Week 2 22 31
Week 3 30 45
Total 100% 100%

Again, Bush had an edge over Gore on the issues. These stories were more likely than average to be mostly about George Bush (31% versus 28% overall).

As would be expected, issue related themes were most often written around policy explanation (32%). The policy related frames of these stories lead directly to a dominate impact on citizens or stakeholders (59% versus 32% overall).

Nevertheless, even the issue related themes did not escape the negative tendencies of the press in this election period. More than half of the issue themes carried a negative tone.

Foreign Policy

The policy issue that received the most coverage was foreign affairs (7% of all themes), driven by the crisis in the Middle East and the bombing of the USS Cole.

Much more so than any other theme studied, foreign policy stories were written with citizens in mind. Nearly two-thirds (63%) were written in a way that showed how the topic impacted them or the nation as a whole—three times the average.

In particular, these stories examined the candidates' relations with world leaders (29%). Both the press and the candidates seemed to treat these tragic events delicately. Nevertheless, voters may well have gained some important knowledge from the resulting stories.

The Internet and television shied away from the issue of foreign policy. In particular, the New York Times accounted for a quarter of all foreign policy stories, compared with only 16% of all the coverage. Much more than average, foreign policy themes were found on the op-ed and editorial pages (43% versus 25% overall).

Energy

Stories about tapping the nation's oil reserve and the candidates' connections to oil were the next most common issue story, comprising 5% of all stories studied—mostly in the first week of the study. They were more likely to appear in print (53% versus 45% of all stories) and less likely to appear on television (12% versus 20% overall).

Cross accusations made by the candidates comprised a full third (34%) of all the oil stories compared to 10% overall.

Nearly half (46%) of all the oil stories were straight news accounts and only one-in-seven were framed around internal politics.

Health Care & Elderly and Taxes

For all the talk of health care & elderly and taxes as being the deciding issues of the campaign, these two themes made up only 11% of all the themes studied. Only three-in-fifty stories studied (6%) covered the issue of health care & elderly, most of which fell in the first week of the study. When the press did address the issue, it had a strong tendency to do so with a negative tone, as nearly two-thirds of these stories were negative. Add to that the fact that Al Gore and his campaign were the subject of more than 40% of these stories compared with only 11% about Bush, one can assume that the health care issue has not worked out well for Al Gore.

The issue of taxes & economics, on the other hand, which picked up steam in the final week of our study, was mostly covered by comparing the two candidates (59%); otherwise these stories focused on Bush and Gore in equal amounts.