May 25, 2007

Iraq Dominates PEJ’s First Quarterly NCI Report

The 2008 Elections

The second biggest story of the first three months of 2007 was the kickoff of a new presidential election season. The general election is still a full 17 months away, but with open primary races in both political parties, the campaign—at least according to the press—is already in full swing. It accounted for 7% of the total newshole from January through March, a third of the Iraq war, but almost twice as much as the next most covered non-Iraq story (the U.S. attorney controversy).

There is no precedent for such heavy coverage so early in the calendar. In 1992, for instance, Bill Clinton didn’t announce his candidacy until October of 1991.

What has the early story been about? Not who these candidates are, or how they might lead the country. Even though no votes will be cast until January 2008, or possibly late December 2007, the vast majority of the coverage (roughly nine out of ten stories) was about the horse race—who was ahead, who was behind, and what tactics they were using. The only other areas of the campaign to receive even 1% of the election coverage were election scandals, race and gender issues and the role of the media.

A Battle for Headlines

The other feature of the presidential coverage so far is how heavily it is tilted toward the battle among Democrats rather than Republicans.

Although both party nominations are open, nearly two-thirds of the election coverage (61%) was specifically about candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. This was nearly three times those that focused on Republican candidates (24%). Another 13% dealt with both parties.

That Democratic focus was true of all media sectors. Even in newspapers, which had the least imbalance between the two, the gap was 52% Democratic stories versus 29% Republican.

2008 Presidential Campaign Coverage
Percent of Campaign Coverage (Time/Space) Devoted to Each Party
Dec. 31, ‘06 – Mar. 31, ‘07

Sector

Mostly Democrats

Mostly Republicans

Both Parties

Other Issues

All Media

61%

24%

13%

2%

Newspapers

52

29

16

4

Online

67

24

8

0

Network TV

63

19

16

2

Cable TV

61

24

13

2

Radio

72

18

8

2

The explanation for this is hard to pin down with certainty. Is it the notion that some of the Democratic candidates have more celebrity than any of the GOP candidates? Is the novelty of a woman and an African American going head to head on the Democratic side just more compelling? Have the conflicts and squabbling among Democrats already become more intense, and thus deemed more newsworthy by media that likes a fight? Or are reporters, who according to various surveys tend more often to be Democrats than Republicans themselves, just more personally interested in that race?

At least one piece of evidence might argue against the idea that the Democrat-centric coverage reflects a liberal bias of the press. The medium most wrapped up in the Democratic race has been the radio talk shows —where our sample is made up more heavily of conservative talkers who dominate the medium. Fully 66% of the election stories on talk radio dealt with Democratic candidates, while 21% considered Republican candidates.

Indeed, conservative talkers, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage were the most Democratic focused of all—75% of their time on Democrats and only 13% focused mainly on Republicans. (They also focused more on the campaign in general than either the media overall or liberal talk radio shows.)

Clinton and Obama

And which candidates were these stories about in particular? To find out, the Project conducted additional analysis of these campaign stories using Lexis-Nexis database. After gathering all the available newspaper and network news content from the Index, we conducted a keyword search of the top three Democratic and top three Republican candidates in the headline and first six sentences of these stories. (Please see methodology for detailed description of this analysis.)

The breakdown of Democratic versus Republican mentions closely mirrored what we found in the main Index: Democrats outpaced Republicans by more than two-to-one.

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards together had more than 1,100 mentions in the leads of newspaper stories. The top three Republicans—John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani— lagged behind at 578.

Yet the coverage, to be more specific, was mostly about two of these Democrats, Clinton and Obama. In both newspapers and on the networks, Clinton and Obama each garnered more than twice the lead mentions of John Edwards, the 3rd place candidate.

Clinton got the most coverage in this search. Her name (Hillary Clinton or Hillary Rodham Clinton) appeared 742 times over the course of the three months, while Obama garnered a very close second at 672. John Edwards trailed far behind with just 249 mentions overall.  

Search of LexisNexis Database
Number of Stories with Candidate's Name in Headline or Lead Paragraphs
Dec. 31, '06 – Mar. 31, '07

 

Giuliani

Romney

McCain

Top 3 Republicans

Hillary Rodham Clinton /Hillary Clinton

John Edwards

Obama

Top 3 Democrats

Newspapers

177

205

196

578

477

174

452

1103

Network TV

89

36

88

213

265

75

220

560

Total

266

241

284

791

742

249

672

1663

Network news aimed its cameras much more on Democrats as well. There were fewer mentions overall here but still more than a two-to-one gap. The three Democrats reaped 560 mentions while the Republicans totaled just 213.  The gap was consistent across all three networks, though ABC had more total mentions.

Among the Republicans, the field was a little more even. Romney and McCain both received roughly 200 mentions in the print search. Giuliani was not far behind with 177.  The fact that the New York Times is Giuliani’s home paper gave him a bit of an edge. He received more mentions there than did his Republican rivals.

On the three commercial networks, the race seemed to be more between Giuliani and McCain. They each had roughly 90 mentions while Romney had less than half that (36). 

The NewsHour on PBS has yet to dive into the scramble. Just 2% of the NewsHour airtime covered by PEJ’s weekly Index was devoted to the presidential campaign.

The fascination with the campaign began in earnest the third week of January when Hillary Clinton announced her campaign on her website and embarked on a series of interviews with all three evening network newscasts.

The level of coverage fluctuated more week-to-week than did the coverage of Iraq, with a high of 13% and a low of 1%. Still, in 11 weeks out of 13, the campaign was among the top five stories of the week. After Clinton’s announcement, the second biggest week for presidential campaign coverage (at 12%) occurred the week of February 18. That’s when Clinton and Obama ended up skirmishing after Hollywood producer David Geffen—a former supporter of the Clintons who is now aligned with Obama—gave an interview to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in which he was critical of both Hillary and Bill Clinton. That week, the campaign coverage even outpaced coverage of the Iraq policy debate.

The effect of such saturation coverage so early is difficult to gauge, though speculating about its impact has become something of a Washington cocktail game. Will it hurt turnout? Hurt the front-runners? Or just hurt the messenger?