October 29, 2007

The Invisible Primary - Invisible No Longer

Election Topics

From the start, the press has tended to produce stories about one candidate at a time, rather than ones that compare candidates or examine broad themes. Fully eight out of 10 stories in the first five months focused mostly on a single candidate. The other 20% of stories concerned comparisons of candidates, electoral issues, the electorate and the rest.

The majority of all stories (63%) were primarily about the “game” aspects of the campaign—topics such as who is winning, who is losing, their fundraising, and how a candidate is performing on the stump. Of these topics, the lion’s share (50% overall)was tactical or horse race—that is polls, strategy and candidate “performance.” The next biggest political concern was campaign fundraising, which made up 7% of all stories.

After internal political matters, the second-biggest grouping of topics (17% of the stories) focused on the personal background of the candidates—their families, marriages, biographies, and religion. The biggest share of these stories, 9%, looked at the marriage and romantic relationships of the candidates and the personal health of candidates and their spouses. This obviously was driven in March by the announcement by Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of Democratic candidate John Edwards, that she had a recurrence of breast cancer. And 2% of the stories were about candidate religion, principally that of Republican Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The policy proposals and ideas of the candidates constituted 15% of all stories examined—a slightly smaller percentage than the personal qualities of the candidates. This policy discussion was fairly evenly split between foreign (8%) and domestic policy (7%). Of the issues, the war was the biggest of all (6%). That was followed by abortion (3%),though much of this coverage focused on Republicans and particularly Giuliani, whose position on that subject does not fit squarely into what has become the tradition in the Republican Party platform.

Only roughly 1% of the stories were about the candidates’ public records.

Political advertising made up only 1% of the coverage, since most candidates had not yet gotten their ad campaigns going this early in the race. Almost all of the ad stories in the early phase were about an ad that was not created by a candidate, but was an independent Internet attack ad produced on YouTube by an anonymous user.The ad portrayed Hillary Clinton as part of the political Old Guard and promoted the candidacy of Barack Obama. All but one of the stories about advertising from January to May involved this one spot.

A major issue for campaign insiders is not the candidates themselves but the campaign calendar, including states moving the dates for their primaries earlier and earlier in the 2008 year–possibly into December 2007. Yet in spite of the enormous impact of the electoral calendar on voters and outcome, the subject got only minor coverage (2% of the stories in the first months of the campaign).

While every campaign seems to bring complaints of excessive media emphasis on strategy over issues, these topic breakdowns in the early stages of the 2008 cycle are somewhat more oriented to the candidates’ political concerns than those found at later stages in past election cycles.

In the 2000 election, a PEJ study of the pre-primary phase of that race, conducted in December and January 1999-2000, found just over half (54%) of the stories were about political matters, while a quarter (24%) focused on the candidates’ policy and ideas, and 11% related to personal qualities. And similarly in 2004, a PEJ study of campaign themes surrounding the fall debates found that 55% of stories were framed around candidate strategy, fundraising, performance and polls.[1] Even earlier, a year-long study of the 1992 presidential campaign, conducted under the auspices of the Shorenstein Center, found that “issues get shorter shrift in all media when the horse race is most exciting (in the early primaries and the last month of the campaign).[2]

Topics by Party

So far in 2007, tactics, polling and fundraising dominated coverage of both parties (Democrats at 59%, Republicans at 65%). A closer look at the topic breakdowns reveals a marked difference between the coverage of Democrats and Republicans, particularly with regard to personal and policy issues. The coverage of Democrats was more personal. The coverage of Republicans was more about ideas.

Roughly a quarter (24%) of the stories devoted to Democrats focused on personal topics, compared with only 13% of the coverage of Republican candidates.

Policy stories, by contrast, made up much more of the coverage of Republicans (20%) than they did for Democrats (12%).

Heavy coverage of Elizabeth Edwards’ illness accounts for part, but hardly all of the difference between Democratic and Republican candidates’ personal coverage. It also may be that the perceived points of contrast among Democrats in the early phases had more to do with biography—including the candidates’ gender, race, and marriages—whereas the differences among Republicans may have been sharper over policy—particularly on such issues as immigration and abortion.


[1] The 2004 PEJ study examined theme-based stories, rather than all topics of election coverage. Even here, in a narrowed range of stories, politics accounted for more than half of the coverage.

Another study that focused on the primary campaign season was of network evening television coverage in 2004 conducted by Stephen Farnsworth and Robert Lichter. Their work showed an even higher percentage, 77%, of the primary season election stories were focused on horse race issues and only 18% were focused on policy issues. Stephen J. Farnsworth and S. Robert Lichter. 2007. The Nightly News Nightmare: Television’s Coverage of U.S. Presidential Elections, 1988-2004. 2d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

[2] Marion R. Just, Ann N. Crigler, Dean E. Alger, Timothy E. Cook, Montague Kern, and Darrell M. West 1996, Crosstalk: Citizens, Candidates and the Media in a Presidential Campaign.Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996.