October 29, 2007

The Invisible Primary - Invisible No Longer

The Early Start, the Public and the Press

This election is unprecedented in terms of its early start and how much early coverage it received. By February 2007, nearly 11 months before any citizen would cast a primary vote or gather for a caucus, the race became one of the biggest stories in the news. This coverage reflected the candidates’ early and heavy fundraising, earlier-than-ever announcements, and states trying to move up their primaries, caucuses and conventions in the election year calendar.For the first five months of 2007, the campaign was the second-most covered news story of any in the press. It lagged behind only the debate over the war in Iraq, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index (www.journalism.org). News about the 2008 campaign accounted for 7.6% of the space in newspapers and websites and airtime on TV and radio included in the Index.

What political scientists used to call the “Invisible Primary” of endorsements, fundraising and organizational work, in other words, is invisible no longer.

That early start, however, has posed something of a challenge for the press. According to survey data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, fewer than a quarter of Americans were closely following the election during the period examined here, January through May 2007.[1] That is high by historical standards, nearly double the level of interest found at similar periods during the 2004 and 2000 presidential elections. Still, it represents relatively limited public attention and presents a conundrum for journalists.

The question for the press is this: How to cover a campaign so early, when so many candidates are competing in both parties so early, but only a limited number of citizens are paying close attention and there is still a long way to go until voting day?

Does focusing on the game aspects of the campaign—political tactics and strategy—make the coverage more exciting and draw more people in to the news? Or does the “game frame” appeal to a narrower news audience?

Most citizens, whether they are following the campaign closely or not, have some clear ideas of the kind of coverage they prefer. In a new poll produced for this report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, nearly eight-in-ten Americans (77%) say they want more coverage of “the candidates’ positions on issues” than they are getting. Just 17% say they want less coverage of candidates’ positions.

Smaller majorities also said they want to see more stories about second-tier candidates (55%), about debates (57%) and about sources of campaign money (55%). And another 55% was interested in more coverage of the personal backgrounds and experiences of the candidates.

The public is more divided over stories about the where the candidates stand in the polls, the so-called horse race (42% want more stories about this topic, while 45% want less). These figures are similar to those from earlier elections.

Those results, taken together with the findings of the PEJ-Shorenstein study of coverage, suggest the press and the public are not on the same page when it comes to priorities in campaign coverage. This disparity also indicates there is room for the press to calibrate its coverage differently to make it more useful and possibly more interesting to citizens.

The public is also not that happy with the press coverage. A majority of Americans (53%) in September said the coverage has been only fair or poor, while 41% rate it as good or excellent, according to another Pew Research Center survey.[2]

What the Study Examined

By analyzing the news of the campaign from January to May, we can see what kind of coverage the American media think the public wants and needs. The PEJ-Shorenstein study looked at five basic aspects of the stories.

First, we identified what each story was about, topic. Next, we identified the primary figure the story was focused around. Was it a particular candidate, a group of candidates, or others? Third, we examined who was affected by what the story was about, impact. Was it citizens? Politicians? Interest groups? Or a combination?

In addition to these measurements, the study also noted two other features for each story.

We considered what initiated the story, its trigger: Was it something a candidate said or did? Something from a campaign surrogate? An outsider? Or was the story initiated by journalistic enterprise?

Finally, the study measured the tone of each story. Within its frame, was the story predominantly positive, negative or neutral about the candidates or their electoral prospects? In order to fall into the positive or negative category, two-thirds or more of the assertions in a story had to fall clearly on one side of that line or the other.


[1]Based on results from the News Interest Index, a weekly survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.The News Interest Index has measured public interest in news about candidates for the 2008 presidential election on a weekly basis throughout 2007.

[2] “Modest Interest in 2008 Campaign News.” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. October 23, 2007.