THE INVISIBLE PRIMARY—INVISIBLE NO LONGER
A First Look at Coverage of the 2008 Presidential Campaign
The volume of coverage is one thing. But in politics, not all coverage is equal, even if they spell your name right. What was the tone of the coverage each candidate received?
While Hillary Clinton may have gotten the most press, she did not get the most favorable. That distinction, among major candidates, went to Barack Obama.
On the other end of the ledger, Republican John McCain, the once possible GOP front runner, generated by a wide margin the most negative coverage of any serious contender.
Interestingly, the two front runners in national polls in each party received nearly identical coverage when it came to overall tone.
To evaluate tone, the study examined every assertion that offered some assessment of a candidate’s chances at winning or their potential effectiveness in office if they were elected and tallied them by story. For a story to be considered positive or negative, two thirds of all the assertions had to be explicitly positive or negative in tone or the story would be considered balanced.
It is important to note that the largest percentage of stories (39%) were balanced or neutral in tone. Another 32% were positive. And 30% were negative.
Those numbers are almost identical to those found in the 2004 PEJ study surrounding the fall debates, in which 37% of the stories carried a neutral tone while 38% were negative and 26% were positive.
How did individual candidates fare?
If the press tries to treat the leaders in a race with greater skepticism—or feels a responsibility to scrub those contenders harder—there is some evidence to support that here. The two front runners in national polls both received somewhat more negative coverage than positive. For Hillary Clinton, 27% of the stories were clearly positive, 38% were negative and 35% were balanced or neutral. For Rudy Giuliani, 28% were positive, 37% negative, and 35% neutral.
And if there is any sense that the press likes candidates who make a race more competitive, the data from the early months of the campaign offer support for that view, too. In this case, this candidate was Obama, the freshman Senator from Illinois. Obama enjoyed the best run of coverage in the early campaign, though the trajectory over time was gradually downward. Taken together, nearly half (47%) of all stories focused on Obama were positive. That is roughly three times the percentage that were negative (16%) and exceeds the 38% of stories that were neutral in tone.
Only one other candidate did nearly so well–then Republican demi-candidate Fred Thompson. Like Obama, he offered the possibility of a wild card figure whose entry might reshuffle the dynamics of the race in new ways. In all, 46% about Thompson carried a clearly positive tone, while more than half (51%) were neutral. Almost none, just 4%, was negative. That stands out as the most pronounced gap (13-to-one) of positive to negative stories of any major candidate. One obvious question is how that might have changed now that he has declared himself as one of the pack.
One argument about press coverage is that it tends to reinforce and therefore magnify any phenomenon it observes. A candidate on a downward spiral may find that pattern harder to change if caught in the media klieg lights. While the coverage of John McCain was not as intense as others, it did stand out for its negative cast. From January through May, close to half (48%) of the stories about McCain were clearly negative in tone—the highest of any major candidate. That was four times the stories with a clearly positive tone (12%). Four-in-ten were neutral. Even Fox News, which treated all the other major Republican candidates to more positive than negative coverage, made an exception of McCain. On Fox, McCain the stories examined were 20% positive, 45% neutral and 35% negative. In the first phase of the campaign, in other words, McCain tended to be the mirror image of Obama.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, had the more evenly balanced and positive coverage than either McCain or Giuliani—34% of stories were positive, 35% were neutral and 31% were negative. John Edwards’ coverage was also pretty evenly split among the three categories.
After these seven—the top five and the two candidates in the middle--the remaining candidates taken as a group tended to get treated more tenderly.
The only candidates in this group to receive decidedly more negative coverage than positive were Joe Biden (46% negative vs. 10% positive and 44% neutral) and Tom Tancredo, who was the subject of just seven stories, none of them was clearly positive in tone.
Tone for Democrats vs. Republicans
Taking all the presidential hopefuls together, the press overall has been more positive about Democratic candidates and more negative about Republicans. In the stories mainly about one of the Democratic candidates, the largest percentage was neutral (39%), but more than a third of stories (35%) were positive, while slightly more than a quarter (26%) carried a clearly negative tone.
For Republicans, the numbers were basically reversed. Again the same number as for Democrats (39%) were neutral, but more than a third (35%) were negative vs. 26% positive.
In other words, not only did the Republicans receive less coverage overall, the attention they did get tended to be more negative than that of Democrats. And in some specific media genres, the difference is particularly striking.
Why is this? Does it suggest some not-so-subtle enthusiasm by a liberal press for Democratic candidates? Those critics who see a continuing liberal preference in the media may cite this as evidence of that presumption.
There are, however, other explanations.
The most notable is the fact that, if the coverage of Obama and McCain are eliminated, the distinction in tone of coverage between the two parties’ candidates disappears.
Another factor influencing the tone of coverage for Republican candidates could be the perceived weaknesses in the chances for nomination or election by each of the leading Republican candidates. While Giuliani, for example, has shown strength in opinion polls, many observers inside and outside the Republican Party consider his chances complicated by opposition from religious conservatives. Likewise, McCain was known to have displeased many in his own party for his bi-partisan sponsorship of campaign finance reform and immigration reform. And Mitt Romney’s relative inexperience on the national stage and switch on the abortion issue made observers skeptical of his credibility.
Third, the tone of the coverage may also mirror the fact that Republican voters in polls express greater dissatisfaction with their candidate pool than do Democrats.
All that said, the discrepancy in tone between the parties is a factor to be watched as the race continues.
The Pew Research Center for People and the Press “Clinton Seen as 'Tough' and 'Smart' -- Giuliani as 'Energetic':Voter Impressions of Leading Candidates,” September 2007. The survey found that 64% of Democratic voters’ impression of Democratic candidates was excellent/good, while 49% of Republican voters’ impression of Republican candidates was excellent/good.