February 2, 2011

A Slow Start to the “Media Primary”

2007 2011
Week 1 1.2 0.2
Week 2 0.7 0.2
Week 3 5.1 1.6
Week 4 13.4 0.9

0.6% – Amount of coverage devoted to the 2012 campaign in January 2011

With Election Day nearly two years away, thus far there has been little media attention paid to the 2012 presidential race. Indeed with no major Republican candidate formally announcing a run, coverage of the campaign accounted for less than 1% (0.6%) of the overall newshole in January 2011.

And while it may not seem unusual to have negligible coverage of an election still 21 months away, at this point four years earlier, the 2008 presidential campaign was already a major newsmaker. By January 2007, more than a dozen candidates had already announced a bid for president and the campaign accounted for 5.1% of the newshole during the first four weeks of 2007—trailing only the Iraq war and the installation of the new Democratic-led Congress.

Indeed, this past week (January 24-30, 2011) the 2012 campaign filled just 0.9% of the newshole. But from January 21-26, 2007, the presidential campaign was the No. 1 story, filling 13.4% of the newshole that week, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index.

What made presidential politics so much more newsworthy at this point four years ago?

The battle for an open presidential seat clearly started earlier, with a particular focus on two candidates. In January 2007, Barack Obama created a presidential exploratory committee and Hillary Clinton entered the race—creating significant media buzz and raising the prospect that the nation could elect its first female or African-American chief executive.  In February 2007, coverage of the campaign jumped even further to 8%, trailing only the Iraq war in attention.

Four years later, with Obama clearly planning to run for re-election and potential Republican candidates biding their time, coverage has been minimal. But one possible contender seems to have generated more media attention than any of her likely rivals. According to PEJ data, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has been a dominant newsmaker in 12.5% of all the 2012 campaign stories since the November 2 midterms. (To be a dominant newsmaker, someone must be featured in at least 50% of a story.)

Among possible rivals, her next closest pursuers in the competition for headlines were Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who were well back—each appearing as a dominant newsmaker in 3.5% of the campaign stories since the midterm elections.

Tricia Sartor of PEJ