When covering an election, journalists choose a mix of two basic types of reporting — “voter guide” pieces that examine the issue positions and values of the candidates, and “strategy” pieces that analyze campaign tactics and who’s ahead in the race.
Observers often say that the voter guide approach is the higher journalistic purpose, while lamenting that much of the coverage instead focuses on the strategy — treating campaigns more like sports or entertainment rather than civic debates. Because of the prominent focus on candidate and campaign objectives and motivations, this type of coverage has been linked to political cynicism.[ref Cappella, J. N., & Jamieson, K. H. (1997). Spiral of cynicism: The press and the public good. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.]
This analysis finds evidence to support that concern — coverage of campaign strategy dominates local election news. Elements of campaign strategy, whether describing the actions that campaigns take like raising money or the state of the so-called ‘horserace,’ are a prominent feature of local election coverage.[ref Aalberg, T., Strömbäck, J., & de Vreese, C. H. (2011). The framing of politics as strategy and game: A review of concepts, operationalizations and key findings. Journalism, 13(2), 162-178. doi:10.1177/1464884911427799.; Dunaway, J., & Lawrence, R. G. (2015). What predicts the game frame? Media ownership, electoral context, and campaign news. Political Communication, 32(1), 43-60. doi:10.1080/10584609.2014.880975.; Strömbäck, J., & Dimitrova, D. V. (2006). Political and media systems matter: A Comparison of election news coverage in Sweden and the United States. The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 11(4), 131-147. doi: 10.1177/1081180X06293549.] We looked at three indicators of campaign strategy: news mentions of public opinion polls, campaign-related fundraising and spending, and references to the competitiveness of candidates’ campaigns.
Of the news stories examined in this project, 60% contained at least one indicator of campaign strategy. Specifically, 28% of stories contained one of these strategy components, 21% contained two strategy components, and 11% contained all three strategy components.
As seen in the graph below, campaign-related fundraising and spending was featured in 41% of the news stories examined. Horserace references, specifically whether a campaign had a frontrunner, underdog, or was “tightly contested,” appeared in 41% of the stories. Explicit references to public opinion polls associated with a particular campaign were found in 20% of news stories.
Although the modern fixation with the political horserace coincides with the first media organization-sponsored public opinion polls in the 1970s, newspaper stories dating to the 1800s include journalist discussion of the “likely” outcomes of campaigns.[ref Sigelman, L., & Bullock, D. (1991). Candidates, issues, horse races, and hoopla presidential campaign coverage, 1888-1988. American Politics Quarterly, 19(1), 5-32. doi:10.1177/1532673X9101900101] Compared to European nations like Germany, Spain, and Sweden, the news in the United States is more likely to focus on the election horserace.[ref Aalberg, Stromback, & de Vreese (2011); Stomback & Dimitrova (2006)]
Campaign strategy coverage is related to increased page views
We looked at whether campaign strategy mentions correlate with user engagement for local election news stories. Each story could have between zero and three strategy-related components tracked as part of this research (polls, fundraising, and horserace mentions). On average, each local election story contained 1.03 strategy components.
As the number of strategy components in a news story increased, so too did the page views associated with the news story.[ref In two regression models predicting story page views and social referrals (with controls for the news outlet, article word count, type of article, campaign race type, headline type, and issue mentions), strategy mentions significantly increased the number of page views (B=.18 SE=.07; p<.05), but did not influence social referrals (B=.06 SE=.11; p=.59). The dependent variables – page views and social referrals – were modeled using negative binomial regression. We note that using a dichotomized value for strategy (0, 1) also has a significant effect on page views (B=.31 SE=.15; p<.05).] Strategy mentions did not influence social referrals or time on page.[ref In an OLS regression model predicting average time on page with a news story (with controls for the news outlet, article word count, type of article, campaign race type, headline type, and issue mentions), strategy mentions did not significantly affect time on page (B=.01 SE=.06; p=.91).]