Does Media Coverage of 2020 Distort Reality?

A Washington Post columnists tries to make the case.

Jennifer Rubin‘s lament about “The media coverage vs. reality in the Democratic primary race” is rather bizarre.

If cable-news coverage matched reality, former representative Beto O’Rourke (Tex.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would be leading the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. The latest Morning Consult poll tell us that, among all primary voters, former vice president Joe Biden (35 percent) maintains a big lead; Sanders is second at 25 percent; and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), O’Rourke and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) are bunched behind Sanders at 8 percent, 8 percent and 7 percent, respectively. If you believed the coverage of her management techniques, you might think Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was kaput. Yet she’s tied with South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who gets far more coverage, at 2 percent, just behind Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) at 4 percent.

None of this is predictive of what will happen next February when votes start to be counted, but it certainly does not equate to the amount or tone of a lot of the coverage.

The gap between coverage and reality is even more pronounced in early states where the current results show: Biden (38 percent), Sanders (27 percent), Harris (8 percent), O’Rourke and Warren (7 percent).

If coverage matched not only these numbers but crowd size, the narrative of the race would go like this: Biden, who has yet to officially enter the race, remains the clear favorite despite all the talk about the energy on the left wing of the party. Sanders, with 100 percent name recognition and a previous presidential campaign under his belt, hasn’t moved even after entering the race and raising a ton of money.

The relative standings of the candidates in the way-too-early polls is hardly surprising. We have more polling, poll aggregates, and wonky analysis of the polls than ever before. And more coverage of all the candidates, given an essentially infinite number of outlets with essentially infinite space to devote to political coverage.

Given the diffuse nature of the modern news media, I haven’t the foggiest how one would go about establishing how much coverage a given candidate is getting. Front page stories in the Washington Post? Minutes on network nightly newscasts nowadays watched mostly by geriatrics? Appearances on Stephen Colbert? Rubin seems to think “cable news coverage” is the metric but, again, there are multiple channels, none of which have particularly large viewership.

Still, it’s undeniable that Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg are engendering enthusiasm in media circles disproportionate to their showing in the national polling. But that’s hardly surprising. Both are young, interesting candidates who are unknown to the electorate. There’s really not that much new to write about Joe Biden, who’s been on the national scene for decades.

Warren, far from out of it, is matching Harris and O’Rourke stride for stride. While the media generally ignores much of what she actually says, her impressive list of policies all aimed at “unrigging” the system — e.g., ethics reform, a child-care plan, a wealth tax, an anti-monopoly bill aimed at Big Tech and a housing plan — puts her opponents to shame. Rather than obsess on her “likability” (voters like her so far just about as much as they like Harris and O’Rourke), they might cover what she says and start pressing other candidates for more specifics.

Warren is indeed interesting if something of a single issue candidate. But it’s weird to complain that O’Rourke is getting more coverage than his place in the polls warrants and then complain that Warren is getting insufficient coverage when she’s two points behind him in the RealClearPolitics aggregate. That someone who would have been considered a frontrunner in 2016 is behind an upstart strikes me as a real sign of trouble.

Of all the candidates, Harris has moved the most dramatically and held her place as a top-tier candidate. Her crowds number in the thousands. On a personal level, she is the warmest and most emotionally present when interacting with voters. Of all the candidates, she looks like she is having the most fun. She has rolled out two meaty plans (on taxes and raising teacher pay) which put her behind Warren in the wonkiness race — but ahead of most everyone else.

Okay. But, again, I don’t see what the trouble is. When has wonkiness been a path to the White House?

Sanders has his solid group of rabid defenders but shows no real sign of having expanded his reach since 2016. If a candidate can capture the 40 percent or so of Democrats who say they are moderates, or the majority (54 percent) who want the party to be more centrist plus a smattering of progressives, it would put Sanders at a severe disadvantage.

Okay. But he’s still polling just behind Biden nationally and at nearly two and a half times Harris’ third-place number.

O’Rourke got a ton of media coverage and raised a boatload of money. In regards to polling, he’s about where he was before he entered the race. He’s begun to provide more answers to policy questions but his entrance, so far, has not transformed the race to the degree that coverage suggests.

Again, O’Rourke is a new kid on the block. That he’s vastly outpolling Booker, Klobuchar, Castro, and Gillibrand—all of whom have been on the national scene far longer—is an indicator that coverage of him is well-placed.

You see, the reality of the race is more boring, less hyperactive and more issue-focused than what you get from watching cable news. Harris is under-covered given her success to date. Warren has been pigeonholed as a loser by the media, but still draws sizable crowds and is far and away the most substantive.

Rubin continually engages in the Pundit’s Fallacy here. In reality, very few people care about policy details. The fact that Warren is something of an afterthought in the polling right now despite Rubin’s perception of her as “far and away the most substantive” would seem an obvious indicator of that.

Beyond that, aside from those of us who are political junkies, most people just aren’t paying that much attention to the presidential campaign right now. Indeed, Rubin’s close seems to recognize that:

Biden supposedly will enter the race early next month, but the shape of the race may not change much until voters start assessing the candidates for themselves in debates. Seeing the candidates for themselves rather than through an artificial media story line has a way of changing voters’ minds.

Well, sure. There’s not really a story right now. Candidates are either introducing or re-introducing themselves to the most politically active members of the society right now. And that decidedly includes political journalists.

It’s still over ten months until the first votes in 2020 are cast in the Iowa Caucuses. It’s almost a year until Super Tuesday, which will likely eliminate all but two or three candidates. Most of the people currently soaking up cable news coverage won’t make it that far.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Gender Issues, Public Opinion Polls
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. SKI says:

    First, seeking compelling logical arguments from a Rubin column can often lead to extreme frustration.

    That said, with respect to Harris, she has a point. The tone and volume of coverage for the “shiny new” candidates, as you describe them, seems to be primarily a thing for the white males. Your dismissal of Harris as “wonky” is baffling. While she has plans and substance, as Rubin noted, Harris is drawing large, enthusiastic crowds, has a track record of wielding a very impressive and effective donor list over the past cycles, and is polling among the leaders – but seems to be dismissed cavalierly by the media and pundits.

    Also, that the media gets the on-the-ground story wrong isn’t new. One of the Crooked Media guys, I think it was Dan Pfeiffer, tells the story of going to DC for a birthday party shortly before the Iowa caucus, and having everyone console him with the understanding that the race was over and HRC was the going to win Iowa. It was such widely accepted conventional wisdom, based off media reports, that it felt surreal – particularly as he had, that very morning, been in a meeting where the team was very confident in their strategy and ground game.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @SKI:

    Your dismissal of Harris as “wonky” is baffling.

    I’m responding to Rubin’s characterization:

    She has rolled out two meaty plans (on taxes and raising teacher pay) which put her behind Warren in the wonkiness race — but ahead of most everyone else.

    The “wonkiness race” is typically not what one is trying to win.

    The tone and volume of coverage for the “shiny new” candidates, as you describe them, seems to be primarily a thing for the white males.

    Compared to O’Rourke and Buttigieg, Harris isn’t shiny or new. She received quite a bit of time in the spotlight as California AG and then during her successful 2016 Senate bid. And, while, again, I don’t have any metric handy for gauging how much coverage she has received compared to those guys, I’ve certainly seen a passel of stories about her. And she’s the top first-time Presidential candidate in the polling, trailing only Biden and Sanders.

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  3. SKI says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m responding to Rubin’s characterization

    No, you responded to one cherry picked sentence of Rubin’s characterization, ignoring the preceding ones. Rubin actually said:

    Of all the candidates, Harris has moved the most dramatically and held her place as a top-tier candidate. Her crowds number in the thousands. On a personal level, she is the warmest and most emotionally present when interacting with voters. Of all the candidates, she looks like she is having the most fun. She has rolled out two meaty plans (on taxes and raising teacher pay) which put her behind Warren in the wonkiness race — but ahead of most everyone else.

    As for your comment:

    Compared to O’Rourke and Buttigieg, Harris isn’t shiny or new.

    Buttigieg I’ll give you but Beto? He got more coverage in 2018 than Harris did in the previous few years combined.

    Of course, I could also point out Andrew Yang an a non-white analog to Mayor Pete as another example.

    she’s the top first-time Presidential candidate in the polling, trailing only Biden and Sanders.

    Indeed, but you wouldn’t know it from the pundits – which is Rubin’s basic point.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @SKI:

    Buttigieg I’ll give you but Beto? He got more coverage in 2018 than Harris did in the previous few years combined.

    Beto’s coverage is basically continuing. He had momentum from nearly upsetting Cruz in November. Harris’ coverage started to phase out early in the 2016 campaign because she was essentially unopposed. It was an open seat in an overwhelmingly Democratic state and she was the clear frontrunner from the get-go.

    Indeed, but you wouldn’t know it from the pundits – which is Rubin’s basic point.

    I’m not sure how that’s reconcilable with this:

    Of all the candidates, Harris has moved the most dramatically and held her place as a top-tier candidate.

    How else has she “moved” if not for press coverage? Again, Rubin provides no metrics so it’s impossible to refute her assertion that the coverage is somehow unfair. But, rather obviously, Harris is getting covered.

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  5. SKI says:

    @James Joyner:

    How else has she “moved” if not for press coverage?

    Really? Do you not understand how direct contact with voters works? How media narratives are routinely wrong pre-Iowa?

    Harris spent close to $5 Million in internet ads post-2018 elections. She built a very large small donor list. Is doing the work of campaigning and getting really good reviews from voters on the ground.

    Perhaps more to the point, we need to differentiate between news stories and pundits when we talk about the “media”. News stories by and large lay out the facts and all the principal candidates have assigned reporters and therefore get regular coverage, principally but not exclusively in print media. Punditry, on the other hand, is primarily opinion-based and seeks to set out narratives.

    Harris is getting media coverage in terms of news. She is also getting punditry coverage, Rubin being an obvious example. That said, however, she is getting less coverage from pundits/commentators and being too quickly dismissed in favor of other candidates – all of whom seem to be white men.

    It would be interesting to see a study on the correlation between pundit demographics and the candidates they write most often favorably about.

  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Media coverage makes no sense? Well no shit…
    One only has to go back to the wall-to-wall coverage that Dennison got during the primaries.
    Another abject failure of the Fourth Estate.
    The media is failing this country in such a ginormous way…

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  7. SKI says:

    In connecting this to the sexism post the other day and how we deal with our internal biases, from my perspective, the key issue is whether or not the rationale for why a particular person supports, or denigrates, someone else is based on facts and logical or simply their “gut”.

    “I just like them more” is a very dangerous place to be. Similarly, choosing to view only some candidates in a full nuanced way is a sign of a potentially problematic rationale.

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  8. James Joyner says:

    @SKI:

    Harris is getting media coverage in terms of news. She is also getting punditry coverage, Rubin being an obvious example. That said, however, she is getting less coverage from pundits/commentators and being too quickly dismissed in favor of other candidates – all of whom seem to be white men.

    So, again, I don’t know how we analyze “less coverage from pundits/commentators.” She seems to me to be getting plenty.

    She gets a breathless NYT fluff piece “Inside Kamala Harris’s Small-Dollar Fund-Raising Operation.” That’s hardly a dismissal.

    Vox’ Dylan Scott gives us “Kamala Harris’s plan to dramatically increase teacher salaries, explained.

    Forbes hits back with “Four Reasons Kamala Harris’s Teacher Pay Raise Proposal Is Not A Winner.”

    Jennifer Rubin seems to be devoting every column to her, including the one in the OP and “What Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris understand about 2020.”

    McClatchey gives us “Why Kamala Harris didn’t vote on a climate change bill after sponsoring one just like it.”

    And WaPo gave her precious op-ed space to fluff her own proposal “Kamala Harris: Our teacher pay gap is a national failure. Here’s how we can fix it.

    That’s all in the last couple of days.

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  9. SKI says:

    @James Joyner: Thanks for the reading list. 🙂 But note that all, except Rubin who is fully flogging for her, cover something that is news(y). I suspect the issue for Rubin is the “horse race” pundits and the volume of articles currently devoted to the “great white (male) hopes”…

  10. James Joyner says:

    @SKI: I dunno. I see “Kamala Harris is the frontrunner” pieces all the time. There have been at least a dozen of them since she kicked off the campaign. As much Great White (Male) Hope stuff as we see, there seems to be almost an aching to nominate a woman of color.

  11. Ben Wolf says:

    The second choices of voters polled by Morning Consult is probably at the core of Rubin’s angst. Sanders voters strongly prefer Joe Biden should Sanders wash out, while Biden voters, surprisingly, strongly favor Sanders. This could create a dynamic where everybody else gets locked out, and Rubin doesn’t want to see either man get the nomination.

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  12. James Pearce says:

    @James Joyner:

    As much Great White (Male) Hope stuff as we see, there seems to be almost an aching to nominate a woman of color.

    One thing I think future liberals will understand that current liberals somehow forgot: how racialism often devolves into racism.

    There is no big yearning out there for a Great White Male Hope. People just want to win because “elections have consequences” and it’s not all about glass ceilings and “cool milestones.”

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  13. SKI says:

    @James Pearce:

    One thing I think future liberals will understand that current liberals somehow forgot: how racialism often devolves into racism.

    There is no big yearning out there for a Great White Male Hope. People just want to win becaus “elections have consequences” it’s not all about glass ceilings and “cool milestones.”

    Here is the problem with your approach which suggest we can’t/shouldn’t nominate a person of color in the interests of winning. It can only be justified on one of two premises: (a) you are a racist or (b) you expect that racists will determine the election. Same thing with nominating any male over any female – either sexist or expecting that the population is sexist.

    One would hope you would recognize the inherent problem here. If we decide to act in a racist or sexist way, even if it is solely motivated by “winning”, we are acting in a racist/sexist way.

    Fundamentally, intent doesn’t matter. Actions do. I don’t need to know someone’s heart, I need to know what they did. And voting because of their skin color or gender is wrong – even if you are doing so “strategically”.

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  14. Dave Schuler says:

    James, I think you’re underestimating how important “wonkiness” is to Democratic primary voters. There’s an anti-intellectual streak among Republican primary voters that’s very different.

    That said we’ve got six months before the horserace aspect of the presidential primary has any meaning whatever. Trying to handicap the primary candidates at this point is a mug’s game.

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  15. James Pearce says:

    @SKI:

    Here is the problem with your approach which suggest we can’t/shouldn’t nominate a person of color in the interests of winning.

    To be fair, I did not suggest we “can’t/shouldn’t” nominate a person of color.

    I’m only suggesting that the point of winning an election isn’t to achieve some kind of superficial historical first; it’s to consolidate power and accomplish tasks.

  16. Gustopher says:

    @SKI:

    Harris is getting media coverage in terms of news. She is also getting punditry coverage, Rubin being an obvious example. That said, however, she is getting less coverage from pundits/commentators and being too quickly dismissed in favor of other candidates – all of whom seem to be white men.

    Cutting through media bullshit, or learning to work with media bullshit, is one of the main tasks of the job she is pursuing right now (nominee — when she is president, they will have to pay attention). Al Gore was great on everything other than handling the media. Sigh.

    If the media is sexist, she has to deal with it anyway.

    Let’s look at all the candidates:

    Warren let her self get defined by her response to the Pocahontas taunting, and her tone deaf DNA announcement (if she chatted with tribal leaders before the announcement, she could have avoided that), and now seems to think the way to redefine herself is with position statements. I *like* Warren, and a few months ago would have said that I support her, but she’s showing that she can’t do the job of nominee.

    Klobuchar can eat salad with a comb and is mean to her staff.

    Gillibrand is somehow uniquely responsible for Al Franken groping more than half a dozen people, and is a horrible person for knifing him in the back. I thought we wanted a fighter, but go figure.

    Corey Booker somehow just vanished. It’s freaky and weird. He used to be running into burning buildings and saving peoples lives, and shoveling walks and all that, but I don’t think I have heard a thing about him since the Kavanaugh hearings.

    Biden continues to age at us.

    Bernie has good politics and terrible supporters. And apparently won’t support incremental fixes to ObamaCare now because his purity pony won’t go that way. He manages to either make people passionate supporters, or piss them off.

    Buttigieg is kind of amazing at handling the media — getting on minor shows, and then getting that quoted and excerpted elsewhere. He should be a nothing candidate who goes nowhere.

    Beto is the cool kid, light on substance, but fun to hang out with. The media love him. The job of nominee is, essentially, to be lovable. I expect glowing profiles in every major newspaper asking “is America ready for another white male President?”

    Hickenlooper, Inslee, and the rest are nowhere candidates going nowhere. Yang is opposed to circumcision. Or in favor of it. He has strong views on penis cosmetics that I haven’t bothered to learn.

    I get my direct news from a smattering of the Washington Post, plus the Maddow and Chris Hayes shows, and even with that lefty bent, Harris has made no impression on me. I honestly could not tell you if she has never been on, or if she has been on and still not made an impression.

    The only things that have stuck in my mind are a ridiculous QAnon meme about her eating a live chicken, and some mini scandal about how she couldn’t possibly have smoked pot while listening to Snoop Dogg because pot wasn’t invented when Snoop Dogg was popular or something (it was stupid, I didn’t read it)

    That’s a problem, but it’s Harris’ problem to figure out how to deal with it. Whether the media is sexist, or whether she is snippy and gruff with them, or whether she has hired the wrong people… I don’t know, and I kind of don’t care.

    I will support whichever candidate has good enough politics, and can figure out how to play the media games.

  17. Gustopher says:

    @SKI:

    Fundamentally, intent doesn’t matter. Actions do.

    Actions don’t matter either. Results do.

    I would love for a woman candidate — specifically Elizabeth Warren — to figure out how to play the media. Her intentions are great. Her actions as a Senator have been great. She doesn’t seem to be able to get results on the campaign trail though.

    America is a screwed up place. The path for a woman candidate is going to be different than the path for a man, unless that woman manages to completely transform America (which I would not object to). But so many of the things that are considered “strong” in male leaders are considered “bossy”, “cold” and “bitch” when a woman acts the same way. There is a path, but I don’t know what it is.

    I’m happy that a number of plausible women are running for the nomination, and I think it helps slowly transform America, or find that path through trial and error. And I would love to be wrong and discover that we are already there and capable of electing a woman.

    But, I don’t think “women are treated unfairly by our sexist society, so we better run a woman” is a successful strategy.

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  18. Moosebreath says:

    @Gustopher:

    “He [Booker] used to be running into burning buildings and saving peoples lives, and shoveling walks and all that, but I don’t think I have heard a thing about him since the Kavanaugh hearings.”

    Except for that he’s dating Rosario Dawson.

  19. An Interested Party says:

    I’m only suggesting that the point of winning an election isn’t to achieve some kind of superficial historical first; it’s to consolidate power and accomplish tasks.

    Those two points don’t have to be mutually exclusive…I guess you felt no pride when the first black man was elected president in 2008…

  20. James Pearce says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Those two points don’t have to be mutually exclusive

    They don’t have to be, but they kind of have been.

    I didn’t support Obama because he was black. I supported him because he was clearly a decent dude with a political philosophy I wanted to see reflected in our government. Frankly I took the attitude of “He’s black too? So what?”

    That attitude I feel is not only passe on the left these days, but probably borderline offensive too.