Horse Race Coverage of Elections Can Harm Voters, Candidates, and News Outlets

From a story on by Denise-Marie Ordway headlined “‘Horse race’ coverage of elections can harm voters, candidates, and news outlets”:

When journalists covering elections focus primarily on who’s winning or losing instead of policy issues — what’s known as horse race reporting — voters, candidates and the news industry itself suffer, a growing body of research has found.

Media scholars have studied horse race reporting for decades to better understand the impact of news stories that frame elections as a competitive game, relying heavily on public opinion polls and giving the most positive attention to frontrunners and underdogs gaining public support. It’s a common strategy for political news coverage in the U.S. and other parts of the globe.

Thomas E. Patterson, professor of government and the press at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, says election coverage often does not delve into policy issues and candidates’ stances on them. In fact, policy issues accounted for 10% of the news coverage of the 2016 presidential election, according to an analysis Patterson did as part of a research series that looks at journalists’ work leading up to and during the election. The bulk of the reporting he examined concentrated on who was winning and losing and why.

“The horserace has been the dominant theme of election news since the 1970s, when news organizations began to conduct their own election polls,” Patterson writes in his working paper. “Since then, polls have proliferated to the point where well over a hundred separate polls — more than a new poll each day — were reported in major news outlets during the 2016 general election.”

Academic research finds that horse race reporting is linked to:

  • Distrust in politicians.
  • Distrust of news outlets.
  • An uninformed electorate.
  • Inaccurate reporting of opinion poll data.

Horse race journalism can also:

  • Hurt female political candidates, who tend to focus on policy issues to build credibility.
  • Give an advantage to novel and unusual candidates.
  • Shortchange third-party candidates, who often are overlooked or ignored because their chances of winning are slim when compared with Republican and Democratic candidates.

Researchers have just started examining the impact of a new type of horse race journalism that has emerged in recent years: probabilistic forecasting. Whereas traditional horse race coverage focuses on unusual polls, political candidates losing or gaining public support, or speculation about who will win an election, some news outlets are able to conduct sophisticated analyses of data from multiple polls to more precisely predict the top candidates’ odds of winning.

A paper published in The Journal of Politics in 2020 indicates probabilistic forecasting “has fundamentally altered the political information environment” in ways that can both help and hurt voters and candidates. For example, these reports might make voters and candidates feel more confident about an election’s outcome. But if voters learn their preferred candidates have a high probability of winning, they might then decide they don’t need to submit their ballot, write the authors of that paper, led by Sean Jeremy Westwood, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College.

In the paper, “Projecting Confidence: How the Probabilistic Horse Race Confuses and Demobilizes the Public,” Westwood and his coauthors question whether this new form of horse race reporting might have influenced the 2016 presidential election, which Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was projected to win. They note that Democrats and Independents “expressed unusual confidence in a decisive 2016 election outcome — and that the same measure of confidence is associated with lower reported turnout.”

Horse race reporting helped catapult billionaire businessman Donald Trump to a lead position during the nominating phase of the 2016 presidential election, finds another paper in Patterson’s research series, “News Coverage of the 2016 Presidential Primaries: Horse Race Reporting Has Consequences.” Although Republican stalwarts initially opposed it, the GOP ultimately picked Trump as the party’s presidential nominee.

“The media’s tendency to allocate coverage based on winning and losing affects voters’ decisions,” Patterson writes. “The press’s attention to early winners, and its tendency to afford them more positive coverage than their competitors, is not designed to boost their chances, but that’s a predictable effect.”

The following academic studies, most of which were published in peer-reviewed journals, investigate the consequences of horse race reporting from multiple angles. For additional context, we included several studies that look at how journalists use opinion polls in their election stories.

If you need help understanding polls, read our tip sheet “11 Questions Journalists Should Ask About Public Opinion Polls.” For help interpreting poll results, please check out our tip sheet on reporting on margin of error.

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