Political Animal


February 06, 2012 11:41 AM Hyping the Horse Race

By Ed Kilgore

Via Jonathan Bernstein, I ran across an interesting piece on a familar topic, penned by Erika Fry for the Columbia Journalism Review, about the tendency of political journalists not only to cover the presidential campaign like a horse race, but to actively cheer-lead for a protracted contest. Fry quotes several journalists and TV producers who come right out and admit they have a bias in favor of the slim chances of underdogs, much as sports journalists do when they are trying to build fan interest in a lopsided event.

The big question is whether this bias contributes to the very horse-race phenomenon it promotes, and the answer is that it does, of course, which is particularly ironic when the particular beneficiary is a candidate like Newt Gingrich who is campaigning against the evil influence of the news media.

I have to admit I am hardly immune to the temptation. I write a regular column for The New Republic entitled “The Permanent Campaign,” and am fully aware that once Mitt Romney nails down the GOP presidential nomination I’ll have to work a lot harder to provide analysis of down-ballot contests, with occasional notes on the presidential race that will accelerate later in the year. But horse-race enthusiasts are not the only poltical journalists with corrosive biases: others, particularly in Beltwayland, are smug purveyors of various Iron Laws of politics in which electoral outcomes are dictated by “insiders”—i.e., their sources—months or years in advance. So sometimes campaign coverage seems to be divided between those who breathlessly over-react to every twist and turn in polling numbers, and those who think none of it’s worth covering at all. Indeed, you sometimes see both tendencies in the same publication, as Fry notes wryly of Politico:

Politico, typically, covers every angle here: a media piece noting the press’s need for drama, a straight news piece that hammers home Romney’s inevitable win, and an analysis piece that argues that the next month is “uncharted territory” and “conservatives are still resisting Romney.” Even Mitt Romney’s inevitability, it seems, flip-flops.

Perhaps these biases effectively cancel each other out, enabling voters and elites (in degrees varying on your point of view) to work their will on the electoral process. But the one thing that should be clear is that the authoritative voice with which pundits so often declaim on political developments is usually a thin disguise for today’s guess and tomorrow’s false prediction.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • skeptonomist on February 06, 2012 12:02 PM:

    The media are biased toward entertainment value, especially the cable TV networks. Voters generally hate Newt Gingrich, except when he's pandering to racists in southern states, but the media love him because he provides "controversial" copy. This is similar to the way sports writers loved Cassius Clay/Muhammed Ali, but of course Newt has no kind of knockout punch.

  • Ron Byers on February 06, 2012 12:18 PM:

    Skeptonomist is right. News has become entertainment and the "reporters" are entertainers. They are mostly interested in how much the audience likes them. This is not a Fox News bias, nor is it an MSNBC bias. It isn't merely a Cable bias. It is all of our media outlets. They all are economically dependent on the current system.

    We could solve campaign finance by simple legislative action. America owns the airways. Congress could pass a law making the airways available to candidates at very reduced rates or maybe even make large blocks of time free. If that happened Citizens United's corrosive effects would be greatly diminished. It won't happen nor will a change in the campaign funding structure ever see the light of day on any of our television channels. None of them want to change a system where corporations and billionaires can be forced to pay for campaign ads at the highest possible cost.

  • DAY on February 06, 2012 12:35 PM:

    In the Days of Yore, reporters had two tools: A manual typewriter with one font, and a telephone.
    Now "you guys"not only have a computer to play with, but the internet, satellite imaging, Twitter, Facebook- and 24/7 cable TV that needs feeding.

    There's truth in the old saw "Work expands to fill the space available."

  • Rich on February 06, 2012 12:46 PM:

    The horse race enables journos to avoid dealing with anything in much depth. They tend to be laughably inept at interpreting poll data or trends (clearly journalism attracts people who struggled with fairly simple math) but build their coverage around these data anyway. This kind of coverage also seems to at least dovetail with access journalism and may be why we're stuck with so much attention being given to media whores like McCain (even now) and Gingrich, even if they are fairly irrelevant to an election cycle. Speculation about the horse race, involving such people, is another part of the problem.

  • berttheclock on February 06, 2012 1:33 PM:

    Not even Bloodhorse or the Daily Racing Form covers claiming races the way the media has covered the RepuG Claiming Series. So, Mitt will emerge the King of Claimers, but, in November he will be facing a real thoroughbred stakes champion. I await Trevor Denman calling out on the first Wednesday of November, "Showing far too much class for this field.....moving like a winner....and if you have your ticket on The President, go stand in the pay off queue".

    Just keep giving Mitt more Lasix, Bute, blinkers and those front wraps. What he really needs is a tongue tie. But, he'll never stand the jump in class, no matter how many fancy ribbons they place in his mane.

  • Robert on February 06, 2012 1:57 PM:

    What annoys me the most about campaign/government coverage by the media is how it all tends to reinforce the impression one can easily get that all elected officials really care about is 'keeping their ass in the official chair'. Then again, perhaps that is very accurate coverage.

  • Redshift on February 06, 2012 3:11 PM:

    There's another angle to the compulsion to cheer for the underdog in the horse race. One of the best descriptions I've ever read of why pundits never suffer for their numerous ludicrously bad predictions was that punditry is "hit-based," like movies, pop music, or video games. Failures are quickly forgotten, because they're not interesting, but if one unlikely "prediction" comes true, it can make a pundit's reputation.

    The whole field is biased toward wild-ass guesses, which is why it's best ignored as anything other than entertainment.

  • Chuck Miller on February 07, 2012 1:01 PM:

    We saw this four years ago when it became apparent in March that Obama would win the delegate count while the media propped-up Hillary until June.

  • Dandelion on February 07, 2012 7:33 PM:

    Are these journalists forgetting that the consequences of their entertainment-driven cheerleading might be that somebody like Sarah Palin gets elected to a top office? Think about it. They get a thrill up their leg and we get stuck with an idiot.