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Beto O’Rourke Ignored Cable News — And It Ignored Him

Beto O’Rourke is trying to reboot his campaign. After being in the race for two months, the former Texas representative is getting much less media attention than he did when he first announced his candidacy. The week he entered the race, O’Rourke was mentioned more than any other candidate — his name came up in 870 clips across the three cable news networks we monitor (MSNBC, CNN and Fox News), according to data from the TV News Archive that we accessed via the GDELT’s Project Television API.1 Last week, he ranked seventh.

O’Rourke is way behind top-tier candidates

How often each Democratic candidate was mentioned each week in news programming on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, counted by the number of 15-second clips that include each person’s full name

Number of Clips
Candidate Week of May 5 Week of May 12
Joe Biden 1,411
1,715
Bernie Sanders 503
530
Elizabeth Warren 289
358
Kamala Harris 266
343
Pete Buttigieg 196
277
Bill de Blasio
263
Beto O’Rourke 90
217
Steve Bullock
162
Cory Booker 137
107
Kirsten Gillibrand 33
82
Amy Klobuchar 130
43
Seth Moulton 3
29
Jay Inslee 10
21
Eric Swalwell 39
14
Julian Castro 7
13
John Hickenlooper 12
13
Tulsi Gabbard 5
12
Tim Ryan 5
11
Andrew Yang 20
11
Michael Bennet 27
11
Marianne Williamson 9
7
John Delaney 4
2
Total 3,196
4,241

Includes all candidates that qualify as “major” in FiveThirtyEight’s rubric. Each network’s daily news coverage is chopped up into 15-second clips, and each clip that includes a candidate’s first and last name (found by running a search seeking an exact match for the name) is counted as one mention.

Source: Internet Archive’s Television News Archive via the GDELT Project

When O’Rourke first entered the race, his strategy was to stay off cable news. “Seeing you eyeball-to-eyeball, to me, is so much more satisfying than being on cable TV,” he told a supporter at a Virginia town hall when explaining why he chose to avoid the national spotlight TV appearances in favor of smaller gatherings. But his polls have sunk to the lowest they have been since his launch and now O’Rourke is trying to pivot back to major televised events like interviews and town halls.

For a month now, Joe Biden has been the most-talked-about candidate on cable news each week, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders a distant second and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have been either third or fourth. These four candidates have accounted for about 70 to 85 percent of all mentions of 2020 candidates in each of the last four weeks on the cable networks in our data set.

Even in the next tier of candidates, O’Rourke is now struggling to make a splash. Pete Buttigieg, who, unlike O’Rourke, has aggressively participated in all forms of media, rose from relative obscurity while O’Rourke seemed to sink back into it. In the past two weeks, Buttigieg has ranked fifth in cable news mentions, while O’Rourke has floundered at seventh or eighth. Buttigieg is also consistently getting more mentions in online news stories and more Google search traffic.

Even O’Rourke’s reboot appears to be snakebitten. It happened to coincide with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s entry into the race, as well as the launch of Montana Governor Steve Bullock’s campaign, which took up some media oxygen last week. O’Rourke was mentioned fewer times than de Blasio.

With so many 2020 candidates vying for the spotlight, getting the media’s attention may be a lot more difficult for O’Rourke now than it would have been if he had agreed to more TV appearances two months ago when he launched his campaign.

Footnotes

  1. The TV News Archive measures coverage by splitting CNN, Fox News and MSNBC’s daily news footage into 15-second clips and finding the clips that contain a mention of our search query. Our search queries are the full names of each candidate. The GDELT Television API, which processes the data from the TV News Archive, measures a week of coverage from Sunday through Saturday. The cutoff for measuring coverage for any given day is midnight Eastern Standard Time. (Clock changes for Daylight Saving Time are ignored.)

Dhrumil Mehta is a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight focusing on politics.

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