Does an increase in attention from the media, like we’ve generally seen this cycle surrounding a presidential hopeful’s campaign launch, correspond with a boost in a candidate’s popularity in the polls? At FiveThirtyEight, we’ve looked at how much kickoff coverage candidates have gotten on the big three cable TV news networks, as well as how they fared in surveys after they got into the race. But we were curious whether there was a connection between the two — did the candidates who experienced a post-kickoff polling bump first get a bump in media coverage because of their launch?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that the two things mostly did tend to go together.
As you can see in the chart above, candidates who experienced an increase in the amount of coverage they got on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC typically saw an increase in their support in 2020 Democratic primary polls.1 Bernie Sanders, for example, got a big bump both in how often he was mentioned on cable news and in the percentage of voters who supported him in the polls. And the candidates who did not get much media attention generally did not get much of an increase in public support. But there were some candidates who didn’t quite fit this pattern. Kamala Harris, for example, had a much bigger polling increase than we’d expect based on her media coverage, while Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren both had smaller polling bumps than expected.
To find that relationship, we looked at media coverage and polling averages before and after each candidate’s announcement:
- We first measured how much coverage a candidate got in the week leading up to their campaign launch and in the week starting on the announcement day itself and then calculated the difference. (We used data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive and GDELT’s television explorer, which splits daily news footage into 15-second clips and counts a mention as any clip that contains the candidate’s name.)
- Next we calculated the change in each candidate’s support in 2020 primary polls in the three-week period leading up to the announcement and the three-week period starting on launch day.2
- We excluded any candidates who aren’t “major” according to FiveThirtyEight’s definition, along with any who were not polled before their announcements and any (including Joe Biden) for whom there was less than three weeks of polling data available after launch. This left us with a total of 11 candidates.3
Once we’d done all that, we could see not only the trend we pointed out above, but also a few candidates who bucked expectations. O’Rourke, for example, got the largest spike in news coverage on the three networks after he declared (around 1,150 more clips), but he got only a relatively modest 2.6 percentage point bump in his polling average in the three weeks after his announcement. Warren, similarly, got a significant boost in coverage (more than 800 more clips) but just a 1.3-point polling bounce. On the other hand, Harris shot up in the polls by 7.6 percentage points despite a medium-size media boost (around 400 clips).
Unpacking the relationship between a candidate’s media coverage and performance in the polls is tricky. UCLA political science professor John Zaller argues that journalists try to allocate coverage in anticipation of how important they think a news event or candidate will be, factoring in both current popularity and their own expectations about how the candidates will perform in the future. But that’s where subjectiveness can creep in, including biases that journalists have about a candidate’s race and gender. And that can shape how a candidate is — or isn’t — covered.
Jennifer Cryer, who is a Stanford Ph.D. candidate and studies how gender and race affect political campaigns, told me that research has found that women of color in particular are less likely to receive as much media coverage as their political counterparts — which might help explain why the media coverage of Harris, a woman of color, did not anticipate her bump in the polls.4 (As you can see in the chart, three of the four candidates who got a bigger polling bump than we’d expect from the amount of media coverage they received are the nonwhite candidates.)
The tendency of reporters to give coverage priority to white candidates might also go some way toward explaining why the campaign kickoff for Warren, a white woman, attracted a disproportionate amount of attention from the media relative to her polling performance. (That Warren was arguably the first big-name candidate to officially get in the race — which she did on Dec. 31, 2018 — might also explain what drove the media interest in her.)
Also, not all media attention is positive. This analysis does not take into account the content of the media coverage that the candidates received after their campaigns were launched. Studies have found that coverage of women and nonwhite candidates tends to be more negative in tone and more critical of their viability as candidates. And Warren’s media coverage after her announcement, which included assessments of her “likability” and of the implications of her decision to release the results of a DNA test that she says proves she has Native American ancestry, may not have escaped this treatment. So it’s possible that negative coverage of Warren could explain some of her relative underperformance in the polls.
But what could be behind the media’s high level of interest in O’Rourke (and his underperformance in the polls)? He certainly isn’t the only white man in the race. Here, it seems that other intangible factors might be at play. Fundraising could be part of it — it is, after all, another important factor in determining media coverage — and the $6.1 million that O’Rourke’s campaign raised in its first 24 hours certainly captured reporters’ attention. Ultimately, this could be a case of a mismatch between the media’s and the public’s enthusiasm for a candidate.
Luckily for many candidates, any polling bumps or spikes in media attention that accompany a campaign kickoff are ephemeral. Candidates who received relatively little attention from reporters have opportunities later to make up for it — as Pete Buttigieg has shown. And media coverage decisions can — and do — change. But we know that even outlets that try to be objective about candidate coverage, such as FiveThirtyEight, aren’t immune from the criticism that they are giving more attention to some candidates than others.