Beyond the horse race : the content and consequence of issue news in American elections



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While the tendency of journalists to focus on the “horse race” aspects of political campaigns is well documented, less is known about the media’s coverage of issues in American elections. I argue that issue news is more prevalent and relevant that often considered and demonstrate how it has consequences for public opinion. Augmenting the traditional journalistic explanations of news content with an explicit consideration of political factors, I show that issues appear in the news more frequently than is commonly assumed and that their coverage is affected by the political environment. Ultimately, the effects of news content on the public are contingent on candidate communications and individual-level factors. In doing so, I conduct three empirical investigations. First, in a study of television and news coverage of the 1996 and 2000 presidential campaigns, I find the media’s willingness to reflect candidate issue emphases fluctuates across the course of the campaign and in response to candidate behavior. Second, the favorability of news coverage, as evidenced in the 1992-2000 presidential elections, is affected not only by conventional explanations of media content, but by the issue-handling reputations of the political parties. When the news focuses on an issue “owned” by a candidate’s party, his coverage is more positive than when his opponent’s issues command the media’s attention. Finally, issue news is not without consequence. Using an experimental design during the 2006 Texas gubernatorial election, I find the media to be more influential agenda setters than candidates. Not surprisingly, the strongest effects emerge when news reports and campaign communications converge on the same topic, suggesting the benefit to candidates when the media reflect their issue priorities. The effects also depend on a voter’s partisanship and trust in the media. The result of this dissertation is a clearer understanding of the role of the news media in campaigns. At one level, the project speaks to the literature on journalist behavior and the content of election news. In addition, the findings broaden our understanding of the flow of information in elections and the critical linkages between political elites and the masses, the lynchpin of the democratic process.