Campaigning for the 2014 US mid-term elections has been largely negative and confrontational. Candidates have depended less on traditional media to get their political message across, relying instead on data-driven journalism, statistics, polarization and attack ads.
Recent research provides new insights into these trends. Since the last presidential campaign, in 2012, political coverage has been all about probabilities. This is due to Nate Silver, a statistician who developed a prediction model for the New York Times and ultimately was right about every single one of the fifty state results. Silver was then lured away by ESPN, the US-based global and satellite channel, which now hosts his Five Thirty Eight platform, but similar analyses can be found at the New York Times, the Washington Post and Politico.
Michael Butterworth of the Ohio University traced and examined this trend from pundits to probabilities in a recent study. He concludes that this focus on statistics established a new rhetorical arsenal for campaign reporting, undermining the influence of traditional commentators on campaign coverage. The statistical news frame reinforces tendencies in political reporting that media researchers have been following for a while: horserace journalism that is more interested in campaign strategy than in highlighting what a candidate stands for. While critics lament that this kind of reporting fails to educate the public about relevant political issues, empirical studies have shown that the audience actually enjoys horserace journalism.
According to an analysis by the Washington Post, 80 percent of all campaign ads attack the political opponent. The consequences of negative campaigning can be evaluated from two perspectives: either with regard to their impact on voter mobilization or to their actual influence on voters’ choices. Yanna Krupnikov of Stony Brook University has found that negative campaigning can lead to higher participation, but only when the timing is right. Voters who have already decided on a candidate tend to get frustrated with negative ads and stay at home on election day. In contrast, undecided voters tend to get motivated by negative ads for casting their votes. Positive aspects of negative campaigning were also found by John Geer (Vanderbilt University) and Lynn Vavreck (University of California, Los Angeles). They conclude in their recent study that attack ads lead to a better understanding of ideological differences between candidates.
Other scholars, however, are concerned with disconcerting consequences of polarized and partisan campaign climate. Using a representative survey of the presidential elections 2008 Bryan Gervais of the University of Texas, San Antonio, examined whether incivility in radio and TV coverage leads to uncivil comments of voters. As his findings show, there clearly exists a correlation. Gervais emphasizes that the media must not solely be blamed for their users’ uncivil behavior. Yet, polarizing coverage fires up emotions, he warns.
One of the multiple effects of polarization is that Republicans and Democrats get their political news from different channels. The latest confirmation of this trend comes from a recent study by the Pew Research Center. It shows that conservatives prefer Fox News while liberals are drawn to the New York Times and National Public Radio. Moreover, young Americans use entirely different sources, for example comedy shows like The Daily Show with John Steward or The Colbert Report, in order to stay up-to-date with political news. A new study by the University of Pennsylvania shows the educational effects of this infotainment. The researchers have found that viewers of The Colbert Show know more about campaign financing than the average news consumer. During the last presidential campaign Stephen Colbert made a big issue out of the new campaign financing regulation benefitting corporate donors. Eventually he even founded his own political action committee.
Whatever the outcome of the midterm elections—whether Republicans win the Senate or not—larger trends like attack ads, polarization and data-driven horserace journalism will likely stay on the political agenda.
pic credit: FiveThirtyEight
This article was first published in Der Standard