Media trend of “horse race” election coverage misses the point
A Q&A with political scientist Dino Christenson
By Susan Seligson | BU Today
Dino Christenson, a CAS professor of political science and an expert on American political behavior, worries about the media trend to cover the presidential election as a horse race without focusing on issues and context. Photo by Dave Green
Few people have watched this year’s presidential election with more interest than Dino Christenson. A College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of political science, Christenson studies American electoral behavior, presidential campaigns and how the media covers them, survey research design, and data science. He has been using the Donald Trump–Hillary Clinton face-off, with all its rancor, as a teaching tool in his classes on US media and politics this semester. Every election is different, he says, but much about the current election, unhinged as it seems, conforms to what he has discovered in past presidential elections. That said, he notes that there are some aspects of this year’s contest that make it unique.
A faculty affilliate at the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, Christenson has published numerous studies in journals, including American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, and Political Behavior. He is working on two books, The Visible Primary: How Modern Presidential Nominations Remake Candidates, Insiders, and Mass Coalitions, and with CAS colleague Douglas Kriner, Informal Constraint: Public Opinion and Unilateral Presidential Action.
BU Today spoke with Christenson about how this year’s presidential race is — and isn’t — the same as previous ones, the efficacy of polls, and the influence fact-checking has on the electorate.
In terms of mass political psychology and the shaping of public opinion, is this election unusual, and if so, in what ways?
Christenson: Obviously, every election is different from the ones before it, but I don’t see the factors shaping public opinion or political behavior as having changed.
Has Donald Trump’s campaign blown up the conventional political model, in the sense that he uses free media as effectively as paid — if not more so?
Perhaps you could make an argument for this in the primary election, but it is a harder sell in the general election. Trump is dominating free media and there are a lot more pro-Clinton ads out there at this point, but the situation is unusual not because the Trump team is eschewing advertising, which they are not, but because conservative outside groups have not put out ads for him to the same degree as they did for Romney in 2012.
We read a numbing amount of poll data. How much, and in what ways, do these numbers influence potential voters?
There is some evidence of bandwagon effects in the literature, where individuals switch to the side they think will win. My sense is that these effects are pretty small, since some people don’t follow polls, many don’t completely trust them, they change over the course of the election, and in close elections you can find polls pointing in either direction.
In your opinion, how malleable are American voters?
Not very. Party identification is consistently one of the strongest predictors of vote choice: about 90 percent of the voting public leans to one party or the other, and this attachment is fairly stable. This doesn’t mean that campaigns and candidates don’t matter, since for one thing, there have been some changes in mass party identification over time, and candidates may have motivated them. Also, swing state independents could potentially be crucial in a tight election — though they are small in number and much less likely to turn out than partisans. Note that the lack of malleability is reflected in the activity of campaigns insofar as much of their ground game is concerned with getting voters who support their candidate registered and to the polls. Thus, persuading potential voters to vote can be more important than persuading them to prefer a candidate, since the latter has already been decided for most.
Is polling as rigorous as it used to be, in terms of sample sizes, margin of error, and voter cohorts included? Has the primacy of cell phones damaged polling? Are shrinking media outlets more likely now to call surveys polls?
There are certainly a lot of polling organizations out there today. And different pollsters have different track records — that is, different histories of being more or less correct. Much of this depends on their sampling methodologies, which differ across pollsters, but should all have the objective of collecting a representative sample of respondents from the population of voters.
A number of issues have developed that make finding a representative sample difficult, especially falling response rates to survey requests. In addition, as you noted, the steady decline in land lines has in the past made certain demographic groups that rely exclusively on cell phones, like young voters, harder to contact, but recent advances in random digit dialing to include cell phone numbers mitigate some of these concerns.
I generally give a few recommendations to political observers about polls. First, try not to read too much into any one poll, but instead look at the average of multiple polls for a good understanding of the true value. Second, polls become better indicators as we get closer to the election, so don’t put a lot of trust in early polls. Third, be wary of election polls that don’t report a margin of error statistic or use probability sampling. Some internet polls, for example, rely on samples of opt-in or voluntary respondents that may not resemble the actual population.
What would you change about media coverage of the elections? What, in particular, about the coverage makes you cringe?
Oh, where to begin…? I teach a course on Media Politics, in which we spend a semester critiquing the media’s coverage of politics and campaigns, in particular. As my students can tell you, one of the things I enjoy pointing out is the media’s obsession with the horse race, who’s up and who’s down in the latest poll, or who won or lost the last debate, all at the expense of sophisticated discussions of the candidates’ policy proposals.
What do you think of the barrage of fact-checking, some of it in real time, in this presidential race? Is it valuable? Is it even-handed?
Fact-checking is one of the most important duties of the media, but one that frequently gets short shrift relative to more easily digestible and evocative event coverage.
Having said that, it is important to note that the abundance of scholarship suggests that learning we hold incorrect political information does not do much, if anything at all, to change our views. Once we have ascribed to a certain understanding about politics, we are reluctant to change our minds about it, even when exposed to evidence to the contrary. Indeed, some scholars have even found a backlash effect, where those exposed to facts contradicting their previously held understanding actually dig in deeper — believing their wrong information to be true even more strongly than before. As such, even if the facts can be checked, the political misinformation the public holds is extremely difficult to correct.
Moreover, in a diverse media environment where a number of political views are represented, we can seek out information in accord with our preexisting partisan and ideological preferences. That is, it is easy enough to avoid being confronted with views in the media that don’t match our own. Whenever possible we try to avoid cognitive dissonance; that is, we prefer to have information that reinforces our political preferences since it makes us uncomfortable to process information that is contrary to them. Thus we frequently get information that just reinforces our own preexisting beliefs.
In the end, with the Electoral College, a handful of states will determine the next president. Where should voters watch carefully on election night?
I’ve got my eyes on Florida, Ohio, Nevada, North Carolina, and Iowa. North Carolina should be particularly exciting since it is likely to hinge on get-out-the-vote efforts.