Expert Commentary

‘Horse race’ coverage of elections: What to avoid and how to get it right

It's unlikely journalists will stop covering elections as a competitive game, despite researchers' warnings that it can harm voters and others. Two scholars offer ideas for at least improving so-called 'horse race' reporting.

horse race reporting election news coverage

We updated this tip sheet on horse race’ coverage, originally published in April 2022, on Oct. 23, 2023 to include new hyperlinks and other information.

U.S. newsrooms have been amply criticized for years for covering elections as a competitive game, with a focus on who’s winning and losing instead of on candidates’ policy positions. Despite research documenting the various ways so-called “horse race” reporting can hurt voters, candidates and even news outlets themselves, it’s unlikely journalists will stop.

In fact, horse race coverage of elections has grown more common over the years, thanks in part to the dramatic rise in public opinion polls, which allow journalists to track and quantify voter support for specific candidates.

Harvard Kennedy School media scholar Thomas E. Patterson, who has studied election coverage for decades, has warned that news outlets fail their audiences when they prioritize poll results and campaign strategy over discussions about candidate qualifications, leadership styles and policy positions.

Horse race coverage is partly to blame for “the car wreck that was the 2016 election,” Patterson writes in a December 2016 working paper, “News Coverage of the 2016 General Election: How the Press Failed the Voters.”

“In the 2016 general election, policy issues accounted for 10% of the news coverage — less than a fourth the space given to the horserace,” writes Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

While many scholars and industry leaders argue news outlets should curb or eliminate horse race coverage, some acknowledge they would have fewer concerns if news stories were more accurate. Multiple studies published over the last decade point out problems in the way journalists interpret and report the results of opinion polls.

“We’re not necessarily against horse race journalism, but we should be thinking about, ‘Why does it look the way it does?’ and ‘How can it be improved?” says researcher Erik Gahner Larsen, who studies journalists’ use of opinion polls and co-wrote a book about it, Reporting Public Opinion: How the Media Turns Boring Polls into Biased News, released in 2021.

We asked Patterson and Larsen for their ideas on how newsrooms could improve horse race coverage. Both shared insights and advice on what journalists should avoid and how to get it right.

WHAT TO AVOID: Reporting on any opinion poll you come across.
HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Scrutinize and compare opinion polls to gauge their quality. Rely most often on those conducted by reputable pollsters.

Patterson and Larsen urge journalists to pay attention to the details of a poll, including the questions asked, when the poll was conducted, how many people participated and how well that group represents the population as a whole. When comparing polls, keep in mind many factors can lead to differences in results.

For example, the way pollsters word their questions and the order in which they ask them can affect how people respond. Timing also can influence results. Two polls conducted just days or weeks apart can get drastically different results, especially if a significant event altered the public’s opinion or perception about the subject of the polls.

Patterson suggests journalists rely on poll results from firms with a long history of high-quality work and use caution when covering results from entities with less experience and expertise. He identifies these as reputable organizations that conduct national polls in the U.S.: 

WHAT TO AVOID: Focusing on a single opinion poll — especially outliers — without providing context.

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: When covering an individual poll, put its findings into perspective by noting historic trends and what other recent polls have found. Consider combining poll results and reporting averages to give audiences the most accurate picture of public sentiment.

“Don’t just cover one, but look at the full picture,” Larsen says. “Acknowledge the existence of other opinion polls. How does [this poll] compare to long-term trends?”

He advises against overplaying outliers — polls with results that differ substantially from or even contradict the findings of most other polls. While journalists and audiences might find polls showing major changes more interesting, their findings probably are not reliable and might be a statistical fluke, Larsen explains.

Combining poll results and reporting on averages would offer audiences the best understanding of public opinion at a given point in time. Only some news organizations have the technical expertise to perform such analyses, however.

For journalists who need help calculating weighted averages, Larsen recommends reaching out to a pollster or statistician.

WHAT TO AVOID: Covering poll results without taking into account the poll’s margin of error.
HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Learn what a margin of error is and how it relates to polling and poll results. Make sure news stories featuring poll results reflect their margins of error.

The margin of error, typically expressed as a range of numbers, indicates how likely the opinions expressed by people who participated in an opinion poll reflect the opinions of the population as a whole.

When journalists ignore or overlook a poll’s margin of error — the topic of this journalism tip sheet — their coverage often misrepresents the results. One of the most common mistakes journalists make: Reporting that a particular political candidate has more or less voter support than another when, in fact, considering the poll’s margin of error, it’s simply too close to tell.

For example, let’s say a polling firm asks a nationally representative sample of U.S voters whether they would choose Candidate A or Candidate B in an election. Let’s also say 51% of those voters pick Candidate A and 49% select Candidate B and the poll’s margin of error is 4%. Many journalists would report that most voters prefer Candidate A or that Candidate A has the lead, neither of which is correct.

The correct interpretation of this poll: If this polling firm had asked the same question of every registered voter in the U.S., the actual share of all voters who prefer Candidate A likely falls somewhere between 47% to 55% and the actual percentage preferring Candidate B likely ranges between 45% and 53%. In this case, journalists should report that it’s unclear which candidate has greater support. It’s also accurate to say the two candidates are “statistically tied.”

When Larsen and a fellow researcher studied news coverage of polls in Denmark, they learned that journalists there tended to focus on polls they perceived as showing the biggest changes. In the resulting paper, published in 2020, Larsen and his colleague note that most of the 4,147 print and TV news stories they reviewed had erroneous descriptions of differences in poll results.

Often, journalists reported changes in poll results when no change actually occurred, says Larsen, senior scientific adviser at the Conflict Analysis Research Centre at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom.

He encourages journalists to ask experts for help describing poll results.

“I think that it’s good advice to say go to political scientists and experts and statisticians — when in doubt, its good to reach out to professionals,” he says. “It can easily be complicated stuff.”

WHAT TO AVOID: Assuming that simply cutting coverage of opinion polls will improve election news and lead to a more informed electorate.
HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Recognize that horse race reporting takes several forms and audiences seek it out because they’re drawn to competitions. Make horse race coverage more valuable by incorporating information voters need to make their choices.

National election coverage focuses heavily on opinion polls, but at the state and local level, polling is far less common. In those races, journalists use other methods to measure public support and answer the ever-present questions “Who’s winning?” and “Who’s losing?”

One way they do that is by monitoring candidates’ fundraising activities and periodically comparing how much money they have raised and spent. Another way to gauge who’s ahead: Tracking candidates’ success in drawing support from influential community leaders, legislators and groups such as teacher unions and law enforcement associations.

In some parts of the U.S., local organizations hold straw polls, either online or at in-person events, to get a sense of who voters favor. Local newsrooms sometimes report the results of these informal vote tallies.

Over the years, journalism organizations such as the Poynter Institute and industry critics such as New York Magazine columnist Ed Kilgore and pollster Mark Blumenthal have offered ideas for improving horse race journalism in its various forms.

Blumenthal, the former senior polling editor for The Huffington Post, suggests news outlets incorporate coverage of candidates’ qualifications and policy proposals into their horse race coverage.

The reason audiences seek out horse race stories is because they find them more interesting than stories summarizing candidates’ issue positions, he writes in a piece published by NBC News. He adds that journalists should “use the drama of the horse race to draw readers into coverage that connects campaign strategies to the underlying contrasts (on issues, qualifications, leadership styles) between the candidates.”

“If a story attracts readers or viewers interested in ‘who is going to win,’ how well does that story highlight the debate between the candidates?” Blumenthal writes. “How well does it use the tools of its particular medium (hyperlinks, sidebars or on-air references to Web site URLs) to promote stories or resources that give uncertain voters ‘what they need to know’ to make better decisions?”

Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar and writing instructor at Poynter, has recommended political journalists look to their colleagues who cover sports for ideas on how to revamp horse race reporting.

In “In Defense of the Horse Race,” published on Poynter’s website in 2008, Clark praises The Boston Globe’s Super Bowl coverage, pointing out that football fans interact energetically with the Globe’s website. It offers traditional coverage of the game event as well as opportunities for audience members to share opinions and engage with one another.

“What if we imagined the coverage of Super Tuesday the way we experience the Super Bowl?,” Clark asks.

He writes that journalists could use horse race coverage to grab audiences’ attention and direct them toward more in-depth coverage.

“If the contest is taut, competitive and exciting, we’ll sit riveted to find out what will happen next,” he writes.

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