Expert Commentary

‘Horse race’ coverage of elections can harm voters, candidates and news outlets: Research

Our updated roundup of research looks at the consequences of one of the most common ways journalists cover elections — with a focus on who’s in the lead and who’s behind instead of policy issues.

horse race reporting research elections politics
(Clarence Alford/Pixabay)

This collection of research on horse race journalism, originally published in September 2019, has been updated with research on probabilistic forecasting and errors in interpreting opinion polls.

When journalists covering elections focus primarily on who’s winning or losing instead of policy issues — what’s known as horse race reporting — voters, candidates and the news industry itself suffer, a growing body of research has found.

Media scholars have studied horse race reporting for decades to better understand the impact of news stories that frame elections as a competitive game, relying heavily on public opinion polls and giving the most positive attention to frontrunners and underdogs gaining public support. It’s a common strategy for political news coverage in the U.S. and other parts of the globe.

Thomas E. Patterson, professor of government and the press at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, says election coverage often does not delve into policy issues and candidates’ stances on them. In fact, policy issues accounted for 10% of the news coverage of the 2016 presidential election, according to an analysis Patterson did as part of a research series that looks at journalists’ work leading up to and during the election. The bulk of the reporting he examined concentrated on who was winning and losing and why.

“The horserace has been the dominant theme of election news since the 1970s, when news organizations began to conduct their own election polls,” Patterson writes in his December 2016 working paper, “News Coverage of the 2016 General Election: How the Press Failed the Voters.” “Since then, polls have proliferated to the point where well over a hundred separate polls — more than a new poll each day — were reported in major news outlets during the 2016 general election.”

Academic research finds that horse race reporting is linked to:

  • Distrust in politicians.
  • Distrust of news outlets.
  • An uninformed electorate.
  • Inaccurate reporting of opinion poll data.

Horse race journalism can also:

  • Hurt female political candidates, who tend to focus on policy issues to build credibility.
  • Give an advantage to novel and unusual candidates.
  • Shortchange third-party candidates, who often are overlooked or ignored because their chances of winning are slim when compared with Republican and Democratic candidates.

Researchers have just started examining the impact of a new type of horse race journalism that has emerged in recent years: probabilistic forecasting. Whereas traditional horse race coverage focuses on unusual polls, political candidates losing or gaining public support, or speculation about who will win an election, some news outlets are able to conduct sophisticated analyses of data from multiple polls to more precisely predict the top candidates’ odds of winning.

A paper published in The Journal of Politics in 2020 indicates probabilistic forecasting “has fundamentally altered the political information environment” in ways that can both help and hurt voters and candidates. For example, these reports might make voters and candidates feel more confident about an election’s outcome. But if voters learn their preferred candidates have a high probability of winning, they might then decide they don’t need to submit their ballot, write the authors of that paper, led by Sean Jeremy Westwood, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College.

In the paper, “Projecting Confidence: How the Probabilistic Horse Race Confuses and Demobilizes the Public,” Westwood and his coauthors question whether this new form of horse race reporting might have influenced the 2016 presidential election, which Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was projected to win. They note that Democrats and Independents “expressed unusual confidence in a decisive 2016 election outcome — and that the same measure of confidence is associated with lower reported turnout.”

Horse race reporting helped catapult billionaire businessman Donald Trump to a lead position during the nominating phase of the 2016 presidential election, finds another paper in Patterson’s research series, “News Coverage of the 2016 Presidential Primaries: Horse Race Reporting Has Consequences.” Although Republican stalwarts initially opposed it, the GOP ultimately picked Trump as the party’s presidential nominee.

“The media’s tendency to allocate coverage based on winning and losing affects voters’ decisions,” Patterson writes. “The press’s attention to early winners, and its tendency to afford them more positive coverage than their competitors, is not designed to boost their chances, but that’s a predictable effect.”

The following academic studies, most of which were published in peer-reviewed journals, investigate the consequences of horse race reporting from multiple angles. For additional context, we included several studies that look at how journalists use opinion polls in their election stories.

If you need help understanding polls, read our tip sheet “11 Questions Journalists Should Ask About Public Opinion Polls.” For help interpreting poll results, please check out our tip sheet on reporting on margin of error.


The consequences of horse race reporting

Projecting Confidence: How the Probabilistic Horse Race Confuses and Demobilizes the Public
Sean Jeremy Westwood, Solomon Messing and Yphtach Lelkes. The Journal of Politics, 2020.

This paper examines problems associated with probabilistic forecasting — a type of horse race journalism that has grown more common in recent years. These forecasts “aggregate polling data into a concise probability of winning, providing far more conclusive information about the state of a race,” write authors Sean Jeremy Westwood, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, Solomon Messing, a senior engineering manager at Twitter, and Yphtach Lelkes, an associate professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers find that probabilistic forecasting discourages voting, likely because people often decide to skip voting when their candidate has a very high chance of winning or losing. They also learned this type of horse race reporting is more prominent in news outlets with left-leaning audiences, including FiveThirtyEight, The New York Times and HuffPost.

Westwood, Messing and Lelkes point out that probabilistic forecasting might have contributed to Clinton’s loss of the 2016 presidential election. They write that “forecasts reported win probabilities between 70% and 99%, giving Clinton an advantage ranging from 20% to 49% beyond 50:50 odds. Clinton ultimately lost by 0.7% in Pennsylvania, 0.2% in Michigan, 0.8% in Wisconsin, and 1.2% in Florida.”

The Consequences of Strategic News Coverage for Democracy: A Meta-Analysis
Alon Zoizner. Communication Research, 2021.

This paper examines what was known about the consequences of horse race journalism at the time it was written. Although the paper first appeared on the Communication Research journal’s website in 2018, it wasn’t published in an issue of the journal until 2021. In the academic article, Alon Zoizner, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Haifa, Israel, analyzes 32 studies published or released from 1997 to 2016 that examine the effects of “strategic news” coverage. He describes strategic news coverage as the “coverage of politics [that] often focuses on politicians’ strategies and tactics as well as their campaign performance and position at the polls.”

Among the key takeaways: This type of reporting elevates the public’s cynicism toward politics and the issues featured as part of that coverage.

“In other words,” Zoizner writes, “this coverage leads to a specific public perception of politics that is dominated by a focus on political actors’ motivations for gaining power rather than their substantive concerns for the common good.”

He adds that young people, in particular, are susceptible to the effects of strategic news coverage because they have limited experience with the democratic process. They “may develop deep feelings of mistrust toward political elites, which will persist throughout their adult lives,” Zoizner writes.

His analysis also reveals that this kind of reporting results in an uninformed electorate. The public receives less information about public policies and candidates’ positions on important issues.

“This finding erodes the media’s informative value because journalists cultivate a specific knowledge about politics that fosters political alienation rather than helping citizens make rational decisions based on substantive information,” the author writes. Framing politics as a game to be won “inhibits the development of an informed citizenship because the public is mostly familiar with the political rivalries instead of actually knowing what the substantive debate is about.”

Another important discovery: Strategic news coverage hurts news outlets’ reputations. People exposed to it “are more critical of news stories and consider them to be less credible, interesting, and of low quality,” Zoizner explains. “Strategic coverage will continue to be a part of the news diet but in parallel will lead citizens to develop higher levels of cynicism and criticism not only toward politicians but also toward the media.”

News Coverage of the 2016 Presidential Primaries: Horse Race Reporting Has Consequences
Thomas E. Patterson. Harvard Kennedy School working paper, 2016.

Horse race reporting gave Donald Trump an advantage during the 2016 presidential primary season, this working paper finds. Nearly 60% of the election news analyzed during this period characterized the election as a competitive game, with Trump receiving the most coverage of any candidate seeking the Republican nomination. In the final five weeks of the primary campaign, the press gave him more coverage than Democratic frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

“The media’s obsession with Trump during the primaries meant that the Republican race was afforded far more coverage than the Democratic race, even though it lasted five weeks longer,” writes Patterson, who looked at election news coverage provided by eight major print and broadcast outlets over the first five months of 2016. “The Republican contest got 63 percent of the total coverage between January 1 and June 7, compared with the Democrats’ 37 percent — a margin of more than three to two.”

Patterson’s paper takes a detailed look at the proportion and tone of coverage for Republican and Democratic candidates during each stage of the primary campaign. He notes that the structure of the nominating process lends itself to horse race reporting. “Tasked with covering fifty contests crammed into the space of several months,” he writes, “journalists are unable to take their eyes or minds off the horse race or to resist the temptation to build their narratives around the candidates’ position in the race.”

Patterson explains how horse race journalism affects candidates’ images and can influence voter decisions. “The press’s attention to early winners, and its tendency to afford them more positive coverage than their competitors, is not designed to boost their chances, but that’s a predictable effect,” he writes. He points out that a candidate who’s performing well usually is portrayed positively while one who isn’t doing as well “has his or her weakest features put before the public.”

Patterson asserts that primary election coverage is “the inverse of what would work best for voters.” “Most voters don’t truly engage the campaign until the primary election stage,” he writes. “As a result, they enter the campaign nearly at the point of decision, unarmed with anything approaching a clear understanding of their choices. They are greeted by news coverage that’s long on the horse race and short on substance … It’s not until later in the process, when the race is nearly settled, that substance comes more fully into the mix.”

What Predicts the Game Frame? Media Ownership, Electoral Context, and Campaign News
Johanna Dunaway and Regina G. Lawrence. Political Communication, 2015.

Corporate-owned and large-chain newspapers were more likely to publish stories that frame elections as a competitive game than newspapers with a single owner, according to this study. The authors find that horse race coverage was most prevalent in close races and during the weeks leading up to an election.

Researchers Johanna Dunaway, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University, and Regina G. Lawrence, associate dean of the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication in Portland, looked at print news stories about elections for governor and U.S. Senate in 2004, 2006 and 2008. They analyzed 10,784 articles published by 259 newspapers between Sept. 1 and Election Day of those years.

Their examination reveals that privately-owned, large-chain publications behave similarly to publications controlled by shareholders. “We expected public shareholder-controlled news organizations to be most likely to resort to game-framed news because of their tendency to emphasize the profit motive over other goals; in fact, privately owned large chains are slightly more likely to use the game frame in their campaign news coverage at mean levels of electoral competition,” Dunaway and Lawrence write.

They note that regardless of a news outlet’s ownership structure, journalists and audiences are drawn to the horse race in close races. “Given a close race, newspapers of many types will tend to converge on a game-framed election narrative and, by extension, stories focusing on who’s up/who’s down will crowd out stories about the policy issues they are presumably being elected to address,” the authors write. “And, as the days-’til-election variable shows, this pattern will intensify across the course of a close race.”

Gender Bias and Mainstream Media
Meredith Conroy. Chapter in the book Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency, 2015.

In this book chapter, Meredith Conroy, an associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, draws on earlier research that finds horse race coverage is more detrimental to women than men running for elected office. She explains that female candidates often emphasize their issue positions as a campaign strategy to bolster their credibility.

“If the election coverage neglects the issues, women may miss out on the opportunity to assuage fears about their perceived incompetency,” she writes. She adds that when the news “neglects substantive coverage, the focus turns to a focus on personality and appearance.”

“An overemphasis on personality and appearance is detrimental to women, as it further delegitimizes their place in the political realm, more so than for men, whose negative traits are still often masculine and thus still relevant to politics,” she writes.

Contagious Media Effects: How Media Use and Exposure to Game-Framed News Influence Media Trust
David Nicolas Hopmann, Adam Shehata and Jesper Strömbäck. Mass Communication and Society, 2015.

How does framing politics as a strategic game influence the public’s trust in journalism? This study of Swedish news coverage suggests it lowers trust in all forms of print and broadcast news media — except tabloid newspapers.

The authors note that earlier research indicates people who don’t trust mainstream media often turn to tabloids for news. “By framing politics as a strategic game and thereby undermining trust not only in politics but also in the media, the media may thus simultaneously weaken the incentives for people to follow the news in mainstream media and strengthen the incentives for people to turn to alternative news sources,” write the authors, David Nicolas Hopmann, an associate professor at University of Southern Denmark, Adam Shehata, a senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg, and Jesper Strömbäck, a professor at the University of Gothenburg.

The three researchers analyzed how four daily newspapers and three daily “newscasts” covered the 2010 Swedish national election campaign. They also looked at the results of surveys aimed at measuring people’s attitudes toward the Swedish news media in the months leading up to and immediately after the 2010 election. The sample comprised 4,760 respondents aged 18 to 74.

Another key takeaway of this study: The researchers discovered that when people read tabloid newspapers, their trust in them grows as does their distrust of the other media. “Taken together, these findings suggest that the mistrust caused by the framing of politics as a strategic game is contagious in two senses,” they write. “For all media except the tabloids, the mistrust toward politicians implied by the framing of politics as a strategic game is extended to the media-making use of this particular framing, whereas in the case of the tabloids, it is extended to other media.”

How journalists use opinion polls

Transforming Stability into Change: How the Media Select and Report Opinion Polls
Erik Gahner Larsen and Zoltán Fazekas. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 2020.

This paper demonstrates journalists’ difficulty interpreting public opinion polls. It finds news outlets often reported changes in voter intent when no statistically significant change had actually occurred.

The authors write that they examined political news in Denmark because news outlets there provide relatively neutral coverage and don’t have partisan leanings. They looked at news coverage of polls of voter intent conducted by eight polling firms for eight political parties from 2011 to 2015. Their analysis focuses on 4,147 news articles published on the websites of nine newspapers and two national TV companies.

The researchers learned that journalists tended to report on polls they perceived as showing the largest changes in public opinion. Single outlier polls also got a lot of attention. Not only did many news articles erroneously report a change in public opinion, they often quoted politicians reacting as though a change had occurred, potentially misleading audiences further. Journalists also avoided reporting information on the margin of error for the poll results.

In most cases, the news stories should have been about stability in public opinion, note the authors, Erik Gahner Larsen, senior scientific adviser at the Conflict Analysis Research Centre at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, and Zoltán Fazekas, an associate professor of business and politics at Copenhagen Business School.

“However, 58 percent of the articles mention change in their title,” they write. “Furthermore, while 82 percent of the polls have no statistically significant changes, 86 percent of the articles does not mention any considerations related to uncertainty.”

The ‘Nate Silver Effect’ on Political Journalism: Gatecrashers, Gatekeepers, and Changing Newsroom Practices Around Coverage of Public Opinion Polls
Benjamin Toff. Journalism, 2019.

This study, based on in-depth interviews with 41 U.S. journalists, media analysts and public opinion pollsters, documents changes in how news outlets cover public opinion. It reveals, among other things, “evidence of eroding internal newsroom standards about which polls to reference in coverage and how to adjudicate between surveys,” writes the author, Benjamin Toff, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Toff notes that journalists’ focus on polling aggregator websites paired with the growing availability of online survey data has resulted in an overconfidence in polls’ ability to predict election outcomes — what one reporter he interviewed called the “Nate Silver effect.”

Both journalists and polling professionals expressed concern about journalists’ lack of training and their reliance on poll firms’ reputations as evidence of poll quality rather than the poll’s sampling design and other methodological details. Toff, who completed the interviews between October 2014 and May 2015, points out that advocacy organizations can take advantage of the situation to get reporters to unknowingly disseminate their messages.

The study also finds that younger journalists and those who work for online news organizations are less likely to consider it their job to interpret polls for the public. One online journalist, for example, told Toff that readers should help determine the reliability of poll results and that “in a lot of ways Twitter is our ombudsman.”

Toff calls on academic researchers to help improve coverage of public opinion, in part by offering clearer guidance on best practices for news reporting. “The challenge of interpreting public opinion is a collective one,” he writes, “and scholarship which merely chastises journalists for their shortcomings does not offer a productive path forward.”

News Reporting of Opinion Polls: Journalism and Statistical Noise
Yosef Bhatti and Rasmus Tue Pedersen. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 2016.

This paper, which also looks at news coverage of opinion polls in Denmark, finds that Danish journalists don’t do a great job reporting on opinion polls. Most journalists whose work was examined don’t seem to understand how a poll’s margin of error affects its results. Also, they often fail to explain to their audiences the statistical uncertainty of poll results, according to the authors, Yosef Bhatti of Roskilde University and Rasmus Tue Pedersen of the Danish Center for Social Science Research.

The two researchers analyzed the poll coverage provided by seven Danish newspapers before, during and after the 2011 parliamentary election campaign — a 260-day period from May 9, 2011 to Jan. 23, 2012. A total of 1,078 articles were examined.

Bhatti and Pedersen find that journalists often interpreted two poll results as different from each other when, considering the poll’s uncertainty, it actually was unclear whether one result was larger or smaller than the other. “A large share of the interpretations made by the journalists is based on differences in numbers that are so small that they are most likely just statistical noise,” they write.

They note that bad poll reporting might be the result of journalists’ poor statistical skills. But it “may also be driven by journalists’ and editors’ desires for interesting horse race stories,” the authors add. “Hence, the problem may not be a lack of methodological skills but may also be caused by a lack of a genuine adherence to the journalistic norms of reliability and fact-based news. If this is the case, unsubstantiated poll stories may be a more permanent and unavoidable feature of modern horse race coverage.”

Looking for more information on horse race reporting and opinion polls? Check out our write-up of a study that finds that academic scholars are more likely to be included in horse race stories than issue coverage. Our collection of research on opinion polls digs into such things as polling errors and the relationship between media coverage and polling.