As the 2020 presidential ponies break from the gate and the political press charts their positions—leading the pack, on the rail, running in the mud—critics of horse-race coverage are sounding their usual condemnations of the genre.
Speaking Sunday on CNN’s Reliable Sources, Associated Press Executive Editor Sally Buzbee urged the media “to spend less time, or perhaps no time at all, on horse-race polls that project forward to the 2020 presidential election.” Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan concurred and quoted approvingly from horse-race antagonist Jay Rosen, who would have campaign journalists ditch who’s up/who’s down for more reporting out the “citizens agenda.” Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin, too, just slammed horse-race journalism in a Columbia Journalism Review piece about campaign cliches. Meanwhile, policy wonk Bruce Bartlett knocked the Washington Post for assigning baseball reporter Chelsea Janes to the 2020 campaign, saying the personnel move proved that “the horse race is all that matters to the major media.”
Horse-race coverage trivializes politics into a game or a sporting event, the critics say. It nudges substantive policy coverage out of the public eye and encourages voters to board the leader’s bandwagon. Reporters love horse-race stories, the thinking goes, because they can easily turn polling data into quick copy. It’s not just press critics dumping on hate horseracism, to borrow Brian Montopoli‘s piquant term. Politicians from Jimmy Carter to Bob Dole have claimed that the “who’s winning” stories contribute to voter apathy. (As a rule, the greatest opponents of horse-race coverage are the ones trailing in the polls.)
Horseracism might be scary if the campaign press corps produced nothing but who’s up/who’s down stories. But that’s never been the case. American newspapers overflow with detailed stories about the issues and the candidates’ positions. At the end of the 2008 campaign, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell sorted Post political coverage over the previous year and found 1,295 horse-race stories compared with 594 stories about the issues. This ratio seems defensible, seeing as the who’s up/who’s down of the horse race can change daily. Issue stories don’t need that sort of constant revisiting, especially if they’re done well.
Regular handicapping—especially in the days of FiveThirtyEight, when polling analysis has become more robust—provides another campaign service. Like it or not, political campaigns are contests in which the prize goes to the victor and the loser goes home. It’s not antidemocratic for journalists to measure support by checking polls, campaign donations, audience size and endorsements. In fact, such signaling makes democracy possible. Especially in the opening days of a candidacy, a politician must alert potential supporters of his existing supporters. Not many voters will join a bandwagon that doesn’t have followers or wheels.
Horse-race coverage also helps clarify the voters’ minds when candidates converge on the issues, as happens regularly in the Democratic presidential derbies. If there’s little difference between the views of the candidate you favor and the leader’s, horse-race coverage helps optimize your vote by steering you toward the politician most likely to implement your views. Pundits aren’t the only ones who worry about a candidate’s electability.
Primary contests almost demand horse-race coverage, as Greg Marx suggested in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2011. “If you start from the understanding that important party decisions are made before the voters weigh in, the question ‘who’s winning?’—or, alternately, ‘who is the party choosing, and which people are making that choice?’—becomes one of the best ways to give ordinary citizens who want to become more active political participants the information they need,” Marx continues.
By giving voters a window on the closed world of insider politics, horse-race stories help focus reader attention on the races. Without the work of election handicappers, coverage would come to resemble an endless series of policy white papers that nobody reads. The presidential campaign has another 22 months to run, leaving plenty of time and space to explore the contest from multiple perspectives. So let my commandment go forth and embolden the campaign press corps! Ignore the critics! Feed the horses!