How Much Does Media Coverage Affect Political Race Outcomes?

Feb 7, 2014

Former Gov. Crist's Wednesday appearance on CNN's "Piers Morgan Live" was one of many national TV appearances in the same week.
Credit CNN

Twenty-nine candidates are running to be Florida’s next governor—but most voters likely can’t name more than two or three of them. How much is the news media to blame for that name recognition gap? The answer depends on whom you ask.

The election is still about nine months away. But Florida Public Radio’s coverage of the governor’s race has already managed to earn us some criticism from at least one candidate’s supporters. When I did a story about Democratic candidates Charlie Crist and Nan Rich, a Libertarian voter tweeted at me, asking why I didn’t mention Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Adrian Wyllie. Wyllie says the omission is frustrating and familiar.

“When the media colludes, for lack of a better term, to exclude those Libertarian candidates, then the public doesn’t realize that they have that as an option, and they’re stuck in the same two-party duopoly,” he says.

Wyllie’s plea to Florida’s news outlets: “Start reporting on all candidates.”

So, I got Bruce Anderson on the line. He studies and teaches political communications at Florida Southern College.

I posed him this question: “Let’s hypothetically say that organizations like mine were going to give equal time to all of the candidates. What effect would that have on the outcome of the race?”

He answers, “It’s difficult to say, but I’d say probably none going in. This is a two-party system.”

Anderson says Wyllie has the causation backward. He says good news organizations gauge which candidates have the most voter interest and money raised and give them a bigger spotlight. Just look at the two Democrats in the race trying to unseat Republican Gov. Rick Scott. He says former state Sen. Rich barely gets mentioned, while former Republican Gov.-turned-Democrat Crist has been on a national media tour, appearing on Fox News’s “The O’Reilly Factor” and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in the same week.

Anderson says, “It’s hardly because the media has anointed Crist. They’re paying attention to Crist because Crist is the one that they should be paying attention to. I think responsible journalists are looking at the leader.”

But Anderson says it’s not impossible for underdogs to make a splash—think Ross Perot, he says. Still, Rich, running her first statewide race, says it’s an uphill battle against Crist’s name recognition.

“It’s somewhat frustrating but it’s natural,” she says. “I mean, I understand that he has a much higher profile than I have.”

She admits her platform of education, healthcare and the environment isn’t particularly splashy. But she says sometimes what shifts the attention is when the media dig up something bad about an opponent.

“You know, something happens and it’s out there in the news and you react to it or other people react to it. So, it’s hard to say what that issue will be,” she says.

For now, though, she says all she can do is keep traveling the state and meeting with as many voters as possible.