File JOHNSONT PRIMARY
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4 Aug 1993
JOHNSONT PRIMARY 93 RTVJ Net coverage of "invisible" primaries
Moving to the Front of the Bus?: Network Coverage of the
Invisible Primaries during the 1988 and 1992 Elections
By Thomas Johnson and Joe Foote
Southern Illinois University
Most campaign research focuses on one election, and on
either the primaries or the general election. This study
examined network coverage of the major Democratic candidates
during the two years before the 1988 and 1992 nominating
campaigns to determine if any coverage patterns emerged.
This study found that while the networks ran significantly
more election stories in the 1988 preprimaries than in 1992,
the pattern of coverage was similar in these two elections.
Coverage during both campaigns increased sharply in the
December before the nominating campaign began. Eventual
nominees Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton also emerged from
the rest of the pack in that month. This study suggests,
then, that the December before the primary season is a
watershed month. It is at this point where the coverage
coalesces around a few individuals in anticipation of the
Moving to the Front of the Bus?: Network Coverage of the
Invisible Primaries During the 1988 and 1992 Elections
As the power of the political party machinery to
influence the presidential nomination process has continued
to wane, television has emerged as the main platform on
which candidates present their message to the voters--much
to the chagrin of newspaper reporters. As one veteran print
reporter lamented as he watched television camera crews
muscle ahead of big city newspaper reporters to the front of
the candidate's bus, "The cold essence of presidential
campaigning has become the television camera
lens...Reporters for newspapers and magazines have been
nudged, figuratively and literally to the back of the bus by
the steady, inexorable encroachment of television."
While researchers and political pundits have noted that
the media have increasingly tailored their campaigns to suit
television throughout the election, most studies have
concentrated on the influence of the media during the
primaries and general election campaign. Few studies have
examined television coverage during what researcher Arthur
Hadley characterizes as the "invisible primaries"--the
period before the nominating process begins--even though
observers note that the media have their greatest potential
influence on the electorate during the preprimaries and the
early primaries when voters' knowledge of most candidates
and of important campaign issues are at their lowest ebb.
This study will examine network coverage of the major
declared Democratic candidates during the two years before
the 1988 and 1992 nominating campaigns to determine if any
coverage patterns emerge.
During the invisible primaries, candidates try to
establish their credibility as viable candidates and try to
gather the resources needed to wage a successful nominating
campaign: donations, endorsements, volunteers and media
Generally, a candidate cannot even make the list of
serious candidates unless he or she is dubbed by the media
as a presidential hopeful. Television, along with national
newspapers and magazines, act as the Great Mentioner.
Political reporters from the major media size up those who
seek to be president and judge which ones are presidential
timber. Those candidates judged by the major media to be
serious candidates are treated by pollsters, party activists
and other reporters as such. Candidates not considered
viable are eliminated from the campaign before the selection
process begins. Their names may appear on ballots, but they
are not listed in polls, they are not invited to campaign
events such as debates and are not covered by the media.
Past studies indicate that political reporters from
major newspapers and newsmagazines play the initial role in
determining who should be considered as serious candidates
for the presidency because these writers cover Washington
regularly and their opinions are respected. Television
relies on the print media to decide which candidates to
cover. However, television ultimately determines which
candidates will be viewed as serious. Because the public
gets most of its campaign information from television, TV
coverage is the main way hopefuls can establish themselves
as viable candidates. Therefore, one of the main focuses of
candidates during the preprimaries is to get free mentions
on TV news and talk shows.
Second, television and other media do not distribute
coverage equally among the serious candidates. Rather they
perform what Robinson and Sheehan have characterized as
"journalistic triage." Candidates are rated as
front-runners, challengers and hopeless cases based on such
factors as poll standings, organizational and financial
strength, ability to gain endorsements and performance in
debates and straw polls. This "triage" influences amount
and tone of coverage and ultimately the selection process.
Those candidates judged to be front runners or top
challengers will be showered with attention, most of it
positive. On the other hand, those labeled as "hopeless
cases" will be largely ignored by the media. What coverage
they receive is "death watch coverage"--stories that monitor
the poor health of their campaigns. The media, then, can
contribute to a self-fulfilling prophesy. Those given heavy
coverage can expect their poll standings to rise even
further. Those ignored by the press as hopeless cases can
expect their standings in the polls to slide and may have
difficulty attracting the workers and dollars needed to
support a viable campaign.
Most studies concentrate on one election. But by
restricting attention to coverage in one campaign, it is
difficult to determine if results represent a pattern or are
unique to that campaign. This study will examine preprimary
coverage for the Democrats during 1986-87 for the 1988
campaign and 1990-91 for the 1992 election.
The two invisible primary seasons shared several
similarities. In both elections, most of the candidates
were little known. Political pundits, in fact, poked fun at
the candidates' obscurity, calling them the "seven
dwarfs" in 1988 and the "six pack" in 1992. In both
elections a clear front-runner did not emerge until the end
of the preprimaries or the beginning of the primary season.
Dukakis and Clinton emerged from the pack as potential
front-runners when political observers realized these
candidates had put together the strongest organizations to
run a successful campaign.
But the two elections differed in amount of campaign
activity. Because the 1988 election did not feature an
incumbent, hopefuls from both parties began campaigning even
before the 1984 general election began. For instance,
Newsweek reported that several Democrats were at the 1984
Democratic shoring up support for a run in 1988.
Candidates were making repeated trips to Iowa as early as
1985 in order to woo supporters; Richard Gephardt and Bruce
Babbitt had virtually set up permanent residence in Iowa.
In contrast, the Gulf War squelched interest in most
domestic stories in late 1990 and early 1991, including the
election. George Bush's soaring popularity in the wake of
the Gulf War kept most Democrats on the sidelines. Most
candidates did not campaign in earnest until summer 1991.
This study will compare amount of campaign coverage for
the 1988 and 1992 declared Democratic candidates in 1986 and
1987 and again in 1990 and 1991. Amount of coverage for the
two eventual nominees, Dukakis and Clinton, will be compared
as will coverage for these two front-runners and the other
candidates in the campaign. Finally, coverage will be
broken down by network. This study will answer the
1. How did television network evening news programs differ
in amount of coverage given to the Democratic candidates in
the 1988 and 1992 preprimaries?
2. Were there distinctive differences in coverage patterns
during the two campaigns?
3. How did the two front-runners, Dukakis and Clinton,
differ in amount of coverage and in coverage patterns?
4. What were the similarities and differences in coverage
between the front-runners and the other candidates in the
5. How did the three networks differ in their coverage of
the candidates during the two preprimaries?
This study examined network evening news coverage for
each of the major declared Democratic candidates in the two
years before the 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. The
Vanderbilt University Television News Index and Abstracts
was used to determine how often candidates were mentioned in
network evening news reports during 1986 and 1987 and again
in 1990 and 1991.
This study examined only stories which mentioned the
presidential hopefuls as candidates. Stories which
mentioned candidates outside the context of the presidential
campaign were excluded. Candidates were mentioned 476 times
during the two years leading up to the 1988 election and 161
times in the two years before the 1992 campaign.
The unit of analysis was the mention of a candidate in
a television election story. Any one story, then, could
include mentions of several candidates. The two coders were
instructed to note only whether or not a candidate appeared
in the story, not to total how many times his name appeared.
Stories appearing in December 1987 and 1991 were double
coded to check intercoder reliability. Intercoder
reliability was 96 percent.
THe networks covered the 1992 elections in a similar
manner in 1988 and 1992, although they paid considerably
more attention to the campaign in 1988 (Figure 1). While
newspapers and magazines were speculating which candidates
would enter the race and which one would win early in the
preprimaries, television largely waited until the year
before the campaign to begin covering it. This was
particularly true for 1992 when candidates were mentioned
only three times before 1991.
Patterns of coverage for 1987 and 1991 were also
similar. Labor Day marks the traditional start of the
general election campaign and interest appeared to build in
both preprimaries during September. While figures for
September 1987 were inflated by the revelation that Joseph
Biden had cribbed part of his campaign speech from British
Labor Party Leader Neil Kinnock, September coverage
surpassed other months in both elections.
After the September kickoff, television coverage dipped
in October and November for both 1987 and 1991 before
jumping again in December.
The amount of coverage differed markedly in 1987 and
1991. The television networks ran nearly three times more
stories each month in 1987 than in 1992 (37.5 to 13.25
stories). The difference was particularly acute in May when
the networks ran 65 stories in 1987 compared to just four in
1991. These disparities reflect the different nature of the
campaigns. No candidate, save Paul Tsongas, had even
declared his intention to run by summer of 1991. Yet,
Richard Gephardt had already spent 64 days of campaigning in
Iowa by April 1987. When Paul Simon decided to enter the
race in May 1987, pundits speculated whether he had entered
too late to mount a serious campaign. In May 1991 political
observers were still wondering where the candidates were.
Front-runners Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis received
similar television coverage at the beginning and the tailend
of their preprimary efforts, but got different coverage in
the middle (Figure 2). Both of the eventual front-runners
were completely ignored by the media two years before the
first primary despite being touted by the print media as
strong candidates for the nomination. Clinton and
Dukakis both saw their coverage skyrocket at the end of
preprimary campaign when they begin rising in the polls.
However, television treated the eventual nominees
differently during most of the year before the nominating
campaign. Clinton's coverage steadily climbed as it became
increasingly clear that he was the candidate best positioned
to win his party's nomination. Dukakis' coverage was
much more erratic. The press showered more attention on him
in the wake of Hart and Biden's departure from the campaign,
but withdrew coverage temporarily in the month after that.
Figures 3 and 4 compare the amount of mentions for
Clinton and Dukakis with coverage for the "average
candidate" and the "top candidate." The average candidate
represents the average score of all the other candidates
beside Clinton or Dukakis. The top candidate is the score
for whichever candidate other than Clinton or Dukakis that
had the most mentions each month.
Figures for both Clinton and Dukakis more resembled the
average candidate than the top candidate throughout most of
the campaign. Both Dukakis and Clinton only served as the
top candidates once until December. However, the pattern
changed in December. Clinton topped the list of mentions
and Dukakis finished a close second behind Paul Simon, who
was leading in the Iowa Polls. Both Clinton and Dukakis
received considerable more mentions than the average
candidate in December. These results, coupled with the fact
that coverage increased markedly in December, suggests that
December marks the month where television most effectively
plays the Great Mentioner role. The candidate or candidates
who are the most highly touted as serious in December enter
the nominating campaign with considerable momentum.
Past studies suggest that because of shared news
values, formalized news gathering procedures, and
organizational structures, networks will differ little in
their selection of stories in general and election
stories in particular. This study supports these
While the amount of coverage varied greatly between
1988 and 1992, there were no significant differences in how
the individual networks covered the candidates (Table 1).
Percentages for most candidates across the three networks
were almost identical in the 1988 election. Some
differences did appear before the 1992 campaign. In 1992,
NBC devoted more attention to Clinton and CBS favored
Harkin, but differences were not statistically significant.
Robinson and Sheehan claim the media perform a
journalistic triage, ranking candidates as front-runners,
top contenders and also-rans. There was little evidence
that network news performed this triage during the invisible
primaries of either election. All of the candidates, except
Al Gore and Gary Hart, received almost identical coverage in
1987. Similarly, all but Brown received similar coverage
overall in 1991.
A triage effect did seem to manifest itself as the end
of the preprimaries. Dukakis and Simon received the most
mentions in December 1987, while Gephardt, Jackson and Hart
were top contenders. Gore, who had pulled his workers
out of Iowa and New Hampshire to concentrate on the South,
was temporarily put on hold. Similarly, triage was more
apparent in December 1991 than in the preprimary period as a
whole. Eventual winner Clinton received the most mentions,
with Kerrey, Harkin and Tsongas treated as top challengers.
Wilder and Brown were written off as also-rans.
This paper has provided contrasting snapshots of two
preprimary campaigns where the resources directed towards
the candidates and their activities varied widely. In 1988,
candidates started their activities earlier than ever before
and network interest in the campaign intensified a full 18
months in advance. Indeed, the consensus among pundits was
that Paul Simon began the campaign too late when he
announced in May 1987. In that month, network coverage was
10 times higher than it was four years later. In May 1991,
presidential campaign coverage was still just a blip on the
network agenda--crowded out by more pressing world events.
It was not until November 1991 that any similarity of
coverage arose and not until December until the two
campaigns achieved parity.
During this fragile preprimary season, the networks
exhibited extraordinary elasticity in their coverage. Is
there another country in the world where the television
coverage would fluctuate so wildly from one campaign to
another? A major advantage of the shorter campaign run in
nearly all industrialized countries is the consistency of
media attention to the campaign. There is a set agenda
where intense coverage dominates for a few weeks. In
America, however, numerous variables influence the process.
If an American presidential campaign (as gauged by network
coverage) can range from 11 months as it did in 1992 to 21
months in 1988, how much influence can the networks exert in
bringing the campaign to the public's attention?
Are the networks simply following the news flow or are
they influencing coverage according to their own resources,
interest and obligations? After the Gulf War, all American
newsgathering organizations were facing significant budget
deficits and pared down their campaign coverage budgets
accordingly. Had there been intense campaign activity in
the primary states, would the networks have risen to the
occasion with coverage or would the coverage have been
minimal regardless of budget? Certainly, candidate activity
dropped considerably from 1987 to 1991. Yet, the huge gap
between the two invisible primaries suggests that both the
high coverage in 1987 and the low coverage in 1991 might
have been pre-ordained. There was not much interest among
the networks in hyping the 1992 campaign as there was in
1988 when the networks were falling over themselves to get
exclusive stories. In a period where little else was
happening, the promotions of the news programs focused in
the presidential arena. Competitive worth was measured by
perceived network performance in the presidential campaign.
Thus, the campaign became an internecine battleground for
the networks apart from the reality of the political
campaign. In 1988, it made economic as well as journalistic
sense to focus resources on the political campaign as early
Television networks may focus attention on the
preprimaries because election coverage can be planned even
before the candidates begin campaigning. Indeed, network
executives and major newspapers began planning 1992 coverage
early in response to stinging criticisms from political
observers and the public that they focused too much on the
horse race and the canned themes of the candidates and too
little on analyzing issues and candidate claims and on voter
concerns. Providing nothing more newsworthy pre-empts
it, network organizations gravitate towards the political
campaign as a safe, predictable, and high profile area to
dedicate their resources. In many ways, American news
organizations have manufactured demand for this type of
coverage by making it ritualistic. The candidates take
their cues from major newsgathering organizations. If early
forays to Iowa and New Hampshire attract major attention,
candidates receive clues to accelerate the pace of their
campaign for fear of being left out, reinforcing their
instincts towards an early start. Conversely, as in 1991,
if candidates are ignored during the early months of the
pre-election year, breathing space is created for late
arrivals. Jerry Brown, for example, was not hurt by
arriving on the scene late in the fall of 1991, a date that
would have precluded candidacy in 1988. Viewers also expect
candidates to emerge more than a year before the election.
Excitement builds as the press begins to scrutinize the
candidates, searching for a front-runner. Once interest has
been piqued early, as in the 1988 campaign, the stakes
become extremely high. Gary Hart's fall from grace in May
1987 was treated as the pre-eminent national news story even
though the election was nearly one-and-a-half years away.
While the Democrats obviously had enough time to find a
suitable replacement for a fallen front-runner, the event
was covered as if the election were imminent and the results
catastrophic. All of this high-profile coverage occurred
long before all but one of the 1992 Democratic candidates
had even declared his intentions to run.
Indeed, the media's intense scrutiny of the early days
of the 1988 campaign may have convinced some candidates to
remain on the sidelines until late in the preprimaries.
Those who begin to campaign early risked exposing themselves
longer to intensity character examinations by the press and
risk losing support from the people before the campaign even
begins. As Mike McCurry press secretary for former Arizona
Gov. Bruce Babbitt in 1988, noted, "People don't want
candidates running for president for three years. We went
through the Sominex Six in 1984 and the Seven Dwarfs in
1988. It literally diminishes the candidates to be exposed"
for such a long time.
Given this wild variability in campaign length and
coverage, what should be the norm? Do the networks have the
ability to perpetuate 18-month campaigns or are they simply
victims of a flawed process? Will the preprimaries of 1996
resemble 1988 or 1992? Much might depend on the financial
health of the industry. If the networks have recovered
their vitality through an infusion of profitable prime time
news programs, the incentives for coverage might be quite
high. Competition from CNN, which emerged after the Persian
Gulf War and the 1992 campaign as the fourth major news
network, might also spur the networks to devote more
attention to the campaign in 1996. On the other hand,
newsgathering organizations may realize that the downside in
marathon campaigns is that they steal attention from other
stories. For instance, poor reporting of the savings and
loan and HUD scandals may have been caused by the 20-month
dominance of campaign coverage in 1987. Early coverage also
risks boring the public and alienating them from the
campaign before it officially begins.
Regardless of whether the campaign is short (by
American standards) or long, it is apparent from this study
that the December before the primary season is a watershed
month. It is at this point where the coverage coalesces
around a few individuals in anticipation of the primary
season. This is also the point where the public engages in
the process as well and begins to pay closer attention to
the campaign. Presumably few Americans would say they
were slighted in 1991 by not having three fold more
preprimary coverage as they had in 1987. In was precisely
in the December before the primaries when both Michael
Dukakis and Bill Clinton began to emerge as serious
candidates. Until that time, none of the preprimary
coverage had distinguished them in a special way.
The two eventual nominees, Dukakis and Clinton, were
virtually ignored early on by the Great Mentioner. Their
lack of coverage early on demonstrates that a candidate does
not need long, sustained mentions to emerge as a serious
candidate--as Doug Wilder and Bob Kerrey painfully
discovered. Both Wilder and Kerrey were touted early as
serious candidates, but they were the first two
candidates to fall by the wayside. Being frequently
mentioned as a serious candidate does not automatically
translate into electoral viability. The candidate must
build on that ephemeral momentum with a strong organization
and a substantive agenda and must also be able to connect
well with the voters in order enter the primary season as a
leading presidential hopeful.
The elections of 1988 and 1992 provide contrasting
portraits of how television covers political campaigns, but
provided few clues as to future directions. The trend
reversal toward abbreviated coverage in 1992 was caused
primarily by external factors. Coverage in 1995 will no
doubt reveal the normative state.
This study only examined the role of the nightly
network newscasts. However, once the most recent primaries
began, the candidates bypassed the traditional media
whenever possible to deliver their message directly to the
American people through call-in shows, morning interview
programs and electronic town meetings. They also catered to
local television stations. Future research should not only
examine early network coverage, but early trend and great
mentioner coverage offered by specialized cable networks,
local media and talk shows as well.