Horse race journalism is political journalism of elections that resembles coverage of horse races because of the focus on polling data, public perception instead of candidate policy, and almost exclusive reporting on candidate differences rather than similarities. "For journalists, the horse-race metaphor provides a framework for analysis. A horse is judged not by its own absolute speed or skill, but rather by its comparison to the speed of other horses, and especially by its wins and losses."
A 2018 meta-analysis found that horse-race coverage reduces citizens' substantive knowledge of politics (such as policies or candidates’ issue positions) and fosters political cynicism and alienation.
Horse race journalism is known to be a very negative subject in politics. Although it does show the standings of a poll or caucus, it fails to display the strengths/weaknesses of each politician. Media outlets have often used horse-race journalism with the intent of making elections appear more competitive and thus increasing the odds of gaining larger audiences while covering election campaigns. This form of political coverage involves politically handicapping stronger candidates and hyping dark horse contenders who are widely regarded as underdogs when election cycles begin. Benjamin Disraeli used the term "dark horse" to describe horse racing in 1831 in The Young Duke, writing, "a dark horse which had never been thought of and which the careless St. James had never even observed in the list, rushed past the grandstand in sweeping triumph." Political analyst Larry Sabato stated in his 2006 book Encyclopedia of American Political Parties and Elections that Disraeli's description of dark horses "now fits in neatly with the media's trend towards horse-race journalism and penchant for using sports analogies to describe presidential politics."
Reporting the polls in the 1976 presidential election
During the 1976 United States presidential election, reporting of public opinion polls related to a horse-race image of campaign reporting. At this time, journalists reported in a way that portrayed the image of elections as a sporting event. Journalists ignored prediction, reported segments of the sample, dramatized spectacles, selectively compared results, made a number of errors, challenged the legitimacy of polling and disregarded certain data in their reporting.
Horse-race reporting and the 1988 presidential election
During the 1988 presidential election, horse-race reporting is believed to have a large impact on the four leading Democratic presidential primary candidates. The activities of potential campaign contributors and the public support for candidates were affected by portrayals created by the media. The amount of political campaigns reported by horse-race journalism has been appropriately detailed, however the ramifications for the dynamics of campaigns are far less known. Horse-race spin, the degree of media coverage implying a candidate is gaining or losing political support, is associated with the 1988 presidential election. A time-series analysis of contributor behavior proposes that horse-race spin somewhat decides the prevalence of campaign contributions. Relating to the previous time-series analysis, some contributors are swayed to donate by coverage offering that their strongly preferred candidate is losing ground, whereas other candidacies prosper from coverage suggesting increased instability. Overall, research provides that strategic considerations greatly effect the decision to donate money to political candidates.
Horse-race reporting and the 1992 presidential election
Three studies were conducted during the 1992 presidential election: a controlled experiment, a statewide one-time survey and a three-county two-wave panel survey. Each of the studies communicates a positive relationship among issue knowledge and horse-race polls. Media critics often criticize the coverage of horse-race polls because it competes with issue coverage.
- Broh, Anthony (Winter 1980). "Horse-Race Journalism: Reporting the Polls in the 1976 Presidential Election". The Public Opinion Quarterly. 44 (4): 514–529. doi:10.1086/268620. JSTOR 2748469.
- Zoizner, Alon (2018). "The Consequences of Strategic News Coverage for Democracy: A Meta-Analysis". Communication Research: 009365021880869. doi:10.1177/0093650218808691.
- Kilgore, Ed "Hyping the Horse Race"
- Larry Sabato and Howard R. Ernst (2006). Encyclopedia of American Political Parties and Elections. p. 90. ISBN 978-0816058754. ISBN 9780816058754 (2006 version).
- Broh, C. Anthony "Horse-Race Journalism: Reporting the Polls in the 1976 Presidential Election"
- "Effects of Horse-Race Coverage on Campaign Coffers: Strategic Contributing in Presidential Primaries". The Journal of Politics. Retrieved 2013-11-06.
- Mutz, Diana C. "Effects of Horse-Race Coverage on Campaign Coffers: Strategic Contributing in Presidential Primaries"
- Zhao, Xinshu; Bleske, Glen L. (1998). "Horse-Race Polls and Audience Issue Learning". The International Journal of Press/Politics. 3 (4): 13–34. doi:10.1177/1081180X98003004004. Retrieved 2013-11-06.
- Bleske, Glen L. Zhao, X. "Horse-Race Polls and Audience Issue Learning"