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How media coverage of presidential primaries fails voters and has helped Trump

Karyn Amira, College of Charleston, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

It’s common to hear Americans complain about the media throughout presidential elections. Partisans tend to believe the press is biased against their side. These perceptions may lead people to believe the media can affect how people vote.

Political scientists have found some evidence that media bias can push people to vote for Democrats and Republicans in presidential contests. But we theorize that media influence is actually stronger in primary elections.


In a general election, most people plan to vote for their party’s candidate, meaning a large portion of the outcome is predetermined and there is less room for media influence. Moreover, in a general election, both major party candidates are inherently newsworthy. There may be some discrepancies in how much coverage each person gets, but the media cannot simply ignore one of them.

Primaries are different.

When candidates are from the same party, voters cannot rely on their partisanship to make a choice. Instead, they must sift through candidates within one party and learn about them. Since media have more leeway to focus on some people over others in this context, they help choose which candidates voters hear about in the first place.


And those choices are potentially meaningful.

I am a political scientist who researches and teaches about patterns in political media, including how the press has decided which Republican primary candidates to focus on from 2012 until now.

A widely discussed pattern in primary coverage is called “discovery, scrutiny, decline.” When a candidate says something novel, they are “discovered” and receive a burst of coverage. This attention brings momentum, making them subject to “scrutiny,” which then pushes their polling numbers back down and they “decline.” This trend is likely due to the media’s appetite for novelty.

The pattern does not hold for all primaries, but explains some on both the Republican and Democratic side. Additional research also confirms that the media leads the public in this dynamic rather than vice versa.


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