Horse-race political journalism is not awesome

Jack Schafer, Why Horse-Race Political Journalism Is Awesome, Politico (2019-01-09)


Covering the status of poll results has a useful place in the process of electing people to office. It's a glimpse outside of the relatively small region of what an individual can see and hear and know. I find it easy to convince myself that my experience must be similar, if not the same, to most others. Especially for national offices, the polls are a quick reminder that at least 40% of the people out think differently.

But it's just a glimpse. It's not awesome. It's not the story, outside of weird and unexpected changes. It should be at most a sidebar to something more substantive about the people represented by the polls, whether the candidate or the voters.

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.

Honestly, polls don't need that kind of revisiting either. Not every change in a poll is significant, and not every individual poll needs its own article. That should all be a slow-moving collection of numbers, converging to mean something at key milestones. Day-to-day numbers are useful for selling advertisements, not for deriving meaning. On the other side, a candidate's stance on an issue might not need constant revisiting, but that issue is connected to other issues, people, etc., and those network effects deserve the attention.

To say nothing of considering a 1295:594 poll-to-issue ratio defensible...

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.

I don't think that the horse-race stories are antidemocratic. That seems a bit of a strawman. The issue is that it's out-of-balance with what would be useful in terms of electing candidates to office.

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.

I can't understand this comment except as maybe a second- or third-order effect of horse-race politics stories. Poll numbers are representative of what outsiders think, not insiders. And horse-race stories don't help focus readers on the races, but on the poll numbers. I agree that white papers are boring, and nobody outside of specialists and unusually interested people should be expected to read them, but there is plenty of room for connecting the dry information in a white paper to the effects it will have on the messy real world and the people that live in it.


Cover the horse races on the weekend. Then for their sake and ours, let them rest.

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