Des Moines, Iowa — If you talk to voters, especially those in key states such as Iowa, you’ll realize everything you hear about the election is a lie. I was a high school student in Texas during the 2016 election — it was the first election I actively followed and discussed with my peers. Many polls said that Clinton would clearly win, but then I would talk to classmates whose families planned to vote differently.
I found a lot of contradictions in media coverage — the conversations about the candidates versus the amount of airtime they got didn’t match. The media declared Clinton the set winner while simultaneously giving Trump coverage and casting him as a competitive opponent. I thought they had made a circus out of the entire coverage process.
I was barely grasping at the dark underbelly that is the self-fulfilling prophecy of election coverage. I remember being irate as the results poured in. How had everyone gotten it so wrong? Searching for an answer, when it came time to go to college, I moved 700+ miles away to Des Moines, Iowa where I major in political science and oddly enough, journalism. Here, I am right in the heart of the Iowa Caucuses and the 2020 election.
Living in Iowa, the writing is on the wall: we are making the same mistakes in media coverage once again. We are relying on polls to shape the way we discuss the candidates and their ability to win, while ignoring actual voter sentiment. As the current editor-in-chief for our campus paper, The Times-Delphic, I think it’s important to have a serious reckoning about the way we represent this election and how that shifts the discussion. When you turn on the news, you’ll most likely see a discussion of a “horse race” in the polls and how this can help answer the electability question. I want to push back against this narrative. Anyone who has knocked on the door of an Iowa voter can tell you this election is anyone’s game. People’s top three candidates are more flexible than ever before and are constantly shifting as we head toward the caucus.
My role as a student journalist is an interesting one, having to learn to reconcile my own opinions of past media coverage blunders with my own reporting on the election. Being in the heartland, you never know when opportunity will knock on your door, from running into Julian Castro on your way to dinner to having Elizabeth Warren speak in your field house. Anything and everything is possible. Perhaps this rare chance I get to be in the thick of things is why the misrepresentation of the election on a national scale is so upsetting.
To argue my case, I want to tell two different stories.
The first is about how our campus paper has been covering these candidates.
Kamala Harris hosted a town hall at my college at Drake University last January. This was the first political event I would cover, as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman. In the aftermath of her presidential campaign announcement, fellow students on campus began organizing. We reported on a number of events they held on campus and how their group was growing. Personally, I thought that the majority of the school’s students were Harris supporters. I wasn’t going around straw polling people, but based my thinking on the size of this group supporting Harris compared to the number of events and supporters of other candidates on campus at the time. It was clear she had a strong grassroots movement starting.
As the race continued, we saw Harris gain momentum and gain an uptick in the polls. When I talked to people, it truly seemed like she had a chance. But just as quickly as she rose, she fell, as her electability came into question and the polls dropped.
As someone who has both worked on a presidential campaign and has friends who have worked on presidential campaigns in Iowa that have been suspended (in part due to a failure to gain traction thanks to the media rhetoric surrounding their electability), I can say there is often a clear disconnect between what we hear from voters and what gets reported on in the news.
“I do not see the polls as an accurate reflection of a candidate’s ‘electability.’ Iowa has historically rejected the status quo and demonstrated more progressive values than the rest of the nation — for example, this state led the nation on legalizing same sex marriage and desegregating schools," said Jackie Sayers, former Kamala Harris campaign intern. “What I heard on the ground while knocking doors and calling caucus-goers often conflicted with popular national polls which were used to argue for a candidate’s ‘electability.’ This disconnect underscored to me the importance of ignoring the polls, and focusing on having honest, direct conversations with Iowans rather than worrying about the media creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Candidates such as Harris, Booker and Castro were written off before they had an opportunity to even begin, their fate sealed the moment we started calling this election a clear horse race that they were not part of.
“At the end of the day, the direct conversations with caucus-goers — whether by the candidate, or an organizer or volunteer representing the campaign — should be the focus of the campaign,” Sayers said. “One thing I learned through my months on the caucus trail is that Iowans are very informed and like to make their own decisions when it comes to candidates. Many would not accept a blanket statement from the media that a candidate is or is not electable, but would insist on seeing that candidate and sizing them up for themselves.”
When we report on these candidates' poll numbers as an accurate reflection of their campaign's traction and groundwork, we are ignoring those voters who are still taking the time to do their research and whose top three choices are changing each day.
Senator Cory Booker’s recent suspension of his campaign is another example. With a long list of endorsements from Iowa community activists, Booker appeared to have backing, despite repeatedly not performing well in the polls. This ‘poor performance’ meant that the media focused on the top candidates and left campaigns such as Booker’s struggling to gain attention and funding from donors who believed he was electable.
“Cory Booker didn't receive media coverage because of his lack of funding,” Ireland Larsen, Booker 2020 volunteer and former president of Drake University’s Bulldogs for Booker said. “When the polls came out for the first time saying that he wasn't at the top, he didn't stand a chance getting coverage.”
By focusing on these low poll numbers, the media failed to acknowledge the very real support Booker had from Iowa leaders and how that could have changed the state of the caucus.
“It has become a horse race where the candidate with the most polls is set to win because people are so scared of losing,” Larsen said.
Booker failed to receive enough funding to continue building his campaign, which meant there was no chance at expansion, which meant his numbers stayed low. This is the same cycle so many campaigns saw with their coverage and their eventual fate.
The second storyline I want to share isn’t about an experience but more about the general frustration from young journalists surrounding the media’s gross negligence of their power.
We’ve established that it would be remiss of us to pretend that the media doesn’t sway elections. So, I want to go back and take a hard look at 2016 for a second. Political affiliation aside, the eventual election of Donald Trump can in part be credited to the media coverage surrounding his candidacy. The proclivity to assign winners, losers and a level of competitiveness based on polls helps shape an election in a certain direction and according to Journalist’s Resource, in 2016, “nearly 60% of the election news analyzed during this period characterized the election as a competitive game, with Trump receiving the most coverage of any candidate seeking the Republican nomination. In the final five weeks of the primary campaign, the press gave him more coverage than Democratic frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.”
Now fast-forward, I am reporting on the 2020 Iowa Caucuses and see in person the way media coverage shifts opinions and so do other young media professionals I work with.
“I think it is incredibly dishonest to pretend that what we see in the media has little effect on our behavior,” said Emma Brustkern, features editor for The Times-Delphic. “The more attention a candidate gets from the media, the more name recognition they will gain and that can easily transfer into support.”
The balance of accurate reporting with reporting that is largely contingent on receiving revenue and readership is a difficult problem to navigate — one I am not without sympathy for. That being said, when pundits and reporters fail to acknowledge the complexities of the nature of this race and the flexibility within it, they are not only doing themselves a disservice but also a disservice to this country.
“When news outlets pretend that there's a clear outcome, they nudge voters a certain way,” Brustkern said. “From where I'm sitting though, the Iowa Caucus is still anyone's game. There was a poll recently released in Iowa showing Senator Bernie Sanders in the ‘lead’ with 20%, but there was a 3.7% margin of error. That's huge, considering Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg were all within that margin. Yet, headlines read ‘Bernie Sanders leads Iowa.’ The average person, who might not understand the logistics of polls, who might not consider a margin of error, would think that Sanders is a shoo-in to win the caucus... As a journalist, I understand the importance of a good headline, and I know that maintaining readership while staying accurate is a slippery slope. However, it's important to recognize that Iowans are still deciding who they want as our next president, and we need to accurately represent that.” (Note: another poll released by New York Times/Siena College this week shows Sanders capturing 25% of the vote in Iowa with a headline that starts “Sanders Seizes Lead…”)
We as journalists and as consumers of media have a moral responsibility to call out the dangers that come with inaccurate or overly simplified reporting on these candidates. As we have seen in the past and are currently seeing, this has the potential to make or break election outcomes that in reality should be left in the hands of the voters. When you see coverage that claims to have the answer on how this election will turn out, maybe consider the fact that anyone who tells you that they know how this will end clearly doesn’t understand what is happening.