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Introduction to Political Science

12.3 How Do Media and Elections Interact?

Introduction to Political Science12.3 How Do Media and Elections Interact?

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe why the media are needed to cover elections and how they do it.
  • Explain the importance of the media for candidates running for election.
  • Detail the pros and cons of advertising in elections.


The Scream That Doomed Howard Dean

Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign had been building momentum until this now-infamous speech doomed his campaign.

Most Americans know about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but do you know about Howard Dean’s “I Have a Scream” speech? During the 2004 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate and former Vermont governor Howard Dean led many polls for the Democratic presidential nomination. The press seemed to adore the progressive, anti-war candidate, though he placed third in the Iowa caucus behind Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards. In order to rally his supporters, Dean gave a speech at Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines, Iowa. Perhaps trying to project an image of optimism and future victory, Dean promised that his campaign was “going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan.” He then assured the crowd that he would ultimately go “to Washington, DC, to take back the White House”78—before releasing a long, shrill scream into his microphone. That scream and that moment, now referred to as Dean’s “I Have a Scream” speech, were played 633 times by national networks in the ensuing days,79 with CNN eventually issuing a formal apology for playing it too many times.80 Some refer to this event as the first viral political event, and many consider it the moment when the Dean campaign died. What it illustrates is the sometimes adversarial, sometimes symbiotic relationship between elected officials and the media.

Media Coverage of Elections and Elected Officials

As Stanford University professor Shanto Iyengar writes, “For most Americans, the media are their only contact with the world of public affairs.”81 Iyengar explains that one of the media’s critical functions is to provide a forum for candidates and parties to discuss their platforms and qualifications. Earlier parts of this chapter have detailed the media’s roles as watchdog and storyteller; when it comes to elections, they also act as information provider. Without the media, it would be very difficult for voters to assess which candidates to vote for and whether or not to keep incumbent legislators in office. This means, however, that elected officials can try to manipulate the media to make themselves seem more appealing, and the media also must be careful in how they portray candidates and the electoral process—all topics that will be covered in more detail in the following sections.

One of the most significant powers of the media is determined by both its reach and how it acts as an agenda setter, alerting people to important issues. By constantly putting political issues and elections in their news cycle, the media reinforce the idea that participating in democracy is important. However, while Americans feel informed by coverage of campaigns, they have “lukewarm” feelings about the breadth of coverage, noting a lack of attention to substantial issues.82 This is a common refrain from scholars as well. Decades of academic research have shown that the news media engage too often in the horse-race coverage aspect of elections, reporting on who is ahead and who is behind rather than on substantial issues or policy stances. Harvard professor Thomas Patterson writes that the press is “obsessed with the horse race” of elections, and this, coupled with the unique and prolonged length of the US primaries and general election, makes the coverage seem even more endless in nature.83 For example, in the 2020 election, the earliest caucus was February 3, and the earliest primary was February 11—nine months before the general election.84 However, this does not take into account what is called the “invisible primary,” when potential candidates begin to raise money for their campaigns, often months before the actual campaign season starts. The US campaign season feels interminable, especially when compared to countries such as Singapore, where general elections must take place in the span of three months once Parliament is dissolved.85 Horse-race coverage has been linked to greater levels of distrust of both candidates and the media themselves. It gives an advantage to novel candidates (think former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, who ran for and won the office of Minnesota governor in 1998) and ignores third-party candidates (such as Gary Johnson, who ran for president in 2020 as the Libertarian Party candidate.)86 This problem is not unique to the United States; a study of 27 European countries found that horse-race coverage was prominent in party systems with close electoral competitions and in countries with large media markets,87 and another study found similar criticisms of Australian election coverage.88 Horse-race journalism is not an equally severe problem in all democratic nations; one study of the media in Sweden found that compared to the United States, the Swedish press did a better job with issue-oriented reporting and the production of interpretive news during their elections.89 Horse-race coverage is problematic not just because it turns off viewers—it also ignores topics in which voters might be interested in favor of coverage of who is winning and who is losing. This undermines the importance of the media as an information provider and watchdog when it comes to the electoral process.

The horse-race approach is not the only problem with media election coverage. A trend since the 1980s, the media’s tendency toward negative, critical coverage of candidates remains problematic. As Thomas Patterson writes, this “incessant stream of criticism has a corrosive effect. It needlessly erodes trust in political leaders and institutions and undermines confidence in government and policy,” which “can mislead voters about the choices they face.”90 A study of Canadian elections found that negative media portrayals of candidates and elections can depress a voter’s intention to cast a ballot.91

When it comes to media and elections, some countries, including democratic countries, face a bigger problem: the lack of press freedom. In 2016, three of Japan’s most outspoken news anchors were dismissed from their positions due to governmental pressure in reaction to their criticisms of then prime minister Shinzo Abe. Shortly after their firing, a United Nations representative expressed alarm at the country’s declining support for press freedom, while the Paris-based media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders lowered Japan’s ranking of world press freedom to 72nd out of 180 nations, between Tanzania and Lesotho.92 In Mexico, despite promises to regulate the use of government funds for public relations, former president Enrique Peña Nieto spent nearly $2 billion of government money on media advertising in five years during his tenure with the expectation that he would receive positive news coverage in return.93

The examples of Japan and Mexico are a reminder of how crucial a free press is in the political process. The media has the capability to quickly reach wide audiences, including elites and the broader public. It can help generate collective action, it provides information that is needed to make political decisions, and it helps candidates reach potential voters.

Meet a Professional

Robert Yoon
CNN Director of Political Research, 1999–2017
Election Analyst, Edison Research, 2018–present


Please explain what you do for your organization.

At CNN, I was responsible for knowing pretty much anything about a candidate or public official that might be relevant for our news coverage. I collected information about their fundraising and their personal finances and their policy positions and whatever notable things they might have said in interviews or on the campaign trail. I’ve covered politics on a lot of different levels, including the US Senate and House and the Supreme Court and governors and to some extent local races, but my main focus has always been presidential campaigns. Even though presidential elections happen only every four years, someone somewhere is always either running for president or thinking about it. So I had to follow a lot of these micro-developments when most people weren’t paying much attention to it. The hardest and most interesting part of my job probably was preparing moderators for presidential debates. I’ve done more than 30 presidential debates, most recently a 2020 debate for CBS News. My other big responsibility was analyzing election night vote results.

Can you tell me a little about how you got involved in your position?

I was always interested in politics and current events. As a kid, I would always watch the State of the Union and try to name cabinet secretaries as they entered the House chamber. Watching election night coverage was like watching the Super Bowl or the World Series. So when I saw a posting for a job at CNN to help cover presidential elections, I jumped at the chance.

What advice would you give students who want to go into your line of work?

An important thing for any journalist is to consume as much information as you can as regularly as possible, even if it isn’t directly related to your main interests. Journalists cover real life, so the more you know and understand the ways of the world, the better. Having a wide range of experiences and being exposed to a wide variety of perspectives makes you a better reporter.

How Do Candidates Use the Media?

Surrounded by his immediate family, Donald Trump speaks from a stage in front of US and Iowa flags. Several members of the assembled audience hold up smartphones and other digital recording devices.
Figure 12.10 When Donald Trump addressed supporters after finishing in the top three in the Iowa Republican caucuses in 2016, audience members captured his speech on their smartphones. (credit: “Trump Caucus” by Max Goldberg/GPA Photo Archive/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The media is an important tool for voters, one that allows them to learn more about candidates and the election process. For candidates, the media also serves as a tool to reach those very same voters, and this section will discuss how candidates use the media in the hopes of winning elections. There are two avenues for candidates to use the media: free media and paid media. Free media is when a candidate gets press coverage, while paid media refers to media that the candidate and campaign pay for in the form of political ads. (Paid media will be discussed in more detail later in the chapter.) When former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto spent nearly $2 billion of government money on media advertising, his actions were particularly nefarious because he used government funds to purchase paid media in order to influence free media coverage.94 In the United States, for example, presidents can only use money raised through separate campaign entities to fund paid media. Using government funds would be considered not only corrupt but also illegal. In Peña Nieto’s case, his flagrant abuse of power was met with defeat at the polls.

In the United States and many other countries, successful campaigns are “increasingly contingent upon candidates’ media strategies and media treatment of political events.”95 Savvy candidates understand that they should not simply let the media decide how to cover them and that they need to present themselves in a certain light to potential voters. Candidates aim to control the media narrative and spend significant time and money trying to do so—and this struggle is international. In a study of 97 candidates in 43 elections around the world, scholars found that candidates who employed nastier rhetoric that included personal attacks and appealed to people’s fears received wider media attention—media attention that candidates want during an election, especially as the study found that media coverage of personal attacks was correlated with electoral success.96 Along the same lines, scholars in the UK found that critical, unbalanced media coverage of the EU that focused on the perceived threats of immigrants contributed to Brexit (the British exit from the European Union).97 Members of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) sought this type of media coverage in order to influence the outcome of the ballot initiative for UK independence. The Cambridge Analytica scandal highlights the worst of paid media campaigns, as British consultants from Cambridge Analytica scraped Facebook data from users without their knowledge. This questionably—and, in many countries, illegally—obtained data was used to create microtargeted ads (ads tailored to specific users) for the Donald Trump presidential campaign, the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, and the Brexit campaign. It was also alleged that Russian oil company Lukoil, which has strong ties to the Putin-led Russian government, was involved in funding Cambridge Analytica to influence the outcome of the US presidential election.98

Cambridge Analytica illustrates just how far candidates will go to use media (in this case, social media, which will be discussed in more detail in later parts of this chapter) to win at all costs. In the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump’s campaign bought $2.1 million in Facebook ads alone,99 though this number pales in comparison to the amount the campaigns spent on television ads. Joe Biden spent more than $600 million on television ads, while Trump spent $400 million, the bulk of it in six battleground states: Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Arizona.100 These massive campaign advertising expenditures are not common in all countries. For example, in 2008, the US presidential election cost candidates $5.3 billion, with a large portion of that going toward media buys. In comparison, thanks in part to a complete ban on political advertising on television, the 2007 Danish election cost only $8 million, including public financing, and had a turnout rate that was 25 percentage points higher than the turnout rate in the US.101 Germany also bans political advertisements and has a tradition of using political posters as a practical way of influencing voters.102

A large political poster for German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands alongside a wide sidewalk on a city street in Germany.
Figure 12.11 This photo shows a roadside political poster for the reelection of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (credit: “Election Poster of Angela Merkel in Hamburg” by TeaMeister/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

As described earlier in this chapter, media coverage of campaigns that is negative and focuses on the horse-race aspect of elections rather than on issues can have detrimental effects. The same can be said for paid media. A problematic form of paid media is the negative attack ad, the numbers of which have only continued to rise. Campaign finance scholar Fred Wertheimer writes, “Because television appeals to our emotions and magnifies and intensifies what it communicates, the impact of the negative message is much more powerful and damaging on television than if the same message were being communicated through print.”103 Negative advertising is problematic for obvious reasons. It can lead voters to distrust their own decisions, and it breeds contempt for the election process.104

Show Me the Data

A graph shows the ratio of negative, contrasting, and positive poltical ads in the United States in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012. Overall, ads have been trending in a steadily increasing negative direction. The average number of positive ads decreased from 40% in 2000, to under 30% in 2004 and 2008, to just over 10% in 2012. The average number of negative ads rose from 30% in 2000, to roughly 45% in 2004, to just under 50% in 2008, and to over 60% in 2012.
Figure 12.12 The percentage of negative ads in US political campaigns has grown steadily since 2000. (source: Wesleyan Media Project; attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The effects of negative ads are still debated, as a number of studies say that they do not necessarily affect turnout because legitimate criticism of candidates can actually drive voter turnout.105 Another reason why negative ads may have little to no effect is that they are only salient to voters who already have low levels of trust in government to begin with; in other words, the ads preach to the choir and have little effect on the overall voting body.106 Multiple studies107 have also shown that negative ads may work in the opposite direction,108 which is to say that the attacker comes away looking worse.

Effectiveness aside, negative or otherwise, the First Amendment protects political advertising as a form of speech separate from commercial speech specifically because it is speech that is political in nature. Political advertisements on television are a vital tool for candidates because they can reach voters quickly, and these ads allow candidates to package and present themselves on their own terms.109 Given the strong First Amendment protections in the United States, political ads are here to stay.

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