Presidential Election 2008: Horse Race

November 21, 2007

A student questionnaire, two readings, and discussion questions explore media coverage of the 2008 election, including The Project for Excellence in Journalism's finding that almost two-thirds of coverage is devoted to the campaign's horse race aspects.

Following a detailed study of media coverage of the presidential campaign, The Project for Excellence in Journalism concluded that almost two-thirds of it is devoted to horse race aspects—strategy, tactics, polls, and personal details—and not to issues and candidates' past performance.

Below is an introductory questionnaire for students, followed by two readings. The first reading includes excerpts from five media reports on the campaign; the second covers the Project's analysis of media reporting. The discussion questions and inquiry suggestions that follow invite students to examine how and why the media report on the campaign as they do.


A Questionnaire

Network and cable TV, the web, newspapers, and radio give a lot of attention in their news reports to the current presidential election campaign. But what do they report? Here is a list of subjects. Put a "1" before the item you think gets the most attention, a "2" before the item you think is second in getting attention and so on.

___ A candidate's explanation of where he or she stands on an issue ____

___Poll results ____

___ A conflict between candidates ____

___ A candidate's strategy to win the election ____

___ How much money a candidate has raised ____

___ How citizens might be affected by the election of a particular candidate ____

Now put a "1" after the item you think the media should give most attention to, a "2" to the item you think should come next in attention and so on.

After students have completed their responses, record the results on the chalkboard by shows of hands. Leave the results there for discussion after students have finished the reading.


Student Reading 1:

A sampling of election campaign reports

Here are excerpts from five presidential election campaign reports.

"A Weekend of Skirmishing for Obama and Clinton," New York Times

"Des Moines, Nov. 11—Senator Barack Obama kept on the attack against Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, accusing her of running a 'poll-driven campaign that avoided tough questions.' His remarks capped a weekend in which the leading Democratic contenders spoke to thousands of Democrats at the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner here Saturday night, where Mrs. Clinton suggested that Mr. Obama did not have the experience to be president."

"McCain vows he'll win New Hampshire," USA Today

"Nov. 12, On Fox News Sunday, McCain, running second among Republicans in national polls and hanging on to third place in some Iowa and New Hampshire polls, said, 'I can tell you right now I will win New Hampshire."

"Poll: Top Democrats Deadlocked in Iowa; Huckabee Catching Up to Romney Among Hawkeye State Republicans," CBS, 11/13/07

"Democrats and Republicans are both headed for heated showdowns in Iowa.  The Democratic contest is knotted up. Among likely caucus-goers, Clinton came out on top with 25 percent support, but she was trailed closely by Edwards at 23 percent, and Obama at 22 percent.  Most polls have shown Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, with a strong lead in the Hawkeye State, dominating the GOP field. Recent surveys, however, have shown Huckabee picking up steam [and] he trails Romney 27 percent to 21 percent with a 5 percent margin of error. Rudy Giuliani was third at 15 percent."

Wolf Blitzer on "The Situation Room," CNN, 11/12/07

"A Democratic campaign hits a bump in the road and the race for the White House may be tightening up. Are rivals within shouting distance of Hillary Clinton? And if Senator Clinton is stumbling, are all those red hot attacks from her opponents to blame? We're keeping tabs on the mud-slinging and a charge that the Clinton campaign is staging audience questions.

"And the Democrats aren't the only ones going at it tooth and nail. Mitt Romney and John McCain are now in the midst of a smackdown of sorts themselves over ads, cash and reform." (

"Giuliani may not need early states," Yahoo website, 11/12/07

"Early momentum has been the surefire way to win modern presidential primaries: Emerge as the front-runner in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, then steam roll through later states to become the nominee.  Rudy Giuliani is counting on something simpler: delegate math....

"His plan is based on the fact that Florida and several other big states are voting earlier than usual.  The shakeup might help Giuliani capture the nomination, even without the 'must win' early states." (


For discussion

Review your first set of answers to the questionnaire. Are your responses supported by what you read in the media reports? Based on the reading, would you change any of your responses? Why or why not?


Student Reading 2:

An analysis of campaign reports

What do the media reports in the first reading have in common? They demonstrate how the media tend to cover the presidential campaign as a horse race that focuses mostly on tactics and strategy, polls and personal issues.

  • The Times focuses on the Obama-Clinton race and their criticisms of each other.
  • USA Today tells its readers that in the coming New Hampshire contest, Senator McCain says he's certain to win but does not discuss, for example, the senator's thinking on whether the Bush policy in Iraq, which Senator McCain supports, will lead to political reconciliation among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds and why he thinks so.
  • The CBS network news report of poll results emphasizes a heated contest among Democratic and Republican contenders, not how Clinton, Edwards, Obama, Romney, Huckabee or Giuliani might affect the lives of American citizens if one of them is elected president.
  • On CNN's "The Situation Room," Wolf Blitzer focuses on "mud-slinging" and "smackdown," emphasizing political conflicts and not any policy differences there might be between Senators Clinton and Obama, between former Governor Romney and Senator McCain.
  • The Yahoo website story emphasizes the Giuliani strategy for winning the Republican nomination without any mention of the candidate's ideas or policies.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism ( studied 1,742 stories that appeared from January-May 2007 in 48 news outlets-newspapers, websites, network and cable TV news programs, and radio programs. It found that:

  • 63% of presidential election stories focused on the political and tactical aspects of the campaign, such as strategies, fundraising, and poll results. The comparable statistic in 2000 and 2004 was 55%.
  • 15% focused on the candidates' ideas and policy proposals.
  • 12% presented stories in a way that explained how citizens might be affected by the election.
  • 1% focused on the records of candidates' past performance.

The Project concluded: "Once again the game of politics—rather than the ideas or even the background of the personalities—has dominated how the press has presented the race for the presidency."

But a Pew Research Center poll found that 77% of the public said it wanted more information on candidates' positions on issues.

The organization Media Matters (, 11/16/07) examined the roughly 1,500 questions that have been asked of the two parties' presidential candidates through the 17 debates that have been conducted to date.

The questioners have virtually ignored the controversial subject of civil liberties and the use of executive power. Not one question has been asked about any of the following: renditions; habeas corpus; telecommunications companies' liability for making their records available to the government on telephone calls and e-mails made or sent and received by U.S. citizens; or indefinite detention of American citizens without charge. Only one question has been asked about wiretapping.

(If students do not know about the issues raised by the Media Matters findings, they might be referred to the set of materials on presidential power available on this website.)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Consider the five media reports again. To what extent does each support the Project's conclusions?

3. Note the use of language—in the Times story, for example, "skirmishing" and "attack," words that suggest conflict, even warfare. What examples of similar language can you find in other reports?

4. Why do you suppose that the media give so much more attention to polls, personal details, conflicts and strategies than they do to candidate ideas and policy proposals? If you are uncertain, how might you learn more on this subject?

5. Should it make any difference to you how the media covers presidential campaigns? Why or why not?

6. To what extent are your responses to the opening questionnaire similar to the findings of the Pew Research Center poll?

7. Have students watched any of the presidential debates? What comments do they have, in general, about the questions asked? How do they explain the absence of questions about civil liberties and the use of presidential power? Are such questions important? Why or why not?


For inquiry

The website reports on its study in detail and includes information about its methodology. Students might emulate, in miniature, the Project's study to determine whether months later there is continuing evidence to support its conclusions or whether there has been a shift in media focus. Individually or in small groups, they might be assigned a particular newspaper, network or cable TV news program, or website to observe over a few days, during which they take notes on presidential campaign stories and report answers to such questions as the following:

  • What stories can they cite to support the Project's major finding?
  • What stories provide significant content on candidate ideas and policy proposals?
  • What stories show how citizens might be affected by the election?
  • What stories focus on the records of candidates' past performances?

Once more return to the initial questionnaire. If students were to respond to it now, what changes, if any, would they make in their second set of responses?


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: