Midterm Elections Reminded Us - If We Term Paper

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midterm elections reminded us - if we needed reminding - that the United States is indeed a two-party country, with Democrats and Republicans capturing the vast majority of officers from the local to the federal level. However, even as this is the case it is also true that there are serious third-party candidates running for many of those offices.

This paper examines the question of whether the coverage of the three candidates running for governor in New York were fairly covered by the press and in particular whether Tom Golisano, running as a third-party candidate for the office of the governor of New York in the past mid-term elections, received an appropriate degree of coverage in the region's newspapers.

One of the important questions in American politics is why the two parties have so much power, in contrast to many nations in which numerous political parties are represented both in the government and in the national public political debate. One of the major differences between countries with two parties and those with a variety of political parties is, of course, the difference between a parliamentary system of government and our own, which does not encourage power sharing amongst different parties.

It is essential to consider, when looking at election coverage, to what extent the media "frame" the news and to what extent they are simply reporting "facts." This is in fact a difficult question to answer because "news" does not exist in a discrete form. To some large extent media outlets - whether print, broadcast or virtual - have to create the criteria for what they will report on from whole-cloth. The world does not exist as a set of stories simply waiting to be polished by the media in the way that beaches are littered with shells to be picked up and admired - ab initio - for their beauty.

However, there is another reason that in all likelihood contributes to the poor showing of third parties in American politics, which is the lack of substantial media coverage of third-party candidates. This commentary from Nov. 2000 about the last on-year election is just as relevant to the 2002 elections - and will no doubt still be relevant to the 2004 elections.

Which brings us to a particularly sad state of affairs in American political coverage. When, exactly, does it make sense to forswear on devoting press to the campaigns of third-party candidates? Certainly it didn't in '92, when Ross Perot waggled his fingers at Clinton and Bush on millions of American television screens and went on to win 19% of the popular vote.

What motives could exist to compel America's cherished free press to whittle down their campaign coverage to promote an almost exclusively bipartisan campaign? Perhaps we see a glimmer of motive in the events of '92. A wild card such as Perot taking 19% of the vote sure makes a mockery of the American electoral system, right? After all, real politicians use bar graphs, not pie charts (http://www.kansan.com/arch/2000fall/11_03_00/opinion/deniescolumn.html).

The reason for this lack of coverage may result from any number of causes - from corporate ownership of newspapers that trickles down into restrictions on editorial department members on what can be covered to the time pressures on reporters that incline them to write the quickest story that meets basic standards of fairness - and such basic standards require reporters to cover only those candidates that have a reasonable chance of winning. (This is of course, a Catch 22 situation in which reporters cover those who have a chance of winning in a system in which those who have a chance of winning are those that receive the most coverage.)

Although it is true that to some extent newspapers do simply "report" the news - literally carry it back to those who were not able to witness it themselves. But it is also true that the way in which newspapers "frame" a story has real-world consequences. The media do report the news, but in the process of reporting it they also change the outcome of the next round of events.

While mass media outlets must be wary of the power that they hold, there is no way in which they cannot affect or frame the news that the report. Every story must be told from a limited number of points-of-view and must include only some of the possible range of facts. The question is never whether news media should frame the events that they cover but how they should frame them. The question for this paper is which criteria were used (and whether these were the best criteria) in coverage of this particular race.

Thus when newspapers give a much lower degree of coverage for third-party candidates, they are in some ways simply apportioning coverage in a way that reflects what we might call the "real world" significance of these figures.

However - and this is of course the crux of the issue - by failing to give more coverage of third-party candidates in one electoral season, those candidates will become less well-known and receive fewer votes - ensuring that in the next election cycle they remain long-shots for both election and news coverage.

Shanto Iyengar, in his 1992 Is Anyone Responsible? (University of Chicago) argues that the context of coverage matters substantially. How the media "frame" an issue or a candidate makes a great deal of difference in how they are viewed.

The framing effect, he writes, refers to:

subtle alterations in the statement or presentation of judgement and choice problems, and the term "framing effect" refer to changes in decision outcomes resulting from these alternations.... [These changes result because readers are] sensitive to contextual cues when they reason about national affairs. Their explanations of issues like terrorism or poverty are critically dependent upon the particular reference points furnished in media presentations (21-3).

This paper examines the ways in which party affiliation was an essential part of the framing process of the ways in which the New York gubernatorial race was covered.

In order to determine the ways in which coverage of the three major New York gubernatorial candidates in the 2002 election may have been influenced by the party standing of the candidates we must examine that coverage itself - not merely assume that such biases existed.

For example, if we look at The New York Post (using its own indexing system) we find 112 articles on Democrat Carl McCall between Sept. 1 and Oct. 31 and 57 articles on Republican George Pataki. It should be noted that this does not mean that McCall was getting a substantial boost from the Post because the overall tone of many of the articles on McCall was highly critical.

There were 76 articles that referred to Golisano. Some of these were positive and some were critical. However, we should not be surprised if this seems to be a very high number of stories on Golisano - higher than we might expect for a third-party candidate. However, relatively few of these stories were actually about him alone. Most of these articles only included him in an aside, such as citing what his current standing in the polls was.

Many of the articles on both McCall and Golisano focused on their fundraising; this was less of an issue in the coverage of Pataki, perhaps because for incumbents much of the business of fundraising is wrapped into the business of governing.

The coverage in The New York Times is also perhaps more evenly distributed among the three candidates than one might have thought would be the case. Between Sept. 1, 2002, and Oct. 31, 2002, The New York Times ran 347 articles on Pataki, 217 on McCall and 105 on Golisano. These figures were derived using the Dow-Jones periodical search function.

In percentage terms, the breakdown of articles is as follows:

Pataki: 52%

McCall: 32%

Golisano: 16%

We may compare the percentage of coverage with the position that the three candidates held in the polls during and immediately after this period. If we do, we see that Golisano received a smaller percentage of coverage in the media than he did of support from the voters.


Republican McCall

Democrat Golisano


Likely Voters

Likely w / Leaners

Registered Voters

These results are fairly accurate: The final tally in the election was:

Pataki: 49%

McCall: 33%

Golisano: 14%

From these figures we can see that the candidates received coverage roughly in proportion to the percentage of the vote that they would receive, with Golisano receiving something less than his fair share and Pataki receiving somewhat more than his fair share.

While some of this distribution of coverage is no doubt the result of the tendency of newspapers to skimp on coverage of third-party candidates. It also reflects to some extent at least the power of incumbency - Pataki received coverage as a candidate but he also received coverage as the governor. Often a single story covered him in both of his…

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