A recent study conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy confirms what many Bernie Sanders supporters have been saying for months: Bernie Sanders received far less media exposure than any other major political candidate in the race for the presidential nomination of his or her party — and yes, it hurt his viability as a candidate.
Furthermore, all the constant media hours devoted to Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump, which amounted to free advertising for the Trump campaign, probably delivered the nomination to that candidate.
The study also showed that the lack of coverage on the Sanders’ campaign was most severe — and damaging — during the crucial period of the so-called “invisible primary,” which refers to the months leading up to the actual Democratic primaries, when “name-recognition and visibility are vital.”
The exhaustive study sifted through “thousands of news statements by CBS, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.”
According to the authors of the detailed Harvard study, it’s the period referred to as “the invisible primary” that is the best indicator of who will win the nomination and refers almost exclusively to the time leading up to the first caucus, held in Iowa. The winning nominee is dependent upon “how well the candidates position themselves in the year leading up to the Iowa caucus. This period—’the invisible primary’—is when the candidates try to put in place the ingredients of a winning campaign.”
Media coverage accomplishes multiple and major goals for candidates, from boosting the candidates’ standing in the polls, to lending an aura of credibility, all of which ultimately leads to endorsements and donations.
“In the early going, nothing is closer to pure gold than favorable free media exposure. It can boost a candidate’s poll standing and access to money and endorsements. Above all, it bestows credibility… The nominating campaigns of candidates who are ignored by the media are almost certainly futile, while the campaigns of those who receive close attention get a boost.”
Sanders, despite all odds, managed to find unprecedented support, with an intense focus on online presence and a nearly miraculous grassroots movement that managed to rocket him into an actual competitive position with Hillary Clinton in the polls. This support and gaining popularity, however, was despite the lack of media coverage rather than because of it.
— Jack Thurston (@JackNECN) June 13, 2016
Once Sanders became something of a political phenomenon, with the entire “Feel the Bern” movement catapulting him into a position that no one would have predicted, the Harvard study says that his standing within the mainstream media”improved, but his coverage was still significantly lagging behind every other major contender in the race, on both sides.
In conclusion, the study states that yes, there was an actual, provable media blackout, and that lack of coverage from the media had a severe and negative impact on the Sanders’ campaign, from the beginning of the “invisible primary” onward.
“Less coverage of the Democratic side worked against Bernie Sanders’ efforts to make inroads on Clinton’s support. Sanders struggled to get badly needed press attention in the early going. With almost no money or national name recognition, he needed news coverage if he was to gain traction. His poll standing at the beginning of 2015 was barely more than that of the other lagging Democratic contenders, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and former Virginia Senator Jim Webb.
“By summer, Sanders had emerged as Clinton’s leading competitor but, even then, his coverage lagged. Not until the pre-primary debates did his coverage begin to pick up, though not at a rate close to what he needed to compensate for the early part of the year. Five Republican contenders –Trump, Bush, Cruz, Rubio, and Carson — each had more news coverage than Sanders during the invisible primary. Clinton got three times more coverage than he did.”
None of this will surprise Bernie Sanders, or Bernie Sanders supporters, who complained about the media’s lack of coverage for months before this study was concluded.
The flipside of this study shows that the impact of media coverage can also land an unlikely candidate into the actual nomination. As Bernie Sanders was denied media coverage, Donald Trump received it in unprecedented amounts. Even when taking into account the seemingly endless stream of editorials and opinion pieces that heaped scorn and then concern on Donald Trump, the study concludes that, in the end, the coverage of Donald Trump was favorable. Not because the stories themselves slanted favorably towards Trump, but because the narrative with Trump quickly became focused on where he was in the polls.
Finally an accurate story from the Washington Post!https://t.co/0nNKEBSd73
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 15, 2016
“The reason inheres in journalists’ tendency to build their narratives around the candidates’ positions in the race. This horserace focus leads them into four storylines: a candidate is ‘leading,’ ‘trailing,’ ‘gaining ground,’ or ‘losing ground.’ Of the four storylines, the most predictably positive one is that of the ‘gaining ground’ candidate, particularly when that candidate is emerging from the back of the pack. It’s a story of growing momentum, rising poll numbers, and ever larger crowds. The storyline invariably includes negative elements, typically around the tactics that the candidate is employing in the surge to the top. But the overall media portrayal of a ‘gaining ground’ candidate is a positive one.”
For the study, the answer to the questions, “Why Trump?” and “Why not Bernie?” are the same.
[Photo of Bernie Sanders by John Sommers II/Getty Images – Photo of Donald Trump by View Press/Getty Images]