As in recent presidential election cycles, the news media seems to be picking winners and losers among the various Democratic presidential contenders to face Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential contest. With each new “shiny object,” the media builds up and takes down the candidates one by one. Beto O’Rourke is the latest example. In a crowded primary field (21 candidates and counting as of this writing), this media influence matters in shaping the voters’ opinions and assessments of the candidates. The newest candidate to jump into the race is U.S. Senator Michael Bennet from Colorado, whose announcement itself, like those of Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-CA) and Congressman Seth Moulton (D-MA) before him, is the only aspect of his nascent campaign to make a media splash so far.

Having nearly beaten incumbent Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate seat, O’Rourke became the media’s darling. This media goodwill propelled him, just a few short months after his defeat in November 2018, to run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. This is in spite of the fact that O’Rourke was a three-term backbencher in the House with few, if any, legislative accomplishments to his name. Now, the spotlight on O’Rourke is fading.

Then comes Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, whose upstart candidacy has taken the news media by storm. Media outlets first treated him as a curious novelty (“Who is this 37-year-old, openly-gay mayor from a medium-sized city who thinks he can win the White House?”), then the media began to take interest as he drew increasingly-large crowds with his retail-style campaigning and plain, straightforward speaking.

So the question arises: Does the media “anoint” viable candidates as a first step, with voters following the its cues? Is it the other way around? Some of both, maybe? In a snapshot from the week of March 24–30, 2019, FiveThirtyEight counted the number of media mentions for each of the Democratic candidates after they announced their candidacies. Between January and March of this year, each of the “top-tiered” candidates who received at least 60 mentions on cable news (for example, O’Rourke, Harris, Warren, and Sanders) garnered a flurry of media attention with each of their announcements. After the initial excitement, however, those mentions gradually (and sometimes, sharply) diminished.[1]

Another FiveThirtyEight piece makes clear the connection between a campaign announcement, the corresponding surge in cable news attention, and a bump in the polls. However, this bump can vary significantly in its amplitude. O’Rourke, for example, generated a lot of media buzz with his announcement, but this resulted in a very modest bump in his polling. This may be because he is already a known quantity with the voters due to his quixotic (and almost successful) Senate campaign against Ted Cruz in 2018. His fade both in the polls and in media presence may then be tied to his comments on single-payer healthcare, which caused consternation among the Democratic base, and his ill-thought “joke” about occasionally helping his wife raise their children, which prompted a backlash from a key block of the Democratic coalition—women. O’Rourke has since struggled to recapture the attention of both Democratic primary voters and the news media.[2]

What then explains Buttigieg’s sudden meteoric rise? He began publicly exploring his candidacy in mid-January, but did not garner many mentions on cable news until March. Then, he took off. The media then started to notice because of Buttigieg’s relatively good fundraising numbers and his ability to attract crowds through word-of-mouth about this young, fresh-faced upstart mayor of a mid-sized city in Indiana. Once he was able to gain a toehold in media attention, Buttigieg gained more exposure to Democratic primary voters and many of them liked what they heard. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to maintain this attention and “buzz” over the course of the next year.

The evidence suggests that cable news media exposure has only modest, temporary effects in terms of “anointing” presidential primary candidates. While the cable news media introduces candidates to the public, from there it is largely up to the candidates themselves to take advantage of this introduction and lead the narrative from there.  Some candidates such as Biden and Sanders enjoy early media attention because they are already known quantities to both the news media and the voters, but even for these candidates the buzz is ephemeral. Biden, for instance, did not have much of a honeymoon after his announcement because the news media focused immediate attention on his record with women, the war on drugs, and past gaffes that have put his long-term viability into question.

The question remains, however, of how this media anointment process can impact lesser-known candidates. While the data seems to bear out that voters are free to reject media-anointed candidates, does reliance on news coverage for our election education ensure candidates not anointed by the press fall through the cracks?  Given the reality that the news cycle has limited bandwidth, news media have to make choices in their coverage, and the industry is subject to certain viewership pressures, it may be unrealistic to ever expect full coverage of all the candidates.  Regardless, an important takeaway may be that any voter looking to have full information for an election ought to take more proactive informative steps, rather than just passively consuming the information that makes its way to the headlines.

[1] For female candidates and candidates of color, not all attention is good attention. Media coverage of these candidates tends to be more negative in tone and critical of their viability (“electability”) as presidential contenders. See Gershon, Sarah Allen, “Media Coverage of Minority Congresswomen and Voter Evaluations: Evidence from an Online Experimental Study,” Political Research Quarterly, 66 (September 2013): 702-714.

[2] Phillips, Amber. “Why Beto O’Rourke is struggling to rekindle his 2018 spark.” Washington Post (April 29, 2019).