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2016 Presidential Primaries, the Media and the Mood of the American Voter

From left to right: Molly O’Rourke, Jane Hall, Deen Freelon, and Leonard Steinhorn On Tuesday, February 23, 2016 four faculty members of the School of Communication discussed the contemporary political dynamics shaping this primary season; it’s a historical patterns that can help explain dynamics; and the role of social media, mainstream media, and polling institution in covering and constructing the political conflicts now playing out.

Professor Molly O’Rourke, Executive in Residence, Co-Director, MA in Political Communication, discussed the role of polling in media coverage of the 2016 presidential elections thus far. She and a colleague took 40 students to New Hampshire for the primary, which provided the students with intensive, hands-on experience. The students were privileged with unfiltered access to Journalists. Students also had access to voters, whom they interviewed as they were leaving the polling station and gained insight into the decision making process of New Hampshire votes.

Professor O’Rourke also explained how coverage of polls is driving the media narrative of the presidential race- more than ever before. Polling is ubiquitous yet misused. Horse race and trial heat questions are prime examples of misuse. Polls are not meant to predict outcome, rather they are best used as a snapshot. The issue is the lack of education amongst Journalists and viewers regarding proper polling. Some organizations have dropped the horse race and trial heat questions from polling because they have not educated their audiences that polls are not meant to be predictive questions (to predict outcome). Professor O’Rourke emphasized the necessity to know the limitations to polling. Another example of how polling is misused is the use of aggregated polling to decide who will drive various debates. This is irresponsible use of research.

Deen Freelon, CMSI Fellow and Assistant Professor of Communications Studies, explained social media’s incapability to predict election. Social media audiences are not representative, for example, less than 20% of the U.S population  are regular Twitter users. There is a greater number of Facebook users; however, there is limited political discussion on Facebook. Hypothetically, if social media sites were able to predict election, its utility would immediately nose-dive as political candidates and operatives would attempt to gain the system. Though social media’s predictive capacities, in terms of elections, is not very effective, there are some benefits. Donations can be given through social media sites. Social media facilitates direct communication between candidates and the public, allowing us to gain insight into the candidate's’ personal viewpoints and feelings. Social media enables information to spread quickly and there is much interpersonal influence (much more so than campaign commercials).

Professor Jane Hall, Associate professor, Journalism, explained the ratio of 81:1, which is the ratio of coverage on the ABC evening news of Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders in 2015. Trump received more coverage than all of the democrats combined, 27% of the total coverage, and multiples of what everyone on the republican side received. This implies a major bias towards perceived winners, who has raised the most money, and the republican democratic two party duopoly. There is an extreme unjustified bias toward Trump, outrageous remarks, and politics as entertainment. Professor Hall comically stated the appearance of the media having a sadomasochistic relationship with Trump. This derives from Trump bashing the media yet quoting them afterwards.

Professor Leonard Steinhorn, Professor, Public Communication, provided statistical evidence that many voters don’t feel that politicians keep their promise(s). Trump frequently discusses his desire to deny foreigners of entering the country; however, the methods and tactics don’t matter because many do not believe the promise(s). Professor Steinhorn stated that America is facing a unique year of election that draws from history with strands of the present. The average American people feel that the government represents the societally powerful and privileged as opposed to average Americans. Many Americans feel victimized by those who have more power, status, and privilege in society. In the exit polls of South Carolina, 53% of republicans claimed to feel betrayed by the republican party and their leaders. Many promises have been made and broken in the past as candidates work on behalf of their interest and those who donated towards their campaigns. There has also been a loss of faith in the American dream. 13% of Americans are upside down on their mortgages. Individuals highly doubt the ability to find another job once they have lost their current. Average middle class citizens lost about 30% of their wealth during the recession.

The forum wrapped up with a Q&A session with the audience as the faculty provided insightful answers. Professor O’Rourke explained how polls can determine likely voters by use of various sample frames from a random digit dial of adults. The adults can be screened to ask whether or not they vote and they can be included in the survey. The social desirability effect should be considered. This occurs when people answer according to what they believe the interviewer wants to hear opposed to the truth. For example, Trump did much better on online polls than live telephone interviews polls or IVR polls. People are more than likely embarrassed to report their support for Trump in person. Another potential method for determining likely voters is the use of voter files. The downfalls to this method are the expensive price and its exclusion of the younger voters. There are also biases and limitations in any sample frame. Lastly Professor Hall attributed Trump’s success as a candidate to his initial, extensive media coverage.