Media Influence on Vote Choices: Unemployment News and Incumbents’ Electoral Prospects

The forthcoming article “Media Influence on Vote Choices: Unemployment News and Incumbents’ Electoral Prospects” by Marcel Garz and Gregory J. Martin is summarized by the author(s) below. 

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Our paper investigates a subtle but important form of media influence on electoral politics. We ask not if media coverage influences what people think, but if it influences what they think about. There are simply too many possible stories happening at any given time for news sources to cover them all, and editors must therefore make choices about which to emphasize and which to de-emphasize in their coverage. Political scientists have long recognized the possibility that this “agenda setting” function of media might have important electoral consequences. A corruption scandal, for example, can’t hurt an incumbent if media outlets opt not to cover it. 

The difficulty in testing for this form of influence is that editorial choices respond to and anticipate reader interest. Imagine that media coverage in some campaign focuses on candidates’ personality traits and ignores their policy proposals. Are news outlets shaping the public’s choices, inducing citizens to focus on personality differences over policy? Or are they simply anticipating that voters care more about the personality dimension, and providing voters with the type of information for which they have more interest? 

Our solution to this challenge focuses on a category of news for which new information arrives at regular intervals: the US government’s monthly unemployment reports. We show that media attention to these reports is higher when unemployment numbers cross a round-number threshold, or “milestone.” Milestone events are an example of a phenomenon that psychologists call left-digit bias. A report that the unemployment rate has just hit 6 percent tends to get much more media coverage than a report showing the rate rose to 5.9 percent, even though the underlying conditions in the economy are nearly the same in both cases. 

 This difference in coverage allows us to measure the effect of media attention to unemployment on voting, holding constant the actual economic conditions on the ground. We look at gubernatorial elections, and compare the election results of incumbent governors in states with very similar economic conditions at election time, but where one state has just experienced an unemployment milestone and one has not. We show that good milestones – where unemployment dips below a round number threshold – help incumbents, and bad milestones – where unemployment rises above a round number – hurt them. The effects are large in both cases, but they are strongly asymmetric: bad milestones hurt about twice as much as good milestones help. 

Our results demonstrate that media outlets collectively have substantial influence over election outcomes, deriving from their ability to emphasize or de-emphasize economic performance in news coverage. Citizens can only hold incumbents accountable for their economic performance if they are aware of it. Milestone events dramatically increase voters’ sensitivity to incumbent governors’ economic records, and thereby reveal an otherwise hidden form of media influence. 

 About the Author(s): Marcel Garz is Assistant Professor of Economics, Jönköping International Business School and Gregory J. Martin is Assistant Professor of Political Economy, Stanford Graduate School of Business. Their research “Media Influence on Vote Choices: Unemployment News and Incumbents’ Electoral Prospects” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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