Why has the media already crowned Hillary Clinton?

The primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders is closer than it seems, given the amount of news coverage Clinton garners. Why the discrepancy? 

Carlos Barria/Reuters
Democratic U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton reacts as she talks to members of the media during a campaign stop at a Dunkin' Donuts coffee shop in West Palm Beach, Florida March 15, 2016.

The amount of attention politicians receive in the media and the degree of success they experience at the polls don’t always match up. And such is the case for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. In Clinton's case, however, the disconnect has largely worked in her favor. 

At the current point in the race, Clinton and Sanders have spent comparable amounts on media time: roughly $28 million each. But when it comes to free media, Clinton has been gifted $746 million, compared to Sanders’ $321 million. (Of course, neither Clinton nor Sanders can compare to Trump’s ratio of $10 million media purchased compared with almost $1.9 billion in free media.) 

In other words, Clinton has won about 70 percent of the media attention devoted to Democratic presidential candidates. But looking at the Democratic delegate distribution as it stands at the end of March, the allocation of free media attention seems out of balance.

Of the 2,026 pledged delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination, Clinton has won 1,243 and Sanders has won 980. So percentage-wise, Clinton has won about 56 percent of the delegates awarded thus far. 

This means that Clinton attracted 70 percent of the media’s attention by winning 56 percent of the delegates. Meanwhile Sanders, with 44 percent of the delegates, has only received 30 percent of media attention. 

Why would media coverage tilt more heavily to Clinton?

It’s no secret that people choose to watch news that reinforces their own political views. As a Pew Research study suggests, for example, only 22 percent of the Fox News audience identifies as Democrats, while only 16 percent of MSNBC’s audience identifies as Republicans.

With this in mind, the media may focus on Hillary because her supporters are the ones who are more apt to watch the news stations allocating the free media. According to a Pew survey, only 34 percent of viewers between the ages of 18 and 29 watched any news on television on a given day in 2012. This number steadily increases with each age group: 52 percent of viewers are 30 to 49, 65 percent of viewers are 50 to 64, and 73 percent of viewers are over 65. 

These news watching-rates directly correspond to the demographics of Clinton supporters. Sanders owns 84 percent of the Democratic voters under the age of 29, while Clinton owns about 68 percent of Democratic voters over the age of 45 – in other words, the majority of media watchers. 

Some Sanders supporters argue that their candidate's “political revolution” against big corporations could be to blame for his limited TV news coverage. “When 3 giant corporations own the majority of the mainstream and easily accessible media, and the candidate they aren’t covering is calling out that type of corporate corruption … connect the dots,” a Sanders supporter told The Huffington Post last year.  

But other observers suggest that the disparity in Clinton’s voter-to-coverage ratio is due to the fact that the media simply favor the front-runner. Clinton has led Sanders during the entire primary process, and pundits don’t have any expectation that this will change. 

Despite winning Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington State by a landslide last week, Sanders needs to start picking up some serious wins to eat into Clinton’s established lead. For comparison, Clinton’s lead over Sanders is far larger than President Obama’s lead over Clinton ever was in 2008. John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, suggests there is no chicken or the egg question when it comes to politics. Instead, the media and the polls loosely drive one another

“But I’ve been arguing that the media never truly took Sanders seriously as a plausible nominee. If they had, they would be doing a much more thorough vetting of his policies, his background and his record,” writes Fox News analyst Howard Kurtz last month. “Maybe the political pundits are wrong…. But after so much early chatter about a Hillary coronation, the media are right back where they started.”

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