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Is There A Problem With How The Media Covers Elizabeth Warren?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): In recent months, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has come a long way in the polls. When she first announced she was considering running for president on Dec. 31, her numbers hovered in the low single digits, but now she’s comfortably in the double digits and poised to steal the number one spot from former Vice President Joe Biden, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average of the 2020 Democratic primary.

And for the most part, this rise has been accompanied by positive media attention for Warren, with glowing profiles and the like. But is there actually a problem in the way the media covers Warren, i.e., are we too cozy with her candidacy?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I should state off the bat that this is such an interesting question in part because Warren is SO MANY things: She’s a left-leaning (too left-leaning for most of America?) candidate, the emerging co-front-runner and an older woman running four years after another older woman lost for the Democrats.

That said, I do think we’re seeing the embryonic stages of Warren coverage. She’s currently getting nicer coverage, and I think we haven’t seen as many storylines that delve into questions like: a) Are some of her political stances going to play in swing states, and b) Will her wealth tax work/is it constitutional?

And yeah, I do think that’s going to come later because the media and its dominant demographic group (college-educated white people) are Warren’s base.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): For the past several months, I think Warren’s gotten the most friendly stretch of media coverage of any presidential candidate since Barack Obama in 2008. It can change, though. Obama also had phases in 2008 where he got very skeptical coverage. And Warren’s media coverage upon her announcement wasn’t very friendly, for instance. In fact, much of it centered on her decision to take a DNA test to prove her Native American ancestry.

clare.malone: What do you think the first wave of skeptical Warren coverage will be, Nate? Will it be health care stuff, a la “is it too left for the white non-college-educated voter in the Upper Midwest the Democrats need to win back?”

natesilver: I mean the first wave was POCAHONTAS and LIKABILITY.

So we’re talking about the second wave.

clare.malone: OK, I STAND CORRECTED.

What’s the second wave?

natesilver: THANKS CLARE.

I mean, we might see POCAHONTAS and LIKABILITY/ELECTABILITY and the TOO FAR TO THE LEFT arguments again.

clare.malone: I think “too far to the left” will become the next big thing for her. I wonder if that won’t become a more explicit line from Biden in the next debate.

natesilver: And in some sense, that’s a fairer critique. There’s a decent amount of evidence that candidates who are too far to the left or right are a bit less electable than candidates who are moderate. Meanwhile, there’s not as much evidence that women are less electable or less likable, and those critiques are often fairly gendered.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I tend to think that a candidate with this kind of surge in the polls is going to get good media coverage no matter what, because the political press is obsessed with the horse race.

I also think part of what we are seeing is that the press, and I would argue to some extent college-educated people in general — especially white, college-educated liberals — have gotten more liberal on issues like racial and gender inequality. In terms of media coverage, that has meant that coverage around Warren’s DNA test was harsh, but so has been the coverage of Biden allegedly touching women without their consent or that of his comments highlighting his positive relationships with segregationist senators. I think some of the coverage around “electability” has been maybe not as been as anti-Warren as it could have been for this same reason. Electability often gets cast as the idea that a woman or a minority can’t win — so my guess is some in the press have downplayed the issue a bit for that reason.

sarahf: So David Byler of the Washington Post wrote a piece last Thursday arguing: 1) There have been some press-worthy developments in Warren’s campaign as of late, i.e., she’s on the tails of Biden (and maybe overtaking him). So that’s huge and one reason she’s getting so much coverage; but 2) Warren is also the kind of candidate journalists love to cover — because she’s running on policy ideas, “rather than issues such as electability and style that they see as lesser or maybe even distasteful.”

How do we reconcile Nos. 1 & 2? And what do we make of that claim in No. 2?

clare.malone: Yeah, I mean, I do think her steady rise in the polls is grounds for worthwhile coverage.

And I do think the fact that Democrats might elect another older white woman is interesting! You could read it as a middle finger to Trump just as much as a problem of electability.

natesilver: I’m not sure it’s that complicated? Journalists are disproportionately college educated, so campaigns that are attuned to a college-educated audience are probably going to resonate more with journalists in all sorts of tangible and intangible ways.

Pete Buttigieg has gotten pretty good coverage too, maybe the most favorable after Warren’s. And his supporters are super college educated.

Kamala Harris (also lots of college-educated support) hasn’t gotten great coverage lately, but she’s still probably gotten better coverage than Biden or Bernie Sanders, who are doing MUCH better than she is in the polls!

sarahf: That’s fair. But remember that piece from the New York Times earlier this year that argued that the Democratic electorate on Twitter had an outsized voice in the primary compared to the actual Democratic electorate? Do we think there’s evidence of that happening here?

natesilver: I think that’s also a factor. Journalists spend a lot time on Twitter. And Twitter ********loves******* ❤️ Elizabeth Warren.

clare.malone: I mean, Biden’s team loves to talk about this: how their strategy is to give voice to the people not on Twitter — largely older voters, voters of color or voters without a college education.

natesilver: I think those critiques from Biden’s team are mostly valid. And you see it in the polling coverage. I’d argue that polls that show Warren tied or ahead of Biden generate tons of coverage. The ones that still show Biden ahead don’t.

clare.malone: I agree.

natesilver: In some sense, that’s why I focus the most on the way that polls are covered.

It’s complicated to determine, objectively, whether Warren has more thorough policy ideas than her competition. And in some sense, I’d have no problem with her getting “better” coverage if she does.

perry: Yeah, I’m not sure a content analysis of a full year of media coverage would reveal that it’s been more favorable to Warren than, say, Buttigieg or Harris or even Biden. In fact, I’d argue the electability and “eliminating private insurance coverage” has not been great for Warren, and that latter story has been covered pretty extensively.

But I do think that a poll of Twitter users would be way more pro-Warren and anti-Biden than the polls are. And I think that makes me constantly remember to use Twitter for news updates, not to gauge where the electorate is.

clare.malone: Agree with that, Perry. The interesting thing is, Biden isn’t all that conservative of a Democrat.

He’s decently liberal!

natesilver: But polls are fairly simple, objective facts. So when you see certain types of polls hyped up and others ignored, that’s a relatively clean indication of the biases of the moment.

sarahf: Which polls do you think are being ignored Nate?

Biden just got one good poll in South Carolina, and it got some coverage, no?

natesilver: Really? Biden got a pretty good (Fox News) poll in Wisconsin this weekend, and it got almost no coverage.

The Morning Consult poll that still shows Biden well ahead of Warren nationally gets very little coverage. The HarrisX polls that show the same thing don’t, either.

clare.malone: Biden’s polling news cycles have tended to focus more on general election head-to-heads, I think.

natesilver: Yeah, Biden’s general election polls do get some coverage, and they probably shouldn’t! Because those polls don’t mean all that much at this stage! But early primary polls are reasonably predictive, and if you were just reading Twitter, you’d get the sense that Biden had crashed. He hasn’t really though — he’s fallen by just a couple of points in the averages, while Warren has risen a lot.

clare.malone: We like to cover a moving car rather than an idling one.

The royal media “we,” I mean.

perry: The main issue for me in analyzing the race is that many of the people I follow on Twitter for non-political reasons — say, for their expertise on economics, gender or race — tend to like Warren and not Biden. I don’t even think Obama in ‘08 was thought of as the “candidate of the experts” like Warren is because Clinton was also fairly well-liked by wonky people. So we have this weird dichotomy, and I have to constantly check the polls and be like, “Is Biden still doing well? Yes, he is.”

natesilver: Another element here is that both Biden and Sanders are old news, whereas Warren is a newer and fresher story. Also, some of Sanders’s staffers and some of his supporters are not exactly the nicest people to the press.

clare.malone: Some of this comes back to the emerging progressive movement in the party, though, and much of the base isn’t really aware of this. Lots of Democratic voters liked, and now want a return to an Obama-style, establishment Democratic Party. They want to reset the clock. But the politically tuned-in people and policy experts of the Democratic Party have already moved like five ticks over on the progressivism odometer in the last four years.

There’s a dissonance that’s powerful, and you see it in news coverage.

sarahf: But to Clare’s point, what really surprised me in Perry’s piece on why Harris isn’t doing better is that the candidates who have made claims to Obama’s legacy (think Harris, Cory Booker, Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke) aren’t doing better. Combined, they’re polling at 14 percent in national polls. As Perry wrote, this is pretty strong evidence “suggesting that Democratic voters aren’t looking for an Obama re-run.”

perry: It is worth considering that Warren is actually running a better campaign than Biden? Like, the idea of releasing a fairly-aggressive leftward policy plan each week or so was pretty savvy. I do think Warren has more aggressive plans than Biden — and that creates news coverage, too. Warren also was among the first Democratic presidential candidates to call for Trump’s impeachment. So the fact that Warren is gaining on Biden is not entirely shocking.

clare.malone: That’s a very interesting question … I think you can’t say Biden is running a terrible campaign given the way they were able to ride out the summer’s pretty bad bumps. But Warren’s campaign has had a very solid communications ethos and effort since the very beginning — I’d argue since they ran that “angry woman” last September.

The Warren campaign has a knack for knowing the sort of blend of righteous anger and wonkery that suits them best.

natesilver: But I think Warren sometimes gets credit for being apolitical when that’s sort of bullshit, and she’s just as much of a politician as anyone else. Almost all of her plans are pretty well-calibrated to appeal to the Democratic base.

Maybe it just so happens that’s what she believes, but there’s not a lot of heterodoxy in what she’s offering.

But there’s also stuff like Warren being against the expansion of nuclear power. I hesitate to characterize the views of entire groups of scientists, but my understanding is that most scientists who are concerned about climate change would support expanding nuclear power. Warren doesn’t support it though, probably because it isn’t very popular among Democrats.

clare.malone: She’s a first mover on a lot of issues.

She’s not afraid to be out there, and I think that’s unique, given how conservative a lot of national politicians are.

perry: I agree that Warren is not taking stands that are going to piss off a lot of Democrats. She is quite political, I agree. I just think she might have arrived at a strategy that has worked well: being extra to the left and framing herself as “having a plan.”

natesilver: It’s smart politics! Part of smart politics is doing things that the press will like!

One of the most depressing parts of covering primary elections is that kissing the media’s ass and providing lots of access to the candidate is probably very “worth it” in terms of the coverage that candidates receive.

clare.malone: Ah. I think that we’ve landed in interesting territory re: access.

Biden’s campaign has gotten media people irritated by not letting him talk more. He just doesn’t do a lot of TV or a lot of on the record, regular media sitdowns.

He even got called out this summer by the hosts of The Breakfast Club (a New York City radio show ) for offering a surrogate when other candidates were appearing directly.

natesilver: And Biden had a pretty friendly relationship with the press as VP.

perry: Buttigieg did the media access thing hard early on in his campaign, and I thought that would really take off for him. It helped him get that initial burst but that was it. I’m kind of surprised by it — I thought Buttigieg was rising the media wave just right.

natesilver: Maybe he’s still overperforming right now, Perry?

I mean, he’s probably in fourth place in the polls now.

A distant fourth, granted, but it’s not bad for the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to be beating all these senators.

clare.malone: I think he’s gotten slammed by the fact that we only really talk about it as a three-person race of late.

Fair or not, he could still get an Iowa storyline, and that could buoy him.

natesilver: It’s a two-person race, Clare.

(TROLL BAIT!!!)

clare.malone: I will let the trolls take that.

But … here’s a question: Are we maybe more aware and, therefore, more OK with talking about these media coverage biases than we were in 2016?

Or was it the same then, too?

I ask because I’ve noticed a bit more meta-awareness by the media in the way we’re covering things. But unfortunately, people who get their news from Twitter and people who get their news from, say, TV are so disconnected by medium — and probably lifestyle — that they get a fragmented sense of the race. (And, obviously, this problem can be exacerbated if reporters tend to get more of their news from Twitter than TV.)

All of this is to say: I think we’ll probably continue to see tougher coverage of Biden in part because of some of the biases we’ve talked about in the media, but also because he’s just running a campaign that, at times, seems more tentative and conservative in its approach. And that gives room for doubt and perhaps induces more reporting on an imminent polling slump or whatever.

natesilver: Maybe there’s more meta-awareness, as Clare puts it. But I think it’s hard for journalists to recognize just how wrapped up everything is in the horse-race narrative. When a candidate is rising in the polls, everything is deemed to be good news for them.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s politics editor.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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