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The 2016 U.S. presidential election was one of the most divisive elections in the nation’s history, marked by vitriol, polarization, and, ultimately, a populist wave that resulted in victory for Donald Trump. Using the context of this election, this quantitative content analysis (N = 1,881) focused on the online discourse around the election to understand the extent to which online commenters discussed the candidates’ policies versus who was winning or losing and strategies of the campaign. This divide between policy versus what is known as “horse race” discourse about the election has been a concern for decades in news coverage, where research has found that coverage tends to focus on winners and losers at the cost of providing in-depth explanations of candidates’ policy positions (Lawrence 2001). Researchers have attributed horse race coverage to a number of undesirable audience effects, including lowered political efficacy, greater polarization, and even dips in voter turnout (e.g., Ansolabehere et al. 1994).
Drawing on the theory of deliberative democracy (e.g., Fishkin 1991) this research examined whether an over-emphasis on horse race aspects of the election, which has been apparent for decades in news coverage, would also be seen in comment streams. This is an important area of inquiry because expanding horse race beyond a news story and into news comment streams could mean that the negative effects of this coverage are increasingly more salient among the public. We also examined the extent to which comments that contained deliberative attributes, such as use of evidence to support one’s point, were more frequent in comments that discussed horse race versus policy aspects of the campaign. In addition, we probed whether public support was greater for horse race versus policy comments through the presence of “upvotes” or recommendations on online comments as a means to understand the larger discourse in which these comments operate. To do this, we analyzed comments on news stories at two points in the 2016 campaign: coverage of the Super Tuesday primaries and General Election Day results. We examined comments posted on stories from three major news sources that span the partisan spectrum: The New York Times, USA Today, and Fox News (Mitchell et al. 2014). We found that horse race mentions were overwhelmingly more frequent in comments than discussions about policy, as they are in news coverage. Moreover, comments were more deliberative when they contained neither policy nor horse race mentions, a troubling finding for the potential of the online space to operate as venue of robust political talk. Theoretically, these findings demonstrate that comment sections are failing as a digital space for informing the electorate about policy and where candidates stand on those issues. Furthermore, our findings strongly demonstrate that the horse race focus of news stories has gravitated to the online discourse.
Ansolabehere, Stephen, Shanot Iyengar, Adam Simon, and Nicholas Valentino. (1994). “Does Attack Advertising Demobilize the Electorate?” The American Political Science Review. 88: 4: 829–838.
Fishkin, J.S. (1991). Democracy and deliberation: New directions for democratic reform. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Lawrence, Regina G. (2001). “Game-Framing the Issues: Tracking the Strategy Frame in Public Policy News.” Political Communication 17:2: 93–114.
Mitchell, A., Gottfried, J., Kiley, J., & Matsa, K. (2014, 21 October). Political polarization & media habits. Pew Research Center. Retrieved July 6, 2017, from http://www.journalism.org/2014/10/21/political-polarization-media-habits/