Who is quoted and who is elected? Media coverage of political candidates

Author(s):

Maite Taboada

Simon Fraser University

Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Director of the Discourse Processing Lab

Lucas Chambers

Simon Fraser University

Master’s student in Linguistics

Taboada and Chambers

Can the number of times a candidate is quoted be used to predict their performance on election day? We know that prominence in media reporting is an important factor in elections. Research has shown that just familiarity with a candidate, regardless of their policies or their party’s platform, gives them a boost. We now have a tool to test that hypothesis.

Thanks to the Gender Gap Tracker, we have accurate counts of people frequently quoted in the media. Our monthly trends dashboard can track changes in quote counts over time. We have used this dashboard to study three recent Canadian elections, and the upcoming election that the entire world is paying attention to. We compared the number of times the leader of each party is quoted to their election results.

Let’s start with the Canadian federal election in October 2019. As with all the other elections, we see an incumbent effect. Justin Trudeau was Prime Minister at the time of the election, and we assume that some of the times he was quoted had to do with his role as Prime Minister. However, counting just the quotes for the month of the election, October 2019, Trudeau was quoted 567 times vs. 502 for Andrew Scheer. This seems to reflect the close race in popular vote and seat count. Counts for other leaders were: Jagmeet Singh, 334; Elizabeth May, 136; Yves-François Blanchet, 107; Maxime Bernier, 63.

Quote counts for the September 2020 New Brunswick provincial election also mirror performance in the election. There were four contenders in New Brunswick: Blaine Higgs of the Progressive Conservative Party won the election with 22 seats; Blaine Higgs was trailed by Kevin Vickers of the Liberal Party with 17 seats; David Coon of the Green party came in third with 3 seats; in last place came Kris Austin of the People’s Alliance Party with 2 seats. The quote counts reflect the same ranking order: Blaine Higgs was quoted 137 times, whereas Kevin Vickers was heard from only 75 times. (David Coon and Kris Austin were quoted 54 and 41 times, respectively.)

Turning to the British Columbia election on October 24, 2020, it was clear from the polls in the previous couple of weeks that the incumbent Premier, John Horgan, was leading in media presence. Although the final count has not been released, pending results from the mail-in ballots, all projections are that John Horgan’s NDP won the election. Our analyses show that Horgan had a dominating presence leading up to the election. Neither Andrew Wilkinson, leader of the BC Liberals, nor Sonia Furstenau, recently elected leader of the BC Green Party, had much national news media presence before September 2020. Counting quotes only up to October 24, the day of the election, we see that John Horgan was quoted 137 times that month, Andrew Wilkinson 126, and Sonia Furstenau 90.

We should mention at this point that we do not propose a causal relation between presence in the media and likelihood of being elected. Even if there is a causal relation, the cause and effect direction is unclear. It could be that the more well-known the candidate, the higher their chances of being elected. It could also be the case that when a candidate seems to be leading in the polls, they are more likely to be quoted in the news media.

What about the US election? The incumbent president, Donald Trump, has by far the highest media representation (but that’s perhaps a question of style over substance). Joe Biden, the democratic challenger, trails significantly in news media coverage. The combined total of quotes for September and October so far for each candidate may foretell the result: Trump was quoted (in Canadian media) 1,507 times, whereas Joe Biden only 517, a 3:1 difference. Does this predict a Trump victory? We will find out soon.