Horse race journalism has a bad reputation among press critics. The
NYU professor Jay Rosen, in a recent talk on how political coverage is “broken,” included horse race coverage in his list of media sins. Search this website, and you’ll find any number of columns decrying the campaign press corps’s horse race mentality. I’ve written them myself. The very phrase is loaded; a quick way to decry campaign journalism that doesn’t meet the critic’s standard is to label it “horse race coverage.”

These complaints have merit. Much horse race journalism—defined here as reporting on the state of competition between rival candidates for elected office—is bad, and bad in revealing ways.

If such critiques don’t allow space for good horse race journalism, though, they risk becoming overbroad and incomplete. A meaningful answer to the question “who’s winning?” is, after all, one of the things that many users of political journalism want. But more important, it’s information that—under certain circumstances—can empower democratic participation.

I’ll focus here on Rosen’s analysis, because while he offers an astute critique, I’m not sure how much room it leaves for good horse race coverage. In his recent talk, Rosen discussed what he calls the “production of innocence,” a reporting stance designed to signal the neutrality of the press. “He said, she said” journalism is one product of this approach, he said:

But so is horse race journalism, in which the master narrative for covering an election is: who’s ahead? Journalists will tend to favor descriptions of political life that are a.) true, in that verifiable facts support the story; and b.) convenient for the continuous production of their own innocence.

One of the great attractions to horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to play up their detachment. Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because “who’s gonna win?” is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists. Innocence is bliss.

It’s always useful to think about the psychic rewards people get from performing their work in a certain way, and, whether or not you agree that reporters’ self-conscious neutrality is a bad thing, Rosen’s speculation here is plausible. He has also identified a good target: the linked example of horse race journalism, one of those “what to watch for” pieces designed to teach readers how to feel like insiders, is inessential. If you’re a politics junkie, you won’t learn anything new; if not, it’s probably unintelligible.

So far, so good. But now consider this 2008 Salon essay, written shortly after Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire Democratic primary, in the process upending several days of media narrative-construction that had presumed a Barack Obama win. Rosen advances the same “innocence” argument, but here elaborates more fully on the problem he sees with the “who’s ahead?” frame (emphasis added):

The current generation of political reporters has based its bid for election-year authority on its horse race and handicapping skills. But reporters actually have no such skills. Think: what does a Howard Fineman (Newsweek, MSNBC) know about politics in America? I mean, what would you logically turn to him for? It’s got to be: Who’s ahead, what’s the strategy, and how are the insiders sizing up the contest? That’s supposedly his expertise, if he has any expertise; and if he doesn’t have any expertise, then what is he doing on my television screen, night after night, talking about politics?

Even if Fineman and company had it, the ability to handicap the race is a pretty bogus skill set. Who cares if you are good at anticipating events that will unroll in clear fashion without you? Why do we need people who know how this is going to play out in South Carolina when we can just wait for the voters to play it out themselves?

There’s potential for ambiguity here about just what “horse race” journalism is, and what is being criticized. But Rosen is correct that there’s little point, other than filling air time and column inches, in trying to “handicap” the outcome of a tightly contested election two days before the vote. Fineman (and just about everyone else) was wrong, and so he (and just about everyone else) was embarrassed. But had he been right, where does the benefit accrue, besides to his own reputation?

It would be a mistake, though, to move from that narrow point to the idea that reporters should not to try to figure out “who’s ahead” and “how the insiders are sizing up the contest” over the course of a campaign, and should instead wait for the voters to make their decision. The reasons have to do with how campaigns unfold, and where ordinary readers stand in relation to those campaigns.

First, a clarification: there’s a good argument that general elections—in particular, general presidential elections—are driven primarily by “the fundamentals,” especially the state of the economy, and that most of what happens in campaigns (the gaffes, the messaging strategies, etc.) doesn’t amount to much. That’s the argument I had in mind when I wrote in June 2010 that the horse race is often “simple, predictable, and a bit boring,” and so the press should devote less time to it.

But, as I failed to note at the time, primary elections are different. A primary campaign, and especially its early “invisible” period, can be understood as a time when party leaders—in other words, “insiders”—talk to, and argue with, each other about who their standard-bearer should be. Many factors go into that choice, from perceptions about electability to petty personal considerations. But the argument is, in large part, a contest over who wields power within the party, and what sort of values and goals the party wants to prioritize.

For the 2012 presidential cycle, this argument has been underway for months within the Republican Party. And the way it plays out will shape the choices available to GOP voters. In even the earliest primary and caucus states, voters choose from the options presented by party insiders (or, in some years, ratify the insiders’ choice). If reporters wait for the voters to weigh in to take stock of who’s ahead, they’ll have missed much of the story.

If you’re an ordinary voter, that might seem unfair. But one of the features of American democracy is that ordinary voters who care deeply about their party’s choice can, through the commitment of time and energy, influence the insider conversation. And good horse race coverage can help them understand how to do that effectively, by making the conversation transparent. If you start from the understanding that important party decisions are made before the voters weigh in, the question “who’s winning?”—or, alternately, “who is the party choosing, and which people are making that choice?”—becomes one of the best ways to give ordinary citizens who want to become more active political participants the information they need. (If you’re not a party member, meanwhile, knowing the process by which the party made its choice—rather than just the outcome it arrived at—can still help inform your own political participation.)

Obviously, most horse race coverage isn’t written this way. Just as obviously, not all campaign coverage should be horse race coverage. (Press outlets covering the current campaign would do well to take the advice offered by Chris Hayes in 2008: rotate reporters, do more features and less daily reporting, assign the policy pieces to beat experts, publish less; those measures could both guard against the shallowest forms of horse race reporting and add substance to policy-oriented work.) And perhaps less obviously but no less important, not all political coverage should be campaign coverage, even in the midst of a campaign.

So absolutely, let’s have less journalism that’s nothing more than prognostication or armchair strategizing. But let’s have more reporting that explores the process by which our political leaders are selected, and makes it intelligible to ordinary people. That’s coverage of the “horse race”—and it’s valuable, democracy-sustaining work.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Greg Marx is an adjunct lecturer at The Medill School and a facilitator with The OpEd Project. She served as an editorial board member, columnist, library director, and No. 2 in the features department of the Chicago Sun-Times.