Joe Biden is flush with cash and has held a steady lead for months, the Democrats’ lock on the House of Representatives has remained solid all year, and there’s an increasingly good chance that they can regain control of the Senate.
Yet, the political press would like you to know that the Democratic Party resembles a quivering bowl of blueberry Jell-O:
“Democrats fret about the possibility of Mr. Trump repeating his 2016 Election Day turnout that swamped Hillary Clinton’s early-voting lead,” reports the New York Times.
“Democrats worry about absentee ballots being thrown out for technical reasons since Biden voters are much more likely than Trump voters to vote by mail,” states Politico.
“Democrats fear that Trump supporters will try to intimidate Democratic voters at polling places.” the Associated Press has found.
Fret. Worry. Fear. Reporters linked those words to Democrats in nearly 50 percent more stories over the past six months (by a methodology I lay out below) than they do to Republicans.
It wasn’t always this way. In 2016, the Republicans were nearly twice as likely to be depicted as fretting, worrying and fearing. But those terms were used less often during the same period that year.
So why is the Democratic Party, which ought to be feeling like Simba, so often portrayed as the Cowardly Lion? There’s no one reason that explains this, but there are plenty of theories.
First, of course, is the lingering post-traumatic stress from the 2016 election. Prediction markets held that Hillary Clinton was a lock to beat Trump. Even when more sober analysts, like Nate Silver, gave Trump around a 30 percent chance to win, many Clinton supporters focused on her odds depicted elsewhere, which often ran at 90 percent or more. Many Democrats remain traumatized after Trump managed to win the Electoral College with slim margins in such previously reliable states as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
And the stakes are high this fall. Trump is about to confirm his third conservative to the Supreme Court, he has removed dozens of regulations affecting everything from the environment to health care, and he wants to run the Justice Department as his personal law firm, settling scores and pursuing enemies.
“We traditionally have a lot of bedwetters in our party,” says Mark Mellman, a Washington-based political strategist who has been advising congressional and gubernatorial Democratic candidates since the 1980s. “We have a lot of people who no, matter what, are fretting and worrying. They don’t like the ads. They don’t like the way the campaign is being run. They complain even when things are going swimmingly.”
And, Mellman says, the party’s diversity leads to a lot of internal dissent—and angst. “We are a party of groups, Republicans are a more homogeneous party of ideologues.” When Democratic groups “don’t feel they’re getting everything they need, they express that as a worry.”
But there’s another possibility as well, which is that reporters often get into the habit of characterizing people, movements and ideologies in comfortable, hackneyed ways. There is rarely a penalty for going with the grain.
Nikki Usher, an associate professor at the University of Illinois College of Media, has spent years examining how reporters work, and how they cover key beats, including politics. Without commenting directly on how the press is characterizing political parties this year, she notes how often journalists “rely on tropes to make broad characterizations. It’s a cognitive shortcut”—for journalists and their readers.
And based on recent clips, Democrats seem to worry about almost everything.
Within just a few weeks late in the summer, they were fretting that President Trump would “subvert the law to stay in office,” that the election had “become overly focused on Trump’s handling of the pandemic,” that GOP poll watchers would work “to slow down in-person voting with challenges,” that Biden’s “campaign isn’t reaching Latino voters,” and that he wasn’t doing enough “to counterprogram” the Republican convention.
Any of those concerns may be justified, but it’s noteworthy that Republicans were less likely to be portrayed as nail-biters. Just in the past month, as Trump drags Republicans down in the polls, the phrase “Democrats worry” appears more than twice as often as “Republicans worry” and “GOP worries” combined.
Mellman says that doesn’t comport with reality. “You have got to know that this cycle, there are a lot more worried Republicans than Democrats. And their worries are deeper.”
It also seems likely that the more journalists portray the party as veering between apprehension and panic, the more Democrats think they ought to feel, well, apprehensive and panicked. The story feeds itself, cycle after cycle.
A narrative, once set, is hard to dislodge. Says Usher, “Journalists cannot provide a mirror on reality. Part of their goal is an interpretive act. … In the word choices, they’re offering value judgment, Journalists need to acknowledge they’re doing that.”
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These statistics come from a Factiva search, of the six months preceding Oct. 14, 2020, for the phrases “Democrats fret,” “Democrats worry” or “Democrats fear.” To calculate the numbers on the other side, we ran searches for the same verbs conjoined with “Republicans” as well as “GOP.”
There were 658 stories with those phrases involving Democrats, and 445 examples with Republicans as well as GOP tied to those words.
For the same time period in 2016, there were 265 examples of those verbs being used with Republicans as well as GOP, and 159 with Democrats.
Kristina Williams, Columbia University’s Journalism and Government Information librarian, contributed to this report.Bill Grueskin is on the faculty at Columbia Journalism School. He has previously worked as founding editor of a newspaper on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, city editor of the Miami Herald, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and an executive editor at Bloomberg News. He is a graduate of Stanford University (Classics) and Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies (US Foreign Policy and International Economics).