The framing of a candidate: newspapers, presidential hopefuls, and the imaginary primary
In this examination of an election's pre-nomination period, it becomes evident that the media have created the imaginary primary as a way of making the race seem dramatic, interesting, and in the news. The imaginary primary is defined as the media-created contest that pits potential candidates against one other, using viability and electability as the measuring sticks to determine who is winning and losing in the months and years leading up to the primary season. This early speculation about potential candidates is the result of two recent trends: the emergence of soft news coverage and the front-loading of nomination primaries. The media have developed and employed three dominant news frames as a way to cover these presidential hopefuls during the imaginary primary. These frames focus on the celebrity aspect of possible candidates, campaign strategies, and public opinion poll results as a means of discussing the upcoming presidential election even when there is no hard news. The pervasiveness of this early election coverage begs some important questions. When there are no declared candidates what news is the media actually reporting? How does the amount and prominence of coverage vary among possible candidates? Perhaps most importantly, what are the possible consequences for this early press attention, both on the potential candidates and the American public? During this imaginary primary, national newspapers and smaller local newspapers are paying close attention to possible candidates for the presidency. The frontrunner for the nomination dominates press attention, in terms of the amount and prominence of this coverage. Characteristics of candidate-specific reports are also affected if a candidate is a current elected official. However, all potential candidates are subjects of the three news frames, with the largest proportion of coverage being dedicated to campaign strategy. The consequences of this constant coverage during the imaginary primary can be significant both for electorate and the potential candidates themselves. The media attention can create a bandwagon effect, bolstering support for the frontrunner and making a comeback more difficult for late entrants and lesser-known candidates. The media sets the agenda by telling voters who to think about as viable 2008 candidates, while the media's emphasis on character traits during this time can cause voters to make superficial decisions about candidates before knowing where they stand on issues. Finally, the media emphasize electability, which cues voters to consider candidates' political actions as a means to achieve popularity en route to a higher office. This could prime audiences to focus on potential candidates' strategy and not the real reasons that the candidates have staked out these policy positions.
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