An Ever-More Unequal Playing Field? Congressional Candidates' Visibility Across Earned, Paid, and Digital Media

26 Pages Posted: 5 Aug 2013

See all articles by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

University of Oxford - Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Cristian Vaccari

University of Bologna - Faculty of Political Science; Royal Holloway University of London

Date Written: 2013

Abstract

In this study, we analyze patterns of digital media, earned media, and paid media performance among major-party candidates in competitive U.S. Congressional districts in the 2010 (N=112) and 2012 (N=120) election cycles. Based on standard concentration indices, we analyze the distribution of (1) interest from internet users (“digital media”), (2) visibility in news coverage (“earned media”), and (3) campaign expenditures (as an indicator of “paid media” like direct mail, television advertising, and online marketing) across a strategic sample of 464 candidates engaged in competitive races for the House of Representatives. We show that most of these forms of campaign communication are highly concentrated. A minority of candidates draw far more supporters, more news coverage, and raise more money than the rest. Contrary to the view that the internet may help “level the playing field”, we find that popularity on digital media like Facebook is in fact far more concentrated than both visibility in mainstream news media and money raised and spent during the campaign. By 2012, the most popular candidate in a district drew on average almost nine times as many social media supporters as her direct rival, compared to three and a half times as many local news stories and about four times as many dollars spent. The differences in terms of digital media and paid media had both increased since 2010, while the differences in terms of earned media had decreased. Thus, while success on the internet might occasionally benefit challengers and outsiders in US major-party politics, the overall competitive environment on the web is far from a level playing field and may in some ways exacerbate inequalities between resource-rich and resource-poor candidates. As digital media become more important parts of the overall communication environment, we may thus be moving towards a more uneven playing field.

Keywords: digital politics, internet, online campaigning, congress, elections, political communication

Suggested Citation

Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis and Vaccari, Cristian, An Ever-More Unequal Playing Field? Congressional Candidates' Visibility Across Earned, Paid, and Digital Media (2013). APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper; American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2301173

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (Contact Author)

University of Oxford - Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism ( email )

13 Norham Gardens
Oxford, OX2 6PS
United Kingdom

Cristian Vaccari

University of Bologna - Faculty of Political Science ( email )

Via Giacomo della Torre 5
Forli 47100, 40100
Italy

HOME PAGE: http://www.cristianvaccari.it

Royal Holloway University of London ( email )

Department of Politics and International Relations
Royal Holloway, University of London
Egham, Surrey TE20 0EX
United Kingdom

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