The Donald may seem larger than life. He may seem to have dominated the news agenda during this Presidential primary season. It may feel as if he has sucked the oxygen out of all other headlines.
Yet taken as a whole, this primary season turns out -- with one exception -- to be par for the course.
Yes, coverage of Campaign 2016 during the first four months of the year has occupied the lion's share of the newshole of the broadcast networks' weekdays nightly newscasts (27% of all coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC combined -- 1284 mins out 4750). And yes, coverage of Donald Trump's candidacy has occupied the lion's share of that campaign coverage (26% --- 333 mins out of 1284).
But those statistics should be put in historical context. This is the eighth primary season in Tyndall Report's database, whose first Presidential race was Campaign 1988. Those eight divide into two categories: those with open primaries in both parties, and those in which an incumbent President was running for re-election.
Thus 2016 is akin to 2008, 2000, and 1988 in its two-pronged capacity to make major headlines during the primary season; it is unlike the one-sided contests of 2012, 2004, 1996, and 1992 (although incumbent George HW Bush did receive a spirited challenge from Pat Buchanan that year).
Here are the totals for three-network campaign coverage for the primary season (the first four months) for each contest:
1988 -- 1100 mins
1992 -- 844 mins
1996 -- 587 mins
2000 -- 705 mins
2004 -- 739 mins
2008 -- 1492 mins
2012 -- 736 mins
2016 -- 1284 mins
Thus 2016, even with the oversized presence of Donald Trump, turns out to be no outlier at all but roughly comparable to both 1988 and 2008. At this stage in 2008, the prominence of the two political parties was reversed compared with this year. This year, specifically partisan coverage has split in favor of the Republican Party (564 mins vs 239 for the Democrats); eight years ago the numbers were reversed (509 mins for the Democrats vs 228 for the GOP).
If this year is the Year of the Donald (333 mins), with Hillary Rodham Clinton (89 mins), Bernie Sanders (87 mins), and Ted Cruz (71 mins) playing back-up roles, then 2008 at this stage was already shaping up to be the Year of Obama (243 mins), with Hillary Rodham Clinton (193 mins) and John McCain (138 mins) as back-ups.
So the data so far for 2016 reveal that its coverage falls easily within historical norms. The anomaly turns out to be 2000 when, in retrospect, the networks' political teams seem to have inexplicably dropped the ball. Instead of the election, the first four months of that year were dominated by 440 minutes devoted to the custody dispute involving Elian Gonzalez, the refugee boy kept from his father in Cuba by his dead mother's relatives in Miami.
So Elian then was more newsworthy than Donald now.
(By the way, the major non-campaign-related news stories of the first four months of 2016 have been the Brussels bombings -- 132 mins, the winter weather -- 125 mins, the Zika virus -- 122 mins, the Flint water supply scandal -- 86 mins, and the war in Syria -- 68 mins)
In the end, of course, Campaign 2000 was, too, heavily covered, but only after all the campaigning was finished and all the votes were cast. The year that began with Elian in Florida, ended in Florida too, with hanging chads. Of all the eight Presidential campaigns in our database, Campaign 2000 -- the one with the least circuslike atmosphere during the primary season -- was the election whose result was least transparent, brought least resolution, and provoked most acrimony.
If the tabloidesque excesses of the current Trump-dominated season are the price to be paid for a contest that will, in retrospect, seem to have been exhaustively covered and decided in an open, informed and democratic fashion, then: Let the Circus Continue!
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