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The coverage of the 2020 campaign is wrong

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One of the more popular posts on social media recently asks followers to "Clean up our timelines!" by sharing a cute photo. In the instructions, followers are explicitly told "NO POLITICS."

Why, in the final days of a presidential campaign, are so many Americans begging their friends not to talk politics? Isn't that exactly what all Americans should be doing right now, to try and decide how to vote?

Well, it turns out that most Americans couldn't care less about politics, even in the midst of a consequential election. As an excellent op-ed from some of our political science colleagues argued a few days ago, the real partisan divide in the United States is not between Republicans and Democrats; it's between the people who pay attention to politics - so-called "political junkies" - and everyone else. Indeed, their research demonstrates that around 85 percent of Americans pay little attention to politics, or none at all.

The problem is, the journalists covering the 2020 election cycle are in the 15 percent of Americans who do pay attention to politics. A free press paying attention to the government is vital to democracy, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, but at the same time it's not especially helpful for most Americans. That's because the things that political junkies care about, like the national debt or the latest scandal, are not the things that average Americans care about. Similarly, the impressions that most political junkies have about prominent candidates are not the same impressions that average Americans have (and that's if the average American even knows the candidates, which is unlikely for races down the ballot).

For example, the prevailing wisdom among many political observers is that Joe Biden "has an enthusiasm problem" and most Americans who vote for him are really doing it to vote against Donald Trump. However, we found in the most recent Meredith Poll that, in fact, 45 percent of those intending to vote for Biden are doing it because they prefer him. This is almost double the number of those doing it because they dislike Trump. Likewise, political reporters jumped all over the marital infidelity scandal that hit Cal Cunningham, the Democratic challenger in the North Carolina Senate race, and the campaign for Republican incumbent Thom Tillis put out several ads about it. However, we found that Cunningham's support has actually increased among voters since news of the scandal broke.

We found a similar disconnect between media narratives about current issues and what the average North Carolinian thinks. One of the biggest events this summer was the protests that erupted across the country following the murder of George Floyd, and there were many stories about Democrats' calls to defund the police and Republicans' fears of lawlessness. The president then used this coverage in an ad, showing a scared elderly woman, that claimed Americans "won't be safe" if Biden is elected. However, we found that 81 percent of respondents to our latest poll feel safe in their communities, and this is more true for self-identified Republicans than Democrats!

Finally, there's a third disconnect when it comes to the other major event of 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic. Sixty-five percent of North Carolinians report that the government's response to the pandemic is either somewhat or very significant in determining their vote in this election. What's more, equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats strongly support another stimulus bill to alleviate some of the economic devastation that the pandemic has wrought. However, if all you knew was what the media told you, you'd think there was a large partisan divide on this issue.

Journalism - often referred to as the Fourth Estate in American politics - plays an important role in campaign coverage. Its storylines are both influenced by political elites and also set the agenda for those same political elites. At times, however, its storylines are also entirely removed from what the majority of Americans are thinking. With many traditional media outlets' audiences shrinking, and younger generations in particular tuning out, it may be time to radically change how politics in general and campaigns in particular are covered.

David McLennan is a professor of political science and director of the Meredith Poll at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. Whitney Ross Manzo is an associate professor of political science and assistant director of the Meredith Poll.

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