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Illustration by Katie McBride
A partisan roller-coaster ride
The ups and downs of political candidates affect the circulations of the newspapers that support them.

Partisan news outlets get predictably grumpy when the nation’s elections don’t go their side’s way. New research by a Jepson School of Leadership Studies professor suggests that they might instead look at political misfortune as a business opportunity.

Political scientist Allison Archer combed through the circulation figures of hundreds of local, daily partisan American newspapers from 1932 to 2004, indexed these against the electoral fortunes of their political bedfellows, and looked for patterns. She didn’t know what to expect.

“What’s interesting is both the literature and basic intuition support a variety of [answers] to my research question,” Archer said. Enthusiasm from wins could cause people to consume more news, but it’s also possible that the anxiety of a loss could do the same. Or there might be no effect; people are either political junkies or not.

The data answered the question resoundingly. Not only did partisan newspapers do better when their presidential candidates lost, but their circulation changes correlated with the size of electoral losses. For example, Republican-aligned newspapers experienced their three biggest boosts with the elections of 1932, 1940, and 1964, all of which their candidates lost by 10 or more points. Likewise, two of the biggest boosts for Democratic-aligned newspapers coincided with Ronald Reagan’s landslides in 1980 and 1984.

It means people aren't giving up on politics when their party loses an election.

“Taking a step back, this finding suggests citizens whose party is out of power become more interested in monitoring politics than those whose party is in power,” she said. “In many ways, that’s a good thing because it means people aren’t giving up on politics when their party loses an election. Instead, they are taking steps to ensure their interests are still being represented.”

She also suggests that the same dynamic might be at play for partisan cable news. Fox News soared during Barack Obama’s presidency; MSNBC is thriving under Donald Trump.

Discontent, it seems, has its value.