U.S. News’ The Chase Takes on the Too Many Candidates Problem

Horse race meets methodology.

The size of the 2016 GOP presidential primary field creates a built-in puzzle for creators of candidate trackers: how do you represent the candidates and information in an easily digestible, easily navigable way?

For the team behind U.S. News & World Report’s redesigned candidate ranker/tracker page, The Chase, photos provided the solution.

The first bit of information you get on the site is visual. Photos of the candidates are grouped within two columns, one for each party. You notice immediately the photos are different sizes, sometimes starkly so, like the small thumbnails for candidates like Rick Perry and a portrait of Hillary Clinton that takes up almost half of the Democrats’ column. David Catanese, head of the effort and a senior politics writer at U.S. News, explained the reasoning behind the sizing differences via email to FishbowlDC.

Lindsey Cook, our data reporter with a keen eye, took it upon herself to see what would be both visually compelling and fair. She worked with Ethan Rosenberg, our web designer and graphics guru, to select the photos and compile them in the square. We think it’s intuitive that the larger the candidate appears, the higher they currently sit in our rankings.

The rankings themselves provided another set of decisions to be made. This being U.S. News, after all– ranker of high schools and colleges, hospitals and cars–a simple ordering based on polling numbers would just not do.

Instead, candidate rankings are based on four criteria: polls in the early primary/caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina; media coverage; fundraising; and campaign organization.”

“It’s a mix of art and science for sure,” writes Catanese. Hard numbers from [mainly state] polls, FEC campaign finance information and coverage data are analyzed but also filtered through the lens of reportorial experience. “There’s no flat iron rule when it comes to methodology,” Catanese explains. “A lot of it is my gut and instincts about a candidate and the campaign they are running by talking to folks inside their organizations and inside the early states, as well as reading other people’s coverage.”

The use of so much human effort requires time, and the site, from creation to maintenance, is a labor-intensive process. There’s, for example the part of the site that tracks candidate visits to the early decision states, for which “reporter Andrew Soergel has been diligently logging every visit each time we get a hold of a candidate’s schedule. It’s a thankless job but Andy is all over it.” When there’s a ranking change, an ad hoc decision made based on daily examination of the elements, Cook and Rosenberg will adjust the photos and candidate information by hand.

With the first GOP primary happening in just a few days, that first adjustment to the rankings may just go down this week.