There's a Better Way to Cover Campaigns

Following the candidates is worth doing.
Being there. Photographer: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Hans Noel has an excellent post up today, pointing out that what reporters usually need from social scientists isn't cutting-edge research, but the basics. Hey, that's what I usually do here!

He also notes one of the reasons reporters may not listen to those basics:

As one very smart journalist...told me when interviewing me about a campaign-centered story, their professional incentives cut against social science. He said that if they accepted that inside baseball isn't that important, they'd have nothing to write about every day, and no reason to follow the candidates around.

Many reporters may believe that, but it's not true.

Let's say we're talking about general-election campaigns for the presidency, where overcoverage of gaffes and such is probably the most severe. And let's say that reporters stopped believing (or pretending) that day-to-day campaigning has massive electoral effects. What would remain for them?

  • Policy coverage: What would the candidate actually do about public policy if she won? Is it realistic? How would it work?
  • Rhetoric coverage: Related, but not identical, to the first one. What is the candidate actually promising? Not just in terms of "issues," but also about style? How might those promises help or constrain him if he wins?
  • Candidacy coverage: Who does the candidate surround himself with? What does that suggest about how she would act in office?
  • Voters coverage: What are voters taking away from candidate speeches? In-depth voter interviews are no substitute for polling coverage, but are a good compliment to it. What do voters hear when candidates talk about deficits, taxes, jobs and more?
  • Gaffe coverage: Funny, stupid, or just bizarre things that candidates do are interesting, even when they have zero effect on the November vote. Take a page from Hollywood reporting. No one pretends that the various gaffes and foibles of the stars will have any consequences at all, but so what? They're still fun to watch and to read about.

By the way, if that's not enough to justify following the candidates all the time (and I suspect it is), don't forget that there are hundreds of other elections, lots of which are important and exciting, that receive little or no national attention. Just basic descriptive stuff on the best of those campaigns is more than enough to give reporters an excellent reason to stay out of the newsroom.

Campaigns are important and interesting even if they don't change a single vote. And political scientists hardly think that campaigns are irrelevant to November voting. At the very least, campaigns are a mechanism through which low-attention voters wind up with the candidates that a fundamentals analysis suggests they "should" go with. Merely attending to that process seems enough justification for extensive coverage.

Bottom line: Most political scientists don't believe that reporters should do less election reporting. We just think it should be better.

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