Horse Races and Political Journalism

The advancement of the calendar year has brought a whole new energy to political campaign coverage. The Iowa Caucus is just over two weeks away, with the New Hampshire primary a week and a half after that.

Political journalism is aflutter with polling data and predictions – Cruz is expected to win the Iowa primary, and the second spot seems locked down as well. But other republicans vying for the nomination have the chance to make waves with a surprise third place finish.

“‘Exceeds expectations’ is the best headline a candidate can hope for coming out of Iowa,” a reporter shared in a recent NPR Political podcast while discussing what he referred to as the “Iowa Tango.”

The dance is not dissimilar on the democratic side – Clinton is expected to win Iowa, but Sanders has been slowly chipping away at her lead. An “exceeds expectations” in Iowa – and certainly a win – could lead to a big bump for the Sanders campaign.

This is all very exciting.

For those of us who are political junkies, presidential horse race coverage can be exhilarating. It’s like a (nerdy) action movie where you never know what’s going to happen next, where you’re on the edge of your seat because there’s no guarantee of a (subjectively) happy ending.

This sort of coverage is engaging for a certain segment of the electorate, but is it good journalism?

In We are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, my former colleague Peter Levine illustrates an alternative model:

An important example was the decision of the Charlotte Observer to dispense with horse race campaign coverage, that is, stories about how the campaigns were trying to win the election. Instead, the Observer convened representative citizens to choose issues for reporters to investigate and to draw questions that the candidates were asked to answer on the pages of the newspaper.

Rather than asking “who will win the election?” this type of political coverage seeks to answer “who should win the election?”

One could argue that this isn’t an appropriate question for a news outlet to ask. If an ostensibly fair and balanced news outlet was actually biased in a particular candidate’s favor, for example, that would indeed go against the democratic process.

Yet we already know that horse race coverage can be prone to bias – resulting in early or inaccurate calls of elections while voting is still taking place.

Similarly, while certainly prone to bias, the question of who should win is not inherently biased. In the example above the Charlotte Observer answered the question not with their own editorial views, but through a combination of citizen voice and candidate response.

This is hardly the only model for political coverage addressing who should win. For example, outlets could put more emphasis on political investigative journalism – scrutinizing candidate policies for likely impact and outcome. There is certainly some of this already, but it is absent from some outlets while others treat such long-form critiques as secondary to the quick news of poll numbers.

Arguably here we have a market issue – perhaps journalists want to provide this sort of thoughtful analysis, but lack the reader interest to pursue it.

Walter Lippmann – a journalist and WWI propagandist – would certainly agree with that assessment. “The Public” as a faceless, unidentified herd, will always be too busy with other things to invest real time and thought into a deep understanding of political issues.

As Lippmann describes in his 1925, The Phantom Public:

For when private man has lived through the romantic age in politics and is no longer moved by the stale echoes of its hot cries, when he is sober and unimpressed…You cannot move him then with good straight talk about service and civic duty, nor by waving a flag in his face, nor by sending a boy scout after him to make him vote.

To the extent that it is popular, horse race coverage succeeds because it is sexy and exciting. There are some people who have the interest and energy to read more provocative thought pieces on politics, but their numbers are not significant enough to affect so-called “public opinion.”

Lippmann does not fault the generic masses for putting their attention towards other things – it is only natural to have more interest and awareness in those topics which effect you more profoundly.

There is an important and subtle distinction here – just because the unnamed masses have no interest in politics does not mean that all people do not have an interest in politics. In one of my favorite Lippmann quotes, he writes that “The public must be put in its place…so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd.

Lippmann does not mean to argue for a technocratic society in which the voices of the common people are excluded. Rather, he highlights an aggregation problem – individual voices are important, while the collective voice of “the Public” – while easiest to hear – is nonsense.

This is, perhaps, what is most attractive about a model such as that used by the Charlotte Observer. Individual voices shaped the process, but on a scale that didn’t aggregate to meaninglessness.

A similar strategy can be seen in work such as that by the Oregon Citizen’s Initiative Review. A the review regularly gathers “a panel of randomly-selected and demographically-balanced voters…from across the state to fairly evaluate a ballot measure.” Each panel hears professional testimony about the measure and participates in several days of dialogue before produce a statement “highlighting the most important findings about the measure” which is then included in the official voter pamphlet.

This type of approach provides a balance between engaging diverse citizen voices and the infeasiblity of having every single person participate in such a process.

The Charlotte Observer provides one example of how this balance might be found in political journalism, but there have been so few attempts it’s impossible to know what’s best. It’s an area that’s desperate for greater innovation, for finding new ways to cover politics and new ways to think about journalist’s and citizen roles in politics.

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