In his weekly “Stories I’d like to see” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
I always tell my students that the best stories come from what you’re most curious about. And for all the coverage of the presidential campaign we’ve been getting in print, online and on cable, my curiosity about what’s really going on in the battleground states and in their most evenly divided precincts hasn’t come close to being satisfied. With all the time and money CNN, Politico, and the major newspapers are spending letting the usual suspects opine on the horse race, they should zero in on the people who count by doing some of the following:
a. The voters: Why haven’t the news organizations most heavily invested in campaign coverage selected representative samples of voters (undecided, as well as voters leaning to one side or the other) in three or four battleground precincts across the country - from Colorado to Ohio and New Hampshire to Florida - to ask them in focus groups what, if anything, is persuading them or turning them off? This should be video programming, but that doesn’t mean Politico or The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal (or even Reuters or Bloomberg) - in addition to the cable news networks - couldn’t do it, given that they all now have robust online video programming. There’s almost an infinite number of questions I’d want to hear these voters asked, among them:
Have field workers called or knocked on their doors? If so, what are the canvassers saying? Is it persuasive?
Which of the television ads bombarding these voters have had the most positive effect? Which have turned them off? Are they even still listening to any of them? Which is most memorable and why?
What speakers at the convention appealed to them or turned them off? Do they even know about the Clint Eastwood fiasco, much less care? Who made a more effective appeal to women or Hispanics?
What effect did Bill Clinton’s speech have? How about Marco Rubio or Chris Christie?
What effect has Governor Romney’s refusal to release a larger set of tax returns had? Have they heard and do they care about his Cayman Islands partnerships or Swiss bank accounts? Do any think that President Obama is a Muslim, and do they care? What about the Solyndra scandal?
Do they share the media’s verdict that Paul Ryan stretched the truth in his convention speech, or that his budget plan could hurt future Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries? (Of course, the question should be asked a lot more neutrally than that, as in: “Did you watch Paul Ryan’s speech or hear about it? What did you think of it, and what do you think of his budget plan?”) Do they even know the difference between Medicare and Medicaid and understand the unambiguous severity of the Republican’s Medicaid proposals?
What’s their sense of the economy and its progress or lack thereof, and how much does it matter to them? Do they believe Governor Romney can cut the deficit, as he promises, without further burdening the middle class?
How much of an issue is abortion or gay marriage? What about Israel? Or terrorism and the killing of Osama bin Laden?
What about the likability of the two candidates and their running mates? And how much does that matter?
As they think about casting their votes, what do they pinpoint as the most important deciding factor in their decisions? If each had to explain his or her vote to a close friend, what would they say?
What about showing up to vote? Who might sit it out, and why? What could persuade them to turn out? A phone call that day? An offer of a ride to the polls? The option to vote early?
In fact, because the campaign will likely depend as much on turnout as on the late decisions of undecided voters, these focus groups should be sure to include registered voters weakly committed to one side or the other and unsure if they will vote at all, as well as true undecided voters.
Sure, we often see some of these questions covered in national or even statewide polls, but poll-results stories have little meaning and texture without this kind of personal, qualitative probing. They’re not nearly as interesting, and they tell us little compared with hearing the people who are actually going to decide the country’s path explain their take on all of these issues. In fact, presented with the right production packaging (perhaps splitting it into daily 10- or 15-minute doses over a week or two), this coverage could be downright compelling.
Besides, it’s a good bet that the campaigns themselves are doing exactly this kind of focus group research. Why should they know more than we know?
(Which reminds me: I’d also like to see a story comparing how the two sides’ focus groups of these voters compare. Did they produce the same conclusions that the losing side was just unable to act on effectively? Or did they draw differing conclusions, resulting in the losing side taking some wrong turns? Realistically, it will probably not be until after the election that this view from inside the campaigns’ most protected research is doable.)
b. The ground troops: What do the Romney and Obama troops in the field do all day?
How are they organized and scripted? How does what they say differ, if at all, from what the campaigns would want the rest of us to know they are saying? To what degree, if at all, do their targeted messages become pandering or appeals that would embarrass the national campaign?
How is what they hear fed back to the campaign strategists and to what effect?
What do they get paid, and how are they held accountable for productivity? How important are the unions in providing troops for the Democrats, and how important are business interests in providing people for the Republicans? What about the churches?
c. The money: With campaigns that together will spend in the billions before it’s all over and with so much of it concentrated on a relative sliver of the country, the economic effects on these localities have to be enormous (or, depending on your view of the role of money in politics, obscene).
Can a local car dealer advertise a sale in Toledo, OH, or Jefferson County, CO, on his cable system’s ESPN channel next week, or has he been crowded out of the market?
Which caterers are cashing in?
Is there any evidence yet that Obama’s overall cash-haul shortfall compared with Romney’s is forcing the president’s people to pull back or to pay local bills more slowly?
Which ad from each side has run the most? And how does its run compare with high-dollar marketing for a commercial advertiser? (And can we hear from a credible marketing consultant or academic who has studied the laws of diminishing returns in television advertising?)
Have lawyers been retained, and at what cost, to deal with any Election Day voting fights?
In short, exactly how is all the money being spent? Can we see a pie chart of all the expenses by category?
I like pundit cable chatter as much as any political junkie. But it’s time for Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer and Bret Baier, as well as the folks from Politico and the national newspapers and networks, to do a lot more work out where the real action is. Take us to the front lines, and bring us the real story.Steven Brill , the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America’s Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative.