Remembering what we were saying a little earlier, the party base is expanding and shifting. The Tea Party leadership might have a stronger voice now, and her support among them matters. But she’s got to have some support outside the Tea Party, or else she’s a factional candidate, and that’s not going to be enough to get her through contests that are not in Tea Party-friendly states. So I would be looking for, are there major party leaders who are either hostile to the Tea Party or just not deeply involved in the Tea Party who are supportive of her?
I don’t think many of the individual claims in your book would draw a lot of objections from serious political journalists. At the same time, the standard model for covering a primary campaign is to assign reporters to follow around candidates, which may reinforce the candidate-oriented frame you’re trying to push back against.
You earned your undergraduate degree from Medill, and worked for a few years as a journalist before starting your scholarly career. So to ask you to put your editor’s hat on, how would you structure campaign coverage to reflect the story as you see it?
One thing you could do is—and I don’t want to overstate the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire; they are important but they’re not the end-all and be-all—you could have someone be responsible for learning about what’s going on in Iowa. So they would go and talk to the various party leaders in Iowa, various activists, people who have been influential in earlier campaigns. You would cover Iowa, rather than covering Michele Bachmann in Iowa. It’s daunting to say, go and understand a whole state. It’s harder than it is to follow around a particular candidate. But that is the place where the questions need to be asked.
You could also, for example, assign whoever is paying attention to congressional politics to keep track of the discussion there. And in general, try to find as many possible ways to divide things into coverage areas that lead to people making the decision. If you talk to Bachmann, she’s made her decision—she wants to run. And no one in the Bachmann campaign is trying to decide whether to support Bachmann. You want to talk to people who are trying to decide: do I support Bachmann, or Romney, or Gingrich, or Pawlenty, or whomever? And the only place we really see that routinely is in polls, where we ask voters to make that decision. But there are a lot of other people who are making that decision.
Are there other journalistic narratives you’d push back against?
Political scientists love to criticize horse race coverage, but I actually think horse race coverage makes a lot of sense, especially in a general election. That’s what you care about—who’s going to win. But often the perspective on the horses makes it sound like they’re out there running, and that’s all that matters. In a primary election it’s so much more about the terrain, and the metaphor of the horse race can’t capture that.
If the narrative were structured in terms of, the party’s having a hard time deciding which kind of candidate it wants to have—which I do see from time to time—that would be much more useful, I think. It’s harder, because you don’t have just one person to talk about. And you can’t just run off a poll and use that as a springboard for a story. But I think it’s possible to do it.
My sense is that the kind of coverage you want to see may actually be more common now than it used to be, when we were relying on the newsweeklies for national political coverage. In other words, the coverage may have become more party-oriented as it’s become more insider-oriented.
I think that’s right. I think part of the difficulty in writing the kind of story that I’d like to see is that there are lots of players, and your audience doesn’t know who most of them are. If you look at Time circa 1988 a lot of the coverage was, “Oh my goodness, Mike Dukakis just had this unexpected victory, we better have a profile of him.” So you get a long profile about this person that’s news-pegged off recent events. That’s time-consuming to do for the entire party—you can do it for one or two candidates, but to do it for everybody who matters is really difficult.