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.
But as more and more political junkies know who the players are, and there’s a large enough group there that they can be the audience for, say, Politico, then it’s worth writing the story I’m talking about. And you can write the story without having to have a five-paragraph explanation about who, say, Jim DeMint is.
But the question then is the larger story about journalism—whether or not that reporting actually reaches a larger audience. There’s no equivalent to Time magazine, that we can figure lots of educated people are all reading.