On January 8, Marc Ambinder, the widely-read political reporter and blogger for The Atlantic, found a copy of Game Change, the gossipy insider’s account of the 2008 presidential election by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, for sale days before its official release. Knowing a scoop when he saw one, Ambinder took to his blog to highlight some of the book’s choicest tidbits. At the end of his first post, after excerpts about Harry Reid’s “Negro dialect” comment and a secretive Clinton campaign “war room” to deal with questions about Bill’s libido, Ambinder offered this apparent non sequitur:
Political scientists aren’t going to like this book, because it portrays politics as it is actually lived by the candidates, their staff and the press, which is to say—a messy, sweaty, ugly, arduous competition between flawed human beings—a universe away from numbers and probabilities and theories.
It was a throwaway line. But to the small but growing contingent of poli-sci bloggers, the remark—coming from a journalist they respected and who had seemed, at times, to be interested in their work—it sounded like a challenge. A flurry of responses ensued, their tone captured in the title of a post on the group blog The Monkey Cage: “Is Marc Ambinder a Hater?”
As blog wars go, this was barely a skirmish. Ambinder made some conciliatory remarks on his Twitter feed and everybody moved on. Still, the episode offered a window into the complex relationship between political scientists and the political press—a relationship that, while marked by mutual wariness, holds great promise for a new breed of Washington journalist.
The unease with which much of the press regards the academy has often been amplified when it comes to the study of American politics. In some journalistic complaints, the problem with political science is that it has gone astray. More than ten years ago, a long article by Jonathan Cohn for The New Republic faulted academics for abandoning the search for knowledge with real-world implications in favor of elegant but obscure models; the tagline asked, “When did political science forget about politics?” More frequently, the argument is a dispute about where political expertise comes from, with political scientists cast as ivory-tower elites to the shoe-leather-grinding reporter. Matt Bai, in a book review for the Spring 2009 issue of Democracy, put it more acerbically than Ambinder had. “My dinnertime conversation with three Iowans may not add up to a reliable portrait of the national consensus,” Bai wrote, “but it’s often more illuminating than the dissertations of academics whose idea of seeing America is a trip to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond.”
While Bai’s tone verged on the scornful, most journalists aren’t looking to start a fight with political science. But they’re not often looking to it for inspiration, either. Diligent reporters may turn to political scientists for a useful primer on a new beat; lazy ones know how to use the field’s “quote machines” to pad a story. But when it comes to daily coverage of the core subjects of political life—elections and campaigns, public opinion and voter behavior, legislative deal-making and money-grubbing—the relevance of a field in which an idea might gestate for two years before seeing print to a news cycle that turns over three times a day is not always obvious. As journalists go, Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times is hardly averse to political science—he studied it as an undergraduate, and can list the names of academics he’s relied on. But for most of what he writes, he says, “The reality is, it’s a newspaper story or a Web story. You can’t go into abstract theories.”