Poli-Sci Perspectives on Covering the Midterms

I have a short article in the May/June issue of CJR (not currently online) about the sometimes fraught relationship between political journalists and political scientists—whose work, in my view, deserves more attention from the press. One of the points in the article is that a poli-sci perspective, which emphasizes structure over personality and tends to be skeptical of the significance of political “messaging” and other tactical maneuvers, poses a challenge to the style of journalism that puts a lot of stock in those things.

But one of the things the piece probably doesn’t spend enough time on is how the poli-sci framework can point reporters toward useful lines of inquiry, rather than just steering clear of false conclusions. So I should note that two of the poli-sci bloggers mentioned in the piece have recently offered some useful suggestions for covering the 2010 elections. John Sides of the group poli-sci blog The Monkey Cage outlined seven questions reporters might try to answer here, and Jonathan Bernstein, who writes at A Plain Blog About Politics, followed up with his own list tailored toward the Republican primaries here.

Many of the suggestions probably won’t be revelatory to experienced reporters—as Bernstein notes, much of the stuff he wants to know about is being reported on in statewide campaigns, if not in House and state legislative races.

Still, there’s practical value here in focusing journalistic attention on some of the issues, and storylines, that can be expected to matter most in this campaign. Sides’s post is also worth reading for a brief discussion of how to get value from voter interviews, which can be an imperfect source of information, and for a very social science-y bit of caution from Bernstein, in comments, about the important distinction between collecting information and making claims about causality.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.