After Charlotte: baffled by the horse race

A provocative NYT article prompts an extra dose of journalistic humility

CHARLOTTE — During Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, I was simultaneously live-blogging for Yahoo News, tweeting my reactions (“The Lincoln line ‘…the world will little note nor long remember…’ so far applies to this speech”) into the ether, and worrying about getting a Friday morning cab to the airport amid the post-convention exodus. For those who care about my reasoning (both of you), I found the speech to be devoid of surprise, with little to prompt a wavering voter to jump up and cry, “Wow. I never thought about it that way.”

But as I hope I made clear during the long evening of crazed multi-tasking, my short-burst commentary was the aesthetic judgment of a former White House speechwriter rather than a verdict on the Obama campaign’s political strategy. My judgments were not much different than my personal disappointment, loudly expressed at dinner parties, with the Public Theater’s revival of Into the Woods for Shakespeare in the Park.

I have long been chary about making definitive on-the-spot political judgments (You know the type—“that sentence cost him Colorado.”) But this week in Charlotte, I have tried to be more resolute than usual in resisting the journalistic temptation to play armchair political strategist. The reason: I have been pondering one of the most provocative pieces on campaign reporting in this political cycle.

In last Sunday’s New York Times, Sasha Issenberg—the author of The Victory Lab, a soon-to-published book on 21st century political technology—argued that horse-race journalists are themselves lost in the woods when it comes to grasping how presidential campaigns are waged. Issenberg’s case, in a nutshell, is that over the past decade campaigns have developed new frameworks to understand how voters decide and new techniques to influence those decisions, and that reporters misunderstand or are ill-informed about these changes. He likened me and my colleagues in the clueless press pack to food writers who “remained oblivious to a generation’s worth of new chefs’ tools and techniques and persisted in describing every dish that came out of the kitchen as either ‘grilled’ or ‘broiled.’”

Issenberg contends that campaigns have been so adept at harnessing the latest research in social science—particularly behavioral psychology and statistical modeling—that most reporters trying to cover the horse race are akin to college history majors who suddenly find themselves in an advanced physics class. Up until about the 2000 campaign, he argues, reporters were pretty adept at keeping up with the last twists in polling, focus groups, and dial groups. But since then, the attempt to understand and explain the horse race elements of politics at the highest level has become unequal combat.

(This is, of course, the moment to disclose that I have had occasional lunches with Issenberg and have even—call the ethics police—wished the author good luck with The Victory Lab, although I have not read a pre-publication copy.)

The discussion reminds me of my all-too-brief stint as Time magazine’s baseball writer in the early 1990s. On the political beat, I was used to interviewing political operatives who knew a few campaign secrets (like the latest poll numbers), but whose understanding of the electoral process was analogous to mine. But in a baseball locker room, I was suddenly interviewing 23-year-old backup shortstops who had never read a book in their lives, but who understood the game on the field in a way that I could never fathom. I couldn’t even frame knowledgeable questions.

It didn’t matter that I knew the history of Merkle’s Boner or was an early follower of Bill James, the baseball stats revolutionary. What counted was not a fan’s pedantry but an athlete’s grasp of the diamond-hard realities of life between the foul lines. I had left politics, where I had already picked up 90 percent of what a smart campaign manager knew, and entered a universe where, if I were lucky, I could comprehend 15 percent of what the dumbest guy on the field instinctively understood.

More than anything, the experience of covering baseball taught me journalistic humility. I have tried to retain that humility in the political realm, and to be skeptical of certainties, whether they are drawn from the latest published polls, historical analogies, or the off-the-record whispers from top campaign strategists. But Issenberg’s article made me wonder if I am still over-confident about my grasp of modern politics, just because I remember Mario Cuomo’s keynote address at the 1984 Democratic Convention and I can rattle off the strategic problems with John Kerry’s 2004 get-out-the-vote efforts in Ohio.

Without having read The Victory Lab itself, I cannot judge whether Issenberg is overstating the paradigm-shifting implications of sophisticated algorithms that are the basis of political micro-targeting. Maybe the real campaign is not the frenetic travels of Obama and Mitt Romney that are visible to journalists, but rather a stream of laser-beam political messages directed at an undecided 39-year-old under-employed dry-wall contractor in Dayton, Ohio. Maybe politics is finally run by what pop sociologist Vance Packard called, a half-century ago, The Hidden Persuaders. Or maybe less has changed: Based on the vast expenditures for 30-second attack ads by both the presidential campaigns and their semi-affiliated super PACs, the surface rituals of political persuasion do seem to be eerily similar to those of the 1980s.

And even if much of what the press breathlessly covers in a presidential campaign ultimately has little to do with shaping the electoral outcome, those events do still matter. Romney’s appearance on Meet the Press this Sunday may not deliver a single vote along the I-4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando, but it might well give us clues about how the GOP nominee would govern from the Oval Office. It may be folly to draw epic conclusions from the decibel level of enthusiasm at an Obama or Romney rally, but what a candidate says on stage is a campaign promise to be redeemed or quietly discarded next January.

Still, campaign reporters are not political strategists, even if a few like David Axelrod have made that transition. What the Issenberg article underscores is that we should not try to pretend without reporting—and should not presume omniscience even after reporting—that we know what tactics will swing Colorado, or airily theorize about how Paul Ryan’s presence on the GOP ticket affects the allegiances of older voters in Florida.

So, as I literally (to use Joe Biden’s favorite word) head for the airport, I leave Charlotte uncertain how the political hurly-burly of the last 10 days has played out with the voters. It all comes back to a sense of humility as I wait for the burst of post-convention polling. But that doesn’t prevent me from saying—just in case you missed it—that Obama gave a pedestrian acceptance speech.

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.