The best political listening tour

“Ordinary person” quotes in political stories can be banal. But when reporters invest the time, they can hear so much more

It is the paradox of political journalism: The most important aspect of a presidential campaign—how flesh-and-blood voters make up their minds—is the least covered and understood.

Sure, reporters devoutly worship at the altar of polls and study their gyrations with an intensity unmatched since the ancient Greeks struggled to decipher the prophecies of the Oracle at Delphi. But media explanations for fluctuations in the survey numbers (the Bain attacks catching fire, worries about the direction of the economy) are mostly guesses. The closest contemporary analogy is to stock-market reporters who glibly attribute the daily decisions of millions of investors to a single factor like dwindling confidence in the euro.

The best way for a reporter to understand the internal deliberations of undecided voters (warning: shocking revelation ahead) is to ask them in person. At minimum, this exercise will remind you that most voters are a lot smarter about choosing a president than is commonly assumed at Manhattan parties. Bulletin: The American booboisie died with H.L. Mencken.

Voter interviews also remain the best way to double-check the polls and pick up trends that may not have yet have registered in the surveys. Maybe five days before the 2012 South Carolina primary, when the polls still showed Mitt Romney with a comfortable lead, Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty and I had drinks after a day of independently interviewing GOP voters. Both of us tentatively noted that we were picking up a surprising amount of pro-Gingrich sentiment. Gingrich went on to win the primary by a double-digit margin.

And probably the best way to determine whether attack ads are working is to see whether you pick up the themes of these TV spots in unstructured voter conversations. If you watch the ads and then chat with voters, you can often hear the echoes of the media consultants.

Yet I sense—based on an impressions, rather than hard data—that the tradition of chatting with voters in cafes over breakfast or in Greek diners during the lunchtime rush is becoming as outmoded as candidate press conferences.

There are exceptions, like this recent Los Angeles Times article by Michael Finnegan charting the mood of a middle-class Cleveland suburb. Or this Associated Press story by Charles Babington about undecided voters in Virginia.

But, for the most part, voters remain the forgotten men and women of American politics. The imperatives of the modern media business don’t help here. Serious conversations with voters are a labor-intensive exercise, since the goal is to draw them out and let them ramble. But a quick rewrite of a new Colorado poll is apt to get more online clicks than two days of reporting from Pueblo. And it is hard to get many retweets when you type: “Retired Richmond electrician Fred Smedley troubled by Mitt’s ‘lack of compassion,’ but still won’t commit to ‘weak leader’ Obama.”

Still, the more campaigns I cover, the more I find voters to be far more interesting than campaign operatives and their self-serving spin, or candidates who fear spontaneity more than defeat. In 2004, for example, a 30-year-old unmarried nurse in Des Moines told me that she loved John Kerry’s health-care plan but was voting for George W. Bush. Her reason: “You don’t change presidents in the middle of a war.” Eight years later, that interview still provides a frame for understanding Kerry’s defeat. And Bush, by the way, carried Iowa that year by just 10,000 votes.

The best voter interview of my career came in Ohio, the ultimate swing state, during the 2010 gubernatorial race between Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland and Republican John Kasich. I was in Bellefontaine chatting with Dave Zellers, a county health official, who asked me where I was staying that night. I vaguely mentioned stopping at one of the interchangeable chain motels that I had passed coming off the interstate. “No,” Zellers said with surprising passion in his voice, “you absolutely have to stay at the Comfort Inn.” Why? Are you an owner? “We are in the bed bug capital of America,” he explained. “And the Comfort Inn just passed inspection with flying colors.”

That nugget of consumer advice, by itself, would have made my campaign week. But then Zellers explained why he was switching from Strickland to Kasich. “Personally, I like Strickland,” he said. “He’s a good guy. But you can’t lose 400,000 or 500,000 jobs without paying a price.” I have thought about that paying-a-price comment regularly as I have wondered whether Obama can survive a national unemployment rate of more than 8 percent. Especially since, thanks to people like Zellers, Strickland lost his reelection bid by 75,000 votes.

What inexperienced and pressed-for-deadline reporters sometimes fail to understand—and the reason why so many voter quotes that see print do verge on tedium—is that voter interviews are not impromptu polls, or on-the-fly quote-collection exercises. Readers are not served by comments that merely restate the obvious: “I hate Obama-care,” said Heather Polling, an Elyria, Ohio, landscape engineer, who backed John McCain in 2008. “I’m voting for Romney.” (Full disclosure: That quote was made up. But we have all read campaign quotes of equal banality).

The strongest journalistic rationale for lavishing time on voter interviews is to obtain answers that are more nuanced and more thoughtful than the results from blunt poll questions like, “Would you say that Mitt Romney and the Republican party have or have not attacked Barack Obama unfairly?” While voter interviews are a useful way to check which campaign rhetoric is breaking through the clutter, the most fruitful discussions happen after voters have a chance to repeat what they’ve picked up from ads, or to parrot obligingly what they think a reporter wants to hear. Only after the initial sound bites are out of the way (we live in an era when everyone is prepared to opine on TV) do you start having a real conversation.

Ultimately, the reason to talk to voters is because that’s where elections are decided. All the supposed gaffes, all the feigned outrage on cable TV, all the bus tours and photo-ops are nothing more than discordant noise unless they change the minds of voters.

So, campaign reporters, get off the bus, burst out of the bubble, and be gone from TV green rooms. At least, for part of the time. And the most wonderful thing about interviewing voters? They never, ever ask you to call back to check quotes.

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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.