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.