NEW HAMPSHIRE — Both the Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Politico’s Maggie Haberman have argued that the 2012 GOP primary fight has a different character than previous campaigns. Balz, for instance, writes that “Republicans are engaged in a national campaign, one that has played out less in living rooms in Iowa or town halls in New Hampshire and more on debate stages in those and other states, on prime time and Sunday morning shows on Fox News and through cable commentary, blog posts and tweets.” Similarly, Haberman notes that “the candidates atop the GOP polls have spent the least amount of time meeting with voters [in early states] and the cellar-dwellers are the ones who have hit the hustings the hardest.”
The trend toward public figures and organizations bypassing traditional media outlets poses important challenges for journalists everywhere, but this paradigm shift is particularly wrenching in an early primary state like New Hampshire, one of the few places where the press has typically enjoyed extensive access to presidential candidates. In this campaign, for instance, GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney has limited press access so extensively that reporters recently debated how long it has been since his last press availability, while former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain went so far as to skip a meeting with the influential editorial board of the Union Leader in Manchester, NH due to a dispute over videotaping (he has since rescheduled).
How has the media responded? As a newcomer to New Hampshire (I joined the faculty at Dartmouth College this fall), I’ve been struck by the contrast between two very different styles of campaign coverage.
On the one hand, New Hampshire media outlets are full of detailed accounts of local candidate appearances (“Huntsman highlights record at Hudson gathering”), only-in-New-Hampshire stories like an AP report on a single voter’s decision to support Jon Huntsman for president, and colorful anecdotes from the campaign trail (a recent highlight: Herman Cain fleeing a presidential candidate called “Vermin Supreme” who “walked in with a hulk fist clutching an American flag attached to his crotch and loudly requested a ‘Vermin-Herman’ debate”). These dispatches often have an appealing small town flavor. Though they sometimes lack detailed coverage of the policies candidates are proposing, they do give voters an impressionistic picture of how the campaign is unfolding across the state.
But New Hampshire media outlets also feature surprisingly extensive insider-style coverage of the candidates’ latest gaffes and flubs, behind-the-scenes accounts of organizational developments like the mass resignation of Michele Bachmann’s paid staff in the state, and detailed analysis of the battle for endorsements in the state. These articles, while impressively savvy, often feel like a state version of Politico (a partner of the Union Leader, by the way).
Different as they may be, it’s easy to see why the state media take these two approaches. Journalists clearly take their responsibility to vet the candidates seriously, but it’s hard to blame them for complementing their campaign dispatches with reports on insider strategy and media analysis, especially when the candidates keep their distance. There’s even an argument that this approach provides valuable information to early state voters, who have strong incentives to incorporate strategic considerations when choosing from a set of ideologically similar candidates.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen how this movie ends. The media in states like New Hampshire are following the same trajectory as the national press, who has come to place a disproportionate emphasis on horse race-style coverage of strategy and tactics in recent decades. The problem with this approach, as Stanford’s Shanto Iyengar has argued, is that the expansion of political analysis has crowded out coverage of presidential candidates’ messages and policy proposals. As he writes, “Today, the sound-bite granted the presidential candidates amounts to no more than a few words… Since speeches are primarily about policy and performance, suppression of this form of campaign communication is especially costly to voters,” who are exposed to less information about the issues that are the ostensible focus of the campaign.
At one time, the hope was that people in early states would have a unique opportunity to avoid the media filter and get to know the candidates and what they stand for on a more intimate level. In this cycle, however, analysis of how the candidates are faring threatens to crowd out the actual content of the campaign, even in early states like New Hampshire. The danger, in other words, is that the presidential campaign will be Politico-ized all the way down.
Is there a better approach? Rather than adopting the prevailing framework from national journalists, we should hope that state reporters write in a framework that is attentive to strategic factors but still places their primary emphasis on the positions and proposals of the candidates. Consider, for instance, how media outlets covered former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s proposal to add private accounts to Social Security, which he unveiled in New Hampshire on Monday. Politico’s Jonathan Martin chronicled the former House Speaker’s lack of message discipline, while the Huffington Post’s Jon Ward unearthed a supposed dig at Romney deep within the Gingrich campaign’s 48-page proposal. While these accounts may be interesting to political junkies, both neglect to provide readers with the basic policy facts about Gingrich’s proposal.
By contrast, the Boston Globe’s Shira Schoenberg (whose newspaper is widely read in southern New Hampshire) wrote a story that deftly blended horse race context (Gingrich’s rise in the polls) with policy substance (the lack of available details on how the Gingrich plan would be funded and implemented). Let’s hope reporters in New Hampshire and other early states follow her example going forward.