How to cover the horse race?

Ohio’s press-watchers weigh in on the contest between campaigns and reporters

OHIO — With just a month to go before the election, the presidential campaigns are in the homestretch, an apt label for the horse-race mentality that dominates the media’s coverage of these events.

It’s a frame that frequently comes in for criticism from media-watchers and readers alike. Journalists often defend horse-race coverage as a way to keep their audience engaged. But when, earlier this year, I asked people in my circles what they hoped it see in this year’s election coverage, I heard demands to dig deeper into policies, follow the money, and keep the campaigns honest—not for more scorekeeping.

Recently, though, horse-race coverage came in for criticism from a different angle: that it’s just not good enough. In a Sept. 1 post for New York Times’s “Campaign Stops” page, Slate columnist and Victory Lab author Sasha Issenberg argued that it’s important to cover the horse race because, “to understand how [candidates] will govern, we need to understand how they run.”

Issenberg argues that the real problem is that “we aren’t even that good at covering the horse race”—and that over the past decade, a “scientific revolution” has quietly reshaped politics to the point that “nearly every member of the political press now lacks the specialized expertise to interpret what’s going on.”

Issenberg continues:

Journalists tend to mistake the part of the campaign that is exposed to their view—the candidate’s travel and speeches, television ads, public pronouncements of spokesman and surrogates—for the entirety of the enterprise. They treat elections almost exclusively as an epic strategic battle to win hearts and minds whose primary tools are image-making and storytelling.

But particularly in a polarized race like this one, where fewer than one-tenth of voters are moving between candidates, the most advanced thinking inside a campaign is just as likely to focus on fine-tuning statistical models to refine vote counts and improve techniques for efficiently identifying and mobilizing existing supporters.

With those two lines of criticism in mind, I reached out to a few former Ohio journalists and expert politics watchers for their take on how this year’s campaign has been covered.

William Hershey, former Ohio Statehouse bureau chief for the Dayton Daily News, said that it’s not new for the campaigns to outpace the press, but that Issenberg’s argument was cause for concern.

“Reporters should always be aware that the campaigns are manipulating them. The Issenberg piece provides disturbing evidence that the campaigns have more tools to do the manipulating,” Hershey said.

Making matters more challenging, Hershey said, is that the campaigns’ increased ability “coincides with the decline of resources to cover the campaigns.”

Lee Leonard, who covered the Ohio Statehouse for 36 years, said he would like to see the press explore more fully campaigns’ efforts through social media.

“That is one thing that has changed. What are they doing and how are they trying to reach their own people and independents who haven’t made up their minds,” Leonard said.

At the same time, Leonard cautioned against giving too much time to campaign tactics.

“It’s clear campaigns have refined tactics,” he said. “I can see that by the literature I get and the phone calls I get and what they want to emphasize. But I’m not all that sure that readers are that interested in that.”

Everyone interviewed said it’s important for Ohio’s press to delve into critical issues and press candidates on where they stand on those issues.

On that count, Michael Curtin, author of The Ohio Politics Almanac and a former newspaperman who had a long career at The Columbus Dispatch, thinks reporters here have done a solid job.

“I think the media, broadly defined, has performed well in fairly presenting Obama’s case and Romney’s case,” said Curtin, now a Democratic candidate for the Ohio House of Representatives. “I think the fact-checking is better than ever, for those who care to follow it.”

“The horse race gets plenty of attention, but that’s nothing new,” Curtin added. “It always has.”

And Dan Birdsong, who teaches politics and media at the University of Dayton, believes the press gravitates to the horse race in part due to time constraints. Those same constraints may be keeping horse-race coverage superficial.

“The horse race is quite ingrained,” Birdsong said in an interview. “But local journalists are often in a Catch-22. They want to do more, but they are often forced to do quick analyses of debates and polling because of deadlines. The media could do more. But I’m hopeful for the press.”

Over email, Issenberg offered his own views about how Ohio’s media might proceed in the next few weeks. The problem in his view, he repeated, isn’t that there’s too much coverage of strategy and tactics—it’s that journalists “don’t really understand them and often leave their readers and viewers less informed about how campaigns really work.”

So how might reporters here cover the horse race differently? “We read a lot of stories that throw around terms like ‘ground game’ without ever explaining what campaigns are doing on the ground,” Issenberg wrote. “Are they registering voters, are they interviewing voters to identify their preferences, are they mobilizing existing supporters or trying to win new ones through persuasion? And if so, whom are they working to persuade?”

It might take another cycle before journalists can get a better handle in terms of what’s going on in terms of data mining, microtargeting, and social media, but political reporters might start to answer these “ground game” questions by expending some shoe leather over the remainder of this campaign.

The biggest challenge, of course, will be finding time and resources to report the horse race better without shortchanging the coverage of fact-checking, policy debates, and money in politics that readers and viewers rightly demand. It’s a tall order—one newsrooms can start to fill by chucking superficial coverage of the horse race.

Related posts:

After Charlotte: baffled by the horse race

In Defense of (the Right Kind of) Horse Race Journalism

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.