“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.