Time to head to the track

With voting underway, there's nothing wrong with providing the horse race coverage readers crave

DES MOINES — These days, the phrase “horse-race journalism” is often accompanied by the same sneering tone that 1950s intellectuals employed when they curled their lips around the dread word “television.”

Many of the lofty critiques of the shallow end of presidential campaign reporting are indeed justified. The last thing the world needs is comically early speculation about the 2016 Democratic race (Hillary vs. Andrew Cuomo?) or the breathless who-won-today’s-spin-wars coverage that was the norm during the early summer. And there remain substantive issues that have not been fully explored in this campaign, from Barack Obama’s unwavering commitment to drone strikes to how Mitt Romney might apply his management consulting experience to reorganizing the federal government.

But the problem has always been premature horse-race coverage, rather than the venerable tradition of trying to handicap the likely winner. And we have finally reached the moment when political reporters can buy their copy of the Daily Racing Form, grab their binoculars, and zoom in on the candidates as they head into the far turn. This is horse-racing season—and anyone who loves politics should revel in it.

Up to now, it has been easy to mock the familiar counterfactual pollster question: “If the presidential election were being held today would you vote for…” But with the advent of early voting in swing states like Iowa and Ohio, the election is actually being held today and every other day. With voters already filling out no-fault absentee ballots and going to designated early-voting polling places, there is nothing wrong with giving readers what they crave—the best reported guess at who is going to win the White House.

So here on a reporting trip to this leading up-for-grabs state, I am wrestling with the question of how to write presidential horse-race stories well. I know what to try to avoid—cliché-ridden, voice-of-God prose that merely repeats the conventional wisdom (“No Republican has won the White House without carrying Ohio”). But what should go in its place?

All veteran campaign reporters have to feel a little humbled by the growing sophistication of public opinion analysis, from the Real Clear Politics polling average to the statistical manipulations of Nate Silver. But I still have problems with the pseudo-certainty that comes with elaborately constructed models like Silver’s, which Thursday morning gave Obama a 67.9 percent chance of winning the election. As the Republican primaries showed, these precise forecasts can be volatile: Little more than a week ago, Silver had Obama’s odds of reelection at 84.6 percent.

Another reason for a bit of polling skepticism has been the contradictory trend lines in national polls and swing-state surveys. With campaign advertising and candidate visits lavished on a handful of states like Iowa, more than ever before swing-state voters are witnessing a different campaign than their fellow citizens elsewhere. As The Washington Post’s Dan Balz smartly asked, “Has the 2012 election created a new [polling] model in which battlegrounds perform different than national numbers?”

Reporters can also become caught up with the cult of the campaign strategist—the idea that only Jim Messina (Obama) and Matt Rhoades (Romney) know the true state of the race. These top strategists have such a dazzling array of polling and focus-group data on their laptops that comparing what they know to the information available to humble reporters is probably akin to the difference between the pictures from American spy satellites and Google Maps.

But—guess what?—Messina and Rhoades are not sharing the good stuff. Almost every polling leak from either campaign is deliberate and designed to be self-serving. Moreover, if these latter-day Carvilles and Roves were such unabashed geniuses, the Republicans would not have squandered their convention and the Obama team would not have banked on a passive debate strategy. So even if (fat chance) Messina and Rhoades told reporters what they honestly believed about the contours of the race, there are decent odds that they would be wrong.

And as I wrote about a month ago for CJR, Sasha Issenberg’s new book about breakthroughs in political technology, The Victory Lab, raises questions about whether reporters have a clue about how presidential campaigns are targeting persuadable voters. But while I stand by my recommendation that reporters should err on the side of humility, my recent experience canvassing with Obama and Romney volunteers in the Columbus, Ohio, area left me wondering whether campaigns have really transcended the clipboard era.

So, in the end, I am back with the most traditional weapons in a campaign reporter’s arsenal—voter interviews and long, mostly background, conversations with political insiders in states like Iowa and Ohio. Often the smartest and least spin-laden interviews a reporter can find are with veteran operatives and strategists who, for whatever reason, are on the sidelines in the 2012 campaign. They boast perspective, knowledge of their states, and an independence that campaign operatives lack.

All this is not a substitute for polls and data analysis, but a companion piece. I am under no illusions that I am doing anything more original than testing hypotheses with actual on-site reporting. But as it increasingly appears as if we will be facing another close election in a deeply divided nation, there is no shame in celebrating Political Horserace Time.

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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.