Three questions about campaign coverage

How the media can do better the next time around (Or, “NOW FOR THE HARD PART”)

COLUMBUS, OH — As America lurches towards Election Day like a ravaged water-logged creature from a 1950s horror flick, the general mood is less anticipation than a desperate craving for the nation’s quadrennial adventure in democracy to be over. At this stage in the campaign, the only novelty is in the breakout of unlikely brouhahas: Rush Limbaugh vs. Chris Christie, Nate Silver vs. Margaret Sullivan (though see this). So with salvation from campaign fatigue less than 100 hours away, I thought I would do what magazines like Newsweek used to do with such brio—jump a week ahead of the story.

No, I am not going to slap that epic (and now imperiled) news-magazine headline, “NOW FOR THE HARD PART,” on a drawing of a shadowy president confronting the fiscal cliff. Instead, I want to raise some questions about the craft of campaign reporting—questions whose answers may begin to emerge with the rush of returns on Tuesday night, but will only become clearer with more reflective post-election analysis. These are the some of the queries that need to be wrestled with before campaign junkies like me make our first exploratory trips of the 2016 campaign to Iowa and New Hampshire next summer.

Does a National Election Exist Any More?

This question is at the heart of the polling disputes that have swirled around everything from the Gallup national sample to the skirmishing over the omnipresent Silver. If, as I suspect, swing-state polls turn out to have been a more accurate predictor of the election than national surveys, then news organizations and campaign reporters may have to rethink how they cover presidential politics.

What has been startling about this campaign cycle is the unchanging nature of the geography. Unlike 2008, there are no surprise states like Indiana and North Carolina seizing the limelight at the last moment. (If Mitt Romney somehow carries Pennsylvania, boy, will I regret the prior sentence.) In fact, about the only change in the political map since late spring has been the post-Paul Ryan emergence of Wisconsin as a battleground state and the universal agreement that New Mexico is safe for Barack Obama.

The reasons for this truncated terrain may range from more adept political targeting to the increasing polarization of America. But gone forever is the era when a presidential nominee like Richard Nixon in 1960 felt compelled to campaign in all 50 states.

Voters in swing states now experience a different campaign and are exposed to different political stimuli than most Americans. Whether or not this is healthy for democracy, it means that in 2016 news organizations should consider downplaying national polling after the primaries. I love national trend stories about everything from the emergence of Latino voters to the economic travails of Wal-Mart Moms. But as I write from a Columbus hotel room (as I did at this point in 2004 and 2008), there is no longer a reason to ask, “Why-o, why-o Ohio?”

Did Reporters Spend Too Much Time with the Candidates and Not Enough with Voters?

I want to be reincarnated as a late-night TV host, for one reason: It is my only shot at an interview with a presidential nominee during the fall campaign. With candidate press conferences now a relic from the Osborne computer era and aides increasingly taking refuge in robotic spin, it is worth asking whether travel on campaign planes can be justified in this era of parched newsroom budgets.

I am not one of those off-the-bus zealots attacking campaign-plane reporters for being trapped in a media bubble. Twenty years later, I can still recall the airborne insights that I picked up as a Time reporter on Bill Clinton’s plane in 1992. My instinct is to defend any journalistic tradition that gets reporters closer to the candidate, and doesn’t leave them merely watching him (or her) recite a fat-free stump speech from memory.

This time around, I have not traveled with either Romney or Obama, so what follows can be dismissed as armchair theorizing. But thinking back on the campaign, I cannot recall a single memorable story that appeared to flow from with-the-candidate reporting. And the rationale for stenographic coverage has long passed. Anything newsworthy that Romney or Obama says in public pops up on my Twitter feed (probably repeated 20 times) within a minute. Any campaign speech I want to watch can be seen via C-Span or downloaded from the web.

This dearth of depth from the candidates’ planes may reflect the message-discipline realities of the 2012 campaign—a controlled incumbent president being opposed by a buttoned-down challenger. If Romney is elected, we may yet see the fruits of the collective Air Mitt reporting during the run-up to the inauguration. Or come 2016, it may be finally time to rethink the verities of the Boys on the Bus approach to reporting that Timothy Crouse immortalized 40 years ago.

Did the Press Corps Do Enough To Follow the Money?

In this case, the answer is already known—and, sadly, it’s “no.” This is a hobbyhorse of mine, but I have been deeply disappointed in how little curiosity most of the media has shown in trying to figure out who (other than swing-state TV station owners) has gotten rich off the 2012 campaign-spending bacchanalia. One detail I would like to see: the 2013 building permits for the vacation homes of leading campaign consultants.

A conspicuous exception to the news blackout on buck-racking political operatives was a laudable Los Angeles Times story last week by Matea Gold, Maloy Moore, and Melanie Mason. Delving into the intricacies of campaign-finance reports, the three LAT reporters charted a staggering $134 million that the Romney campaign paid to firms with intimate ties to top campaign advisers. This money, by the way, is in addition to any fees that the campaign’s media firms may have collected as a commission on TV ad buys.

But rather than raising new questions about Romney’s purported managerial expertise, the exemplary Los Angeles Times story hardly entered the larger campaign conversation. You would think that it might have provoked some second-day follow-ups by other news organizations about whether Romney donors felt ripped off. Instead, it was as if scrutinizing the self-serving financial gamesmanship of campaign consultants was covered by some form of political omerta.

Actually, on reflection, as the news media begins to think about the lessons from its flawed 2012 campaign coverage, maybe the proper headline for this column should be: “NOW FOR THE HARD PART.”

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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.