Commentary: 2012 elections show political reporters need to do better

The Kansas City StarNovember 15, 2012 

There's a grand tradition in newspaper writing that we might call the "boy, was I stupid" column.

I was fully prepared to pen my version of that column after writing, on the very day of the first presidential debate, that the Barack Obama-Mitt Romney exchange would have very little impact on the eventual outcome of the race.

That’s just the kind of pithy analysis you’ve come to expect in this space.

In retrospect, though, was my pre-judgment so wrong? Let’s look at some numbers.

On July 20, I wrote a different story, quoting several political scientists, who said in essence that the presidential results were already locked in. If Americans voted that summer day, they told me, the results would closely mirror the final outcome in November.

The morning we published that story, Obama led Romney in the Real Clear Politics poll average by 1.9 percent. Months later on Election Day, he won by 2.3 percent.

That result may or may not say something about the political scientists’ foresight. But it does say something important, I think, about the way we pick our presidents — and run our governments.

Political reporters, consultants, candidates and other hangers-on talk about the fluctuating presidential campaign because we have a vested interest in the horse race: Who’s up, who’s down. We obsess over every poll blip, every gaffe, every press conference.

But people don’t. In a Web-based, tweeting, blog-posting world, voters are bombarded with political messages every day. And that, I think, leads almost everyone who’s paying attention to make up their minds about the president months before going to the polls.

Presidential politics forces people to answer the question of the old ballad: Which side are you on?

The Obama campaign understood this. They worked on registration and outreach for years before the vote, while the Romney folks seemed to rely on a last-weekend push that seems, in retrospect, very 20th century.

Interestingly, the opposite phenomenon seems to have affected state and local politics. Busy voters pay close attention to the presidential race, but focus less on down-ballot races. That’s why Kansas candidates this year talked more about Obamacare than state tax cuts: It was an issue voters would recognize.

Our polarized politics has become, for better or worse, nationalized. We may know more about a local candidate’s stand on abortion than on pothole repair — because abortion or gun rights or Obamacare are symbols, not real local issues requiring real local answers.

For that, political reporters bear some of the responsibility. So don’t take this as my “stupidity” column.

Consider it my “we need to do better” column instead.

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