What if journalists actually developed a working knowledge of those mechanics and the tools campaigns used to engineer them? It doesn’t take much to dramatically increase your base of knowledge about voter-contact tactics, which often reveal more about a campaign’s thinking about where its votes will come from than the latest Web ad or polling memo released by a communications department. A lot of media have written about the Obama campaign’s new mobile canvassing app, but few have asked a central question about its underlying purpose: Why is the Obama campaign using it to send existing volunteers to recruit other volunteers instead of hunting for new supporters?
So a modest proposal: newsrooms develop a version of a study-abroad program, placing their reporters in campaign field offices for a month during the summer of an election season. It’s time that they see the place where campaigns interact with real people, by asking the questions on phone-bank scripts, entering the answers into databases, then seeing how that information shapes decisions about which voters to call or visit next. (Full disclosure: I volunteered for Democratic candidates in New York starting when I was 12, but have not worked in campaigns since I first got involved in journalism.) My guess is that journalists who spent even a few weeks in this world would pose wildly different questions the next time they sat down with Jim Messina or Stuart Stevens.
The goal would not be to gather intelligence about a particular candidate and his tactics but to build institutional knowledge that could help to re-center journalistic understandings of what a campaign actually does. To assuage concerns about bias and conflicts of interest, newsrooms could assign reporters to work in races away from the ones they cover: the Richmond Times-Dispatch correspondent gets detailed to an Oregon mayoral campaign, the Nevada radio reporter to a Maine ballot initiative. Assignment editors at the Washington Post and Politico and NBC News would randomly dispatch their reporters so they’re split evenly, half campaigning for Democratic candidates and half for Republicans. While it would be great if they could slot into presidential campaigns, it’s by no means necessary. Many of the essential tools used by campaigns for organizing and marshaling voter data have become so universal that a national political journalist would learn plenty from being exposed to a competent modern campaign for state legislature or county judge.
The media have become so fixated on neutrality that we have become detached not only from the ideologies and philosophies of the people we cover, but their methods, too. Many have noted that the turn toward rigorously empirical campaigning looks a lot like the one that has changed baseball over the last decade, as described in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. But political reporters are in even worse shape than the sports press was. Baseball beat writers may have had trouble appreciating and assessing the quantitative revolution taking place in front offices because they lacked the requisite statistical expertise. But political reporters are actually far more poorly positioned to document similar transformation in our fields. Nearly everyone who writes about baseball has held a bat and a glove at some point, and some—no matter how old or physically unfit they may be now—still play catch, dabble on a softball team, or coach Little League. The first step toward appreciating why a general manager might prize a statistic like a pitcher’s WHIP is understanding what it takes to throw a baseball 60 feet, or the choices a batter faces at the other end.
Journalists have rarely developed a comparable familiarity with the fundamentals of the game we cover. We haven’t held a canvasser’s clipboard and seen the empty fields that are to be filled in after a conversation with a voter at his doorstep. How could we possibly understand what would go into a statistical model predicting her vote intention, or a randomized field experiment to test her persuadability? It’s time for political beat reporters to pick up a bat and see what it’s like to take a swing.