I just got back from several days in New Hampshire, attending political rallies across the state and observing thousands of voters in their natural habitat. What have I learned about what will happen in the presidential race? Nothing!
“Well, Hamilton, you’re a bad journalist, a lazy hack, a cynic and a grump with no insight into the proclamations of the American voter.” Yes, yes, all true. Unfortunately, even the good and energetic and enthusiastic journalists that descend upon Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina and dutifully watch all the stump speeches over and over and interview people in coffee shops and truck stops and gossip with campaign operatives, I’m sorry to say, learn nothing of value.
Political campaigns are a great feature story. The weirdos, the crooks, the hateful lunatics, the mile-deep ignorance that drives the election of the world’s most powerful person—all of these things can produce great stories. Poetic stories, personal stories, stories of greed and anger and lust for power. These sorts of stories can get at deep truths in the same way that a great novel can, and are certainly valuable because of that, and, by the way, are much more enjoyable to read than dry horse race reporting.
But does political reporting as it is generally practiced in the USA produce any useful and valuable knowledge about the real political state of our country and what direction we are going in? Not really. Go to a Donald Trump rally. Talk to Donald Trump voters. They like Donald Trump. They dislike Wall Street. Go to a Bernie Sanders rally. Talk to Bernie Sanders voters. They like Bernie Sanders. They dislike Wall Street. Go to any politician’s rally. Some people there like the politician. They have various concerns. Talk to the campaign spokespeople. They tell you the candidate is very popular. Talk to other journalists at the bar. They tell you about how they did the same things you did today, in different places.
These methods will give you set of facts that you can easily use to produce standard political stories: “Donald Trump Voters Are Energized.” “Bernie Sanders Voters Engage in Class War.” “John Kasich Fills Room.” “Jeb Bush Campaign Declares Strength.” “Chris Christie Supporters Say They Are Scared of Terrorists.” Etcetera. You will recognize these sorts of stories from every nightly news broadcast and newspaper front page during campaign season. And what real insight into the future of the American electorate have these political reporters gained via these methods? None at all!
You know what sort of political story tells you something of real value? A poll. That is a useful snapshot of the American electorate. Talking to the six people wearing the most outrageous outfits at a Donald Trump speech does not, I am sad to say, provide a statistically significant sample of the electorate. Talking to paid operatives does not provide an impartial look at the state of the race. Certainly, talking to the six most insane people at a Donald Trump speech and to the people craven enough to take jobs on a Donald Trump campaign could provide excellent fodder for a lively feature story delving into the psychological makeup of America’s most dangerous citizens. But that is not the way that political journalism is usually practiced. Usually, professional political reporters follow candidates around to events and talk to a statistically insignificant sample of voters and hear from paid operatives and then—from this set of data that may well be wildly misleading—concoct conclusions about what is or will be happening in the race.
These conclusions, based as they are on trifles and guesswork, are often wrong. And yet because they have been arrived at through accepted methods, their wrongness does not often cost the political expert anything. That is how we get to where we are today, when Bill Kristol is a respected political expert despite being wrong in virtually every prediction, and where Peggy Noonan is a respected political expert despite predicting a Mitt Romney victory because she saw quite a few of his yard signs up. On a more mundane level, it is why people employed as mainstream political reporters are invited onto television and taken seriously as experts, even though—to use only the most recent example—last night’s primary was won by two candidates that no mainstream political reporters took seriously one year ago. It is why Scott Walker, who not long ago was the media’s favorite choice for likely Republican nominee, dropped out of the race so long ago that his name is barely ever spoken now. Most political analysis is not based on something solid; it is based on, well, what feels right, the same way average idiots “predict” who they think will win the Super Bowl next year.
It is also based on what everyone else is predicting! There is career safety in numbers.
Predictions are hard. The expert predictive analysis of political pundits is mostly worthless. A statistician with a reliable method of analyzing valid national polls may be able to make a useful prediction about a political race. A political beat reporter who got a five-minute sitdown with Carly Fiorina’s campaign manager will not. If our political media focused on issues rather than on the horse race, they could produce stories with value independent of their resemblance to Las Vegas gambling tip sheets. There are many (important, interesting, informative, true) things to be said about the many contentious political issues that directly affect people’s lives today. Political reporters might, in a parallel universe, view their task as exploring those issues directly, and then comparing their findings to the stances of the various political candidates. But this is not the world that we live in. We live in a world in which people with no inherent expertise in anything at all (reporters like me) are expected to be able to produce grand insights into the future behavior of one hundred million demographically diverse people based upon how energetic the crowd of five dozen at the last Jeb Bush town hall meeting was.
A true genius can mine profound and universal truths from the smallest fact. As long as you believe that most political reporters are true geniuses, our current system is fine.