Talking To Individual Voters Is a Waste of Time


You don’t have to spend money to go to journalism school. I will tell you how to write a story about a political campaign that is up to the standards of the national press. Your story won’t be worth a damn. Few of them are!

You go to the campaign rally, or the speech, or the debate, or the state fair or whatever, and you take notes on what the politicians say, and you write that up really briefly, playing up most prominently anything that plays into the ongoing campaign “narrative” that you have made up. Then—and this is extremely important—you walk around the event talking to random yokels, asking them, for example, “What do you think of [candidate X]?” You talk to enough of these random people to get a sufficient range of responses that cover the basic political and racial and cultural spectrum, and then you put those quotes into the story as Important Reactions From Voters, and then you file the story and go drink in a hotel bar in Ames, IA, with other reporters who are desperately questioning their life choices.

What journalistic value do quotes from random citizens provide in the context of political stories? None at all. Well, I should not say that. They provide color. Color is important, for making stories less boring. Color is fun, and funny, and quirky or sad or enraging. Color is the condiment on the journalism sandwich. It adds flavor. That’s nice and all. But it is not the food. Pretending like it is the food gives you a ketchup sandwich.

Is that what you want?

There are more than 300 million people in the U.S. In 2016, more than 130 million of them voted. How do you get an accurate or even semi-accurate idea of the tendencies and preferences and trends of a group of 130 million people? There is one way: a poll. A (quality, legitimate, scientifically sound) poll can tell you, within a reasonable margin of error, how a group of more than 100 million people might vote, and what they might generally be thinking. A poll. If you want to get useful information about American voters, look at polls. A poll can tell you something real.

How do you get information that is pure, useless noise? Go talk to five people attending a politician’s speech. What will you learn from this? You will learn the opinions of five people. Do the opinions of these five people have predictive value in a national election? They do not. But virtually every on-the-ground campaign story includes a mandatory section in which a handful of random people are quoted, giving their worthless opinions about things that were said and whatnot. If you are a campaign trail reporter who constantly wastes your time rounding up these quotes—making sure to scrupulously balance the old white guy ranting about Sharia with a young Bernie supporter who is actively vaping during the interview, because that is what fairness is—consider this: all these randos you quote in your stories have exactly as much journalistic value as… anyone. You could just quote yourself! Quote the other reporters at your hotel bar! The singular opinions of each of these people is equally useless! Save yourself some time!

No matter what you think of Nate Silver, he did accomplish at least one meaningful thing, which was to get it through everyone’s thick skulls that there is a branch of mathematics known as statistics, and it can be used to produce polls that have actual predictive power and contain worthwhile knowledge, which is more than you can say for typical political news stories that cobble together quotes from a small group of voters and call them insightful. They are not insightful. They are, at best, color. Usually, they are just filler, that are put in because editors expect it. And most honest reporters will tell you that they shop for an appropriate range of quotes when they do these things. It’s not even a random sample of randos. It is just finding other people to say the words that you already know you want to appear in your story. As an avenue for actually understanding the big picture of American politics, this practice is approximately as useful as Peggy Noonan declaring that Obama would lose based on the number of Romney yard signs she was seeing.

You want meaningful numbers? Read a poll. You want color? Flip to a random page of the Bible, pull out a quote, and make that your lead graf—works like a charm. But skip the utterly vacuous schmoozing with Dick and Jane Wisconsin who aren’t so sure about this candidate fella’s ideas about the dairy industry. They are but grains of sand in the political desert.

If you need me, I’ll be at the hotel…. library, drinking knowledge (important books).

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