What’s Next? Two Suggestions for Post-Election News Coverage
Now that the triumph of the nerds over the pundits is behind us, we turn to Jed Bartlet and ask, “what’s next?” Social scientists are walking a bit taller this morning after political science forecasters like Drew Linzer and mainstream media forecasters like Nate Silver called the presidential election with eerie accuracy. Many people are saying that the election was a ‘win’ for Silver especially, and for forecasters more generally.
While battle victories are nice, and while my own performance on Twitter last night gleefully gloated about how the results lined up with both late forecasts and scholarly forecasts from months ago that relied on “the fundamentals” as compared to Pick Your Pundit’s “gut” let’s focus on what’s next: winning the war – how can journalists use what social scientists know to improve political news coverage?
As I tell every group of aspiring journalists I teach and many reporters I talk to during interviews, Hans Noel’s “Ten Things That Political Scientists Know That You Don’t” and Brendan Nyhan and John Sides’ “How Political Science Can Help Journalism (and Let Journalists Be Journalists)” are the best places to start to begin focusing on the long-view. As for reporters looking for stories now, here are some suggestions regarding two stories that are newsworthy right now: post-election mandates and how governance might work under divided government with an ideologically diverse electorate.
After elections come competing claims from the news media and political elites about whether the election results are a mandate. They are not (John Sides goes into detail today at The Monkey Cage). Voting is a very blunt instrument. Citizens do not vote, “Obama, keep Obamacare, cut defense spending, restrict late-term abortions, raise taxes on the wealthy, invade Iran.” They vote Obama. Even with detailed exit polls, it is difficult to discern what a vote “means.” Nyhan’s treatment of “the coming mandate debate,” which highlights James Stimson and colleagues’ excellent work, is a great place to begin for reporters who are interested in what the election means for governing. And, be on the lookout for those who claimed that George W. Bush’s victory meant/did not mean that he had a mandate while Barack Obama’s victory does not/does mean that he has one.
As David Karol noted in The Monkey Cage last week when he highlighted Margie Hershey’s interesting study, the news media play a role in determining what the election means by developing the “constructed explanation” of what the election means. There may be a story in comparing the media’s coming explanation for Obama’s victory to how people develop attitudes about why Obama won. Kim Fridkin’s work shows that news coverage of presidential debates affect perceptions about who won; reporters (and scholars) can start investigating if the same is true about media constructions about who won the White House. Even more generally, stories explaining why there is not a mandate can help citizens develop realistic expectations about how governing works – expectations most citizens do not possess.
Governance Amidst Public Ideological Potpourri and Divided Government
The American people were pretty closely divided between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Beyond the economic fundamentals, presidential approval, and the like, part of the closeness is a function of the menu of options that the American people had before them when making their vote choice. Political elites are deeply divided along a single left-right ideological dimension with Republicans on the right and Democrats on the left. The people: not so much (self-promotion alert!). A substantial portion of the electorate does not answer survey questions about self-identified ideology and many who call themselves moderate are actually either libertarian (wanting the government out of economic affairs and social choices) or communitarian (wanting the government to manage economic affairs and social choices). Those groups are not moderate at all, they just as divided as liberals and conservatives but they are both called moderate by the mainstream media (and many scholars).
My collaborative work with Ted Carmines and Mike Ensley demonstrates that people organize their preferences around both economic and social issues and that these preferences affect their partisanship and civic engagement. For some, their issue preferences match what the parties are offering – these folks are polarized as they have liberal views on both economic and social issues or conservative views on both. Obviously, the Democratic Party is the clear choice for liberals and the Republican Party is the clear choice for conservatives. For others, it is not so simple. Some of their views match Republican positions and some match Democratic ones. These folks are stuck in the middle of a system that does not reflect their preferences. Journalists have an endless supply of stories about how parties try to appeal to those groups (Can the parties appeal to libertarians and communitarians simultaneously? Do they have to pick one of the other? Does the strategy vary by state? What did the candidates do in 2012? Did it work? How might those groups affect the long-term electoral prospects for each major party, and whether these groups are on legislators’ minds when they begin governing in the new year?).
Reporters can shed a great deal of light on how lawmakers see the electorate and how that view does or does not influence the agenda lawmakers put together, issues on which people may be willing to compromise, and so forth. Stories explaining what we know about governing in divided government would be a good way to frame post-election coverage as well.
Finally, reporters would benefit from keeping in mind how their own systematic behavior serves their readers, viewers, and listeners. Regina Lawrence has shown that even policy coverage can focus on “game framing” rather than the content of policy proposals. Ironically, she shows that substantive coverage dominates after decisions have been made. Putting the substance first has enormous news value and can give interested citizens better tools on which to follow the both President Obama and Governor Romney’s admonitions to stay involved civically after the election.