The news that McLatchy has abandoned political polling reminded me of a conversation I recently had with my old pal Walter Shapiro–one of America’s premier political writers, now working for AOL’s Politics Daily. Walter has been working the primaries around the country hard, as always, this election year and a few months ago he wrote an important piece about how local newspapers, in the process of evaporation, have cut back drastically on their political reporting.
That was depressing news for those of us who (a) have spent our lives doing this and (b) relied on the knowledge of local reporters to give us an initial read on the state of local campaigns…but most of all, (c) it was terrible news for the communities in question, which had lost the expertise of their experienced print reporters. Far too often in recent years, I’ve seen press conferences consisting of camera operators from the local TV affiliates, without a background in journalism or politics, asking politicians questions that had been written out for them by their bosses back at the station. Even the madly handsome/gorgeous TV reporters, who occasionally combined looks with brains, have been swept away in many places.
“But that’s not all,” Walter told me over dinner. “Most of the local papers are cutting back on their polling operations. There aren’t many solid numbers out there anymore.” It used to be that local dailies took real pride in their polling, conducted rigorous surveys where actual human beings spoke to actual citizens over the phone. The Des Moines Register poll, with its extensive local institutional memory, is still regarded as the most important gauge of support in the presidential primary season. But with the cutbacks, polling has relegated to robo-operations, which are less accurate and often skewed (as in the case of Rasmussen) by the pollster’s ideology.
I’ve never been much of a fan of polling. It’s a rear-view mirror operation, vastly overplayed by my colleagues because it is about the only thing that presents hard facts, or appears to do so, in the midst of a political campaign. But if you’re going to overplay the numbers–and thereby underplay a sharp analysis of what the candidate is offering–they should be accurate numbers. Sadly, like the patients in Oliver Sachs’ Awakenings, we seem to be slipping back into darkness after a period of relative enlightenment in local political reporting. This is not good news for democracy.