Turn Up the Data, Turn Down the Noise: Getting Better Campaign Coverage in Hawaii
by Neal Milner
Modern political campaigns have changed dramatically, but coverage of them has hardly changed at all. Sasha Issenberg, who has written extensively about coverage of the 2012 presidential campaigns, puts it this way: “over the last decade, almost entirely out of view, campaigns have modernized their techniques in such a way that nearly every member of the political press now lacks the specialized expertise to interpret what’s going on.” Like generals fighting the last war, print and TV journalists continue to cover political campaigns as if it’s 1972 and they are the boys on Richard Nixon’s bus.
What Issenberg says about the national press certainly applies to the media’s coverage of the 2012 Honolulu mayoral race, and for the same reasons. The campaign that Hawaii’s media described was not the campaign that actually took place. Both print and TV reporters gave Hawaii voters far too much irrelevant information and far too little important information. That’s because TV and print journalists lack the expertise needed to bring the modern campaign out of the shadows and because media outlets do not encourage such coverage. It’s also the fault of the part of the public in Hawaii who pay the most attention to the news because they reinforce the demand for coverage that is behind the curve.
Coverage Behind the Curve
To understand the mayor’s race, you have to understand the strategy of PRP, which was by far the most important pro-rail, anti-Cayetano organization. The core of this strategy was a combination of carefully targeted media use and data-driven grass roots politics. This core was a black box that the local media never opened. TV and print journalists paid almost no attention to the grass roots. During the last few weeks of the campaign some stories touched on at the canvassing PRP was doing, but this coverage began too late and reflected little overall knowledge of what had been going on throughout the campaign. As a result, the tardy coverage, with its talk of paid canvassers armed with electronic devises had an aliens-in-our-midst tone to it but offered few details about what was actually going on.
In the mayor’s race, local media focused on the usual things–debates, candidate speeches, campaign war chests, and press releases. Reporters interviewed campaign officials and pundits like me. All these sources are very visible, very accessible, and easy to cover. The problem is all this information is not very important. Voters are not typically influenced much by debates or speeches, and they certainly were not in the mayoral race. What really mattered was the sophisticated combination of data mining, targeting, and grass roots activities that was the heart of the PRP campaign.
Grass roots campaigning is no longer about a few folks on the weekends with a bunch of handouts in Palolo beating the bushes and dodging the dogs. PRP’s grassroots campaign was primitive compared to the Obama gold standard, but it was much closer to Obama campaign than it was to the usual few guys from Kaimuki finishing their McDonalds coffee and grabbing their signs. Without knowing this, it was impossible to get an accurate read on the PRP campaign and ultimately an understanding of Caldwell’s victory.
Local media also reported on the polls the usual way, but the usual way was misleading because it paid no attention to what PRP was doing with its own its own data gathering. Media discussions (including the ones that I participated in) asked the usual questions—why were there differences between one poll and another, who was ahead, how were ethnic groups were voting. But at the same time these discussions were taking place, PRP was using modern, Obama-campaign-like methods of data mining and voter targeting that made these media discussions not just primitive but obsolete. PRP had much better information on what was going on, and was not at all focused at all on the how the usual groups were doing because PRP could target voters on the basis of individual characteristics that typically had little to do with the standard demographic suspects like race, gender, and ethnicity. PRP could monitor over time not just an individual’s preference but how likely a person was to change.
We can’t expect the media to have gotten access to these PRP data, but it is far to expect the media to report on PRP’s methods so that the public could make better judgment about the media’s own polls.
And then there is the way print and television handled the negative ads issue. Because it paid so little attention to the PRP’s grassroots activities, local media gave a misleading view of the role of money in politics. The media obsessed over the amount of money PRP had and the number of negative ads it ran, but said almost nothing about the way that PRP was actually using its money to make these ads effective. It was as if simply saying that negative ads don’t work in Hawaii or just asking a pundit whether they worked was enough. But here is the obvious question that the media never really addressed: Why would PRP spend all this money to run the ads if PRP did not think the ads were working?
In fact PRP had good data on where and how the ads were working. It was able to track the effect of the ads on a real time basis. PRP had specific targets for these ads and knew over time how the ads affected their targets. No journalists covered this part of the story. Given that media coverage, it’s not surprising that so many people were befuddled by the size of Caldwell’s victory.
The Cayetano –Caldwell race is likely to be the model for future elections in Hawaii. Unless the media changes, the public will be more and more in the dark as time goes on and more and more at the mercy of the campaigns’ spin masters.
Here are four ways to make things better. Three apply to the media. The other one is about the rest of us.
Four Changes that would improve coverage
1. Educate political reporters
Journalists need to understand the new techniques of data gathering and analysis, but they don’t need to be math majors to do their job. They need to have the same kind of translating capabilities that good science reporters have. Reporters covering climate change don’t have to work out the formulas behind long range forecasting, but they need to know how to explain them and who can be trusted to give valid information about them. (A model political reporter is Craig Gilbert, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Washington, DC bureau chief.)
Reporters also need to learn more about the excellent research on voting behavior and the important if disconcerting studies of the role that emotion plays (as in susceptibility to ads, for instance) in voters’ choices.
2. Change the methods and priorities of media coverage
Educating reporters is not enough. TV and print news editors need to create formats that encourage using this information. Media, especially television news, is event driven. The more dramatic, the better. The core of the modern campaign is not an event in the conventional media sense. It is seldom dramatic. The modern campaign’s sophisticated grass roots politics is subtle and beneath the surface, not at all dramatic in the conventional media sense. It focuses on individuals rather than groups. It takes place away from the camera. None of it is staged as an event.
Both television and print need to develop new definitions of what’s important and new ways to get information and present it. The story may have to be longer or told in a different way. There is a good chance that its focus will not be on some easily accessible political official or talking head but rather on someone who is less well known and harder to identify as a source.
One way of doing this is to embed a political reporter into a political campaign just the way war correspondents are embedded into a military unit. Embedded reporters do much more than report on key events. They learn about context and everyday activities. These reporters are not there to interview generals.
3. Either dump political debates entirely or put them in the back seat where they belong
By the final mayoral debate, a boring and listless affair where the questioners were more engaging than the candidates, both Kirk Caldwell and Ben Cayetano looked and acted as if in their heart of hearts, they really did not want to be there. And well they should have felt because both candidates understood that despite the hype, the debates were not important.
Debates make little difference. They sway very few people because most of the people watching them have already made up their minds and because most of those who have not made up their minds do not watch them. Yet newspapers and television station hype debates as if they are the center of the campaign. It is easy to understand why. Debates are easy to cover. They take place in a confined camera-friendly space. It is as easy for the reporters to cover them. As a result, they get much more media attention than they deserve.
It wouldn’t hurt to get rid of the debates entirely, but if you want to keep them, see them for what they are, as the candidates’ civic duty, not as some kind of key to the election. And quit asking political analysts, “Who won?” If a journalist wants to report on who won, he or she needs to go to the grass roots, not to some expert who is undoubtedly very different from the voter the campaigns are trying to influence and certainly can’t give a valid response on the spot.
4. Turn down the noise
This one applies to the rest of us, especially to the political junkies who have an insatiable appetite for political information. The market for bad media coverage rests on your shoulders. You need to break the habit. Back away from cable news, the pundits, the candidate gaffes of the day, and the spin. Like a junkie on drugs, a political junkie chooses an immediate reward even though that choice leads to long-term harm.
The problem is not the lack of objectivity. It is the noise. All this shouting, predicting, and pontificating is certainly noise in the everyday sense, but more significantly, it is noise in the scientific sense—meaningless data intermingled with relevant information. Like the coverage of the mayoral campaign, this noise says far too little about what really matters and far too much about what does not.
The lesson for Hawaii is this: we pundits did not have a clue about what PRP was doing. The story we helped to tell was as limited and unhelpful as the media’s story. There are things that political analysts can do very well, but the media or the public seldom asks us to do them, and we find it hard to resist going beyond our expertise.
If you like to watch these news shows, fine, but think of them more as entertainment than analysis. You watch Hawaii Five-0 because it is fast, colorful, and entertaining, not because it teaches you anything about Hawaii. Next time you pay attention to elections, think of the pundits as Steve and Danno.
Neal Milner is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Hawaii. He is a political analyst for KITV.