The summer months will feature pre-convention skirmishes between the Obama and Romney camps, but all too often community newspapers largely ignore the national race to focus exclusively on local campaigns.
Too bad. Tip O’Neil’s insight still rings true: All politics is local. Every vote for the national ticket is cast locally. Most national candidates have political roots first planted in local politics. And national candidates owe their current position to local organization and local successes in the early primary states.
So how can Texas community newspapers cover national races if those candidates never come to town? How do you localize a national election?
Start by picturing the Democratic and Republican campaigns giant icebergs. If you have ever seen a picture of an iceberg, you know that it’s four-fifths underwater – no matter how big the visible part looks, most of the iceberg is below the water line. Presidential campaigns are like that. The “visible” part is what shows up on the nightly news or in The New York Times or in prime-time TV campaign commercials – but the voters who elect candidates are your readers and the people who live in your community.
So what are the national presidential campaign stories you can find right in your own community? Let’s look at a few:
Campaign contributions. How much is your city or county donating to the various candidates? Any search engine will give you as much data as you want, down to individual contributors. You may want to start with the Open Secrets site, http://www.opensecrets.org/states/, which will let you search by Zip Code and compare the contributions in this election cycle with contributions in past years. After you have some numbers, talk with local political experts about people’s willingness to give in a down economy. If you have a nearby college, political science professors make great sources for stories like this.
Young people and politics. During the last election, the Obama campaign made significant use of the youth vote. Talk with high school teachers about what they are noticing about the political interest of their students. Find youth sources – student government leaders, officers of political clubs, young people who volunteer for local campaigns – and ask them what they notice about their peers’ involvement in this year’s election.
The woman vote. Recent polls show women favoring the president and men supporting Romney. Is that true in your community? Talk to Republican and Democratic women, as well as local politicians and political experts (teachers, professors).
The get-out-the-vote efforts. As the election draws near, both parties will launch efforts to get their supporters to the polls. What plans does each party in your town have to increase Election Day turnout? Talk to an elections administrator to get the turnout figures on past presidential elections. Talk to local experts about what factors typically affect turnout in your city and county.
Voter registration. Get the voter registration numbers for your area and see how they have been trending over the past few elections. Compare them to national and state figures. Look at voter registration efforts in your city, paying special attention to organized efforts to sign up church members, minorities and young voters. Which groups have the most active voter registration efforts? Ask them how successful they have been.
Special interests. Look beyond candidates and parties. What groups have active efforts to influence election outcomes? Religious groups? Minority groups? Teachers? Women’s groups? When you find a group trying to influence turnout and voting, find out specifically what they are doing and what they hope the results will be. Find out how long they have been in operation and if this is just a local effort, as opposed to a part of a national effort. And don’t forget to find out where they are getting the money to finance their efforts.
Localizing issues. When issues are being debated on the national stage, it’s easy to overlook what those issues mean on Main Street. You may not have gay couples in your community lining up to be married, but the issue itself may be a hotbutton for many voters. Gas prices certainly affect many commuters and low-income families and truckers. And you can talk with local experts on the economy – business owners – about the impact of economic proposals from both sides.
Impact of the campaign. Look for stories on how the national campaign is affecting your town. Is there a local Mormon congregation? How has the increased attention on Mormonism affected the growth of their local church or perceptions of Mormonism? Is anyone from your town attending the national conventions or donating time to work out-of-town in the campaigns? Who is spearheading the efforts for Obama and Romney in your town and what are they doing?
And that’s just for starters. No matter how big your staff, get them together and brainstorm campaign coverage, perhaps beginning with the above list of ideas. Since presidential campaigns come around only every four years, newspaper staffs don’t have the opportunity to fall into the routines of campaign coverage, as we do with police and court and education and local government beats. Be sure to include ad sales people in your meeting – they may have better ideas about economics stories than your reporters and editors.
One good way to kick-start your thinking is by taking part in a June 22 webinar led by Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in Kentucky. Al, a friend of TCCJ and a nationally recognized expert on community journalism, will share strategies you can use to localize national elections. You can get more information on the webinar at http://bit.ly/JLL1Th.
One more resource is TCCJ itself – we will be sharing ideas throughout the summer and the fall on how you can bring the election home for your readers. We will also offer a convention news service that will localize the Republican convention in Tampa and the Democratic convention in Charlotte – if you have people from your city who are attending as delegates or campaign workers, we can get you a story on them just for your newspaper.
Theodore H. White, who chronicled many campaigns as a journalist and author, said that there is no excitement anywhere in the world – short of war – to match the excitement of an American presidential campaign.
He was right. And community newspapers need to capture that excitement in our pages to build readership and bring the campaign back to Main Street.