Elections

Please, Reporters, Stop Asking Candidates Horse-Race Questions

Senator Elizabeth Warren talks to reporters after learning that she had received the endorsement of the Des Moines Register in Muscatine, Iowa, on January 25, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
The answers are invariably formulaic and dissembling.

If I could give one piece of completely nonpartisan, non-ideological advice to political reporters that would actually be in their interests to take, it would be this: For the love of all that is holy, please stop asking political candidates to play horse-race pundit on their own campaigns. Stop asking them how they are doing in polls, or if they are disappointed at their fundraising haul. Stop asking presidential contenders how well they need to do in the next primary or when they are going to drop out. These sorts of questions are a waste of their time, a missed opportunity to inform voters about how the candidates would actually do the job if elected, and a waste of your opportunity to get a newsworthy answer instead of a bunch of blather nobody believes. Everybody loses.

Campaign coverage is already too obsessed with the horse race: who’s up, who’s down, who’s expected to win. Horse-race coverage frequently crowds out more useful reporting on the issues and the character of the candidates. Some of that is unavoidable: People like competition stories with winners and losers, and they make for easy narratives. But the candidates themselves are the least reliable sources for those stories. Their interest is always in offering spin, and unlike the campaign’s pollsters, they can’t even offer interestingly detailed spin. I doubt I have ever read or watched a horse-race story where a quote from a candidate added anything to the story. The only way you get news from candidates playing pundit is if they say something self-destructively disparaging of the voters. And those kinds of comments are more likely to come behind closed doors (think of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remarks or Barack Obama talking about clinging to guns and religion, both at private fundraisers) than when there’s a camera in their face.

This does not mean that candidates should never be asked campaign questions. You can make plenty of useful news asking about claims in campaign ads, for example, or what the candidate thinks his or her message is for specific groups of voters. There are lots of ways that events on the trail and interactions with the voters are newsworthy and relevant in evaluating a candidate’s values, goals, and fitness for office. But badgering politicians to evaluate whether they are winning or not is not one of those. On the campaign trail, everyone is Candide until they minute they concede.

Face-to-face time between a journalist and a candidate, especially a presidential candidate, is precious. If you’re a local TV anchor doing a spot with a candidate on his or her day in town, or a young embedded reporter getting a sitdown on the bus, or a newspaper scribe barking questions at a photo op, or a political analyst getting a couple of questions in at a debate, you likely will not have a whole lot of time with the candidate, and you may have to wait a while for more. Don’t throw away your shot by asking about the polls. Do yourself and the rest of us a favor and ask a question that might get you an answer that’s worth printing.

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