Simplistic Trump voter impeachment interviews won’t tell us anything new, so please spare us
We could all save ourselves a lot of time watching or reading news if political reporters cut down on what are likely to be endless visits to diners, VFW halls, and Farm & Fleet stores, all asking Trump voters, “Are you still with Donald Trump?”
Because we already know the response: From most of them, it’s likely to be yes. And even if a reporter gets a “no” now and then, which they will from some, that’s not exactly a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalistic coup.
Will Trump voters support impeachment of the guy they voted for three years ago when they’re fed a steady diet from Fox News, Republicans, and Trump himself about claims of “hoaxes,” “witch hunts,” “sham investigations,” and conspiracies about the “deep state”? Highly unlikely.
FiveThirtyEight.com’s ongoing aggregate polling of Trump’s approval rating shows numbers basically unchanged in the low 40s, give or take a few percentage points, during his entire presidency. Since news about the Ukraine phone call scandal exploded in September, similar aggregate polling shows that the number of people supporting the impeachment process started to outnumber those against it, although only a plurality, not a majority, now say Trump should be impeached and removed. Except for that reversal in September, the numbers tighten or grow further apart by only a few percentage points.
Attitudes toward Trump remain largely unchanged. Those who are true Trumpanistas remain so. Those who would rather swallow glass than ever vote for Trump have pledged to vote blue no matter who. So why do political reporters waste our time and attention asking simple questions to which everyone already knows the answers?
Interviewing voters is important throughout any political contest, especially when numbers and support are still fluid. An ongoing look at the still-volatile Democratic presidential primary contest is a perfect example — many voters in several early states and elsewhere admit that they are still making up their minds, even as horse race polling numbers rise and fall.
To be useful, though, voter interviews have to have more depth than just asking questions about which candidate a voter supports. For Trump backers, questions such as “Do you still support Trump?” or “What do you think of Trump’s impeachment?” are pretty useless.
Of course people at a Trump rally are still going to support Trump. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be waiting for several hours to see him in the first place. Getting a Trump backer to nearly break down in tears might seem like great television, but viewers don’t gain much insight.
Independent journalist Dan Froomkin of Press Watch recently delivered some advice on how to ask voters better questions with a piece headlined Political journalists are doing voter interviews all wrong.
But how reporters go about it, where they go, who they talk to, what they presuppose, and most importantly what questions they ask can make the difference between the stuff of parody and the best kind of political journalism.
The key is for reporters to explore not just voters’ political opinions, but their formative moments and their value systems. That’s particularly essential now because the prevalence and significance of intolerance — racism in particular — as a driving force in politics has not been sufficiently explored and discussed.
Voter interviews, at their best, can give voice to the voiceless, propound common sense, and tease out nuances missed by the polls, and even establish common ground.
At their worst, they can impose false balance, reflect preconceived notions, promote knee-jerk reactions, and stoke conflict.
Throughout the Trump presidency, political reporters (especially those inside the Beltway) and their editors have given us a steady stream of stories and interviews with Trump supporters. This was partly based on the surprise over Trump’s win and partly based on the belief that they had been ignoring too many voters.
But they overdid it. The Associated Press had an ongoing feature called Trump Country. CNN regularly features focus groups with panels of Trump voters—Googling those terms delivers story after story of such interviews. The New York Times seems to have set up permanent residence in red-state rural diners. USA Today interviewed Trump voters in all 50 states to learn about Trump Nation. Photos of those voters were nearly all white and male, with a few women thrown in.
Funny — these same media outlets never did a never-ending series on those who were still supporting President Obama months and years after his election or on those who voted for Hillary Clinton, even though she received nearly 3 million more votes than Trump.
Now the media have new questions to ask about impeachment, and the topic presents a learning opportunity for reporters and voters alike. Polls show that 60 percent of Americans are paying attention to impeachment news, with about 20 percent paying close attention. One-fifth of Americans say they still might change their minds about whether it’s worth it.
Of course, Americans have differing opinions on the various aspects of impeachment, and there’s lots of leeway between “impeach and remove” or “keep Trump in office no matter what.” There are still partisan divisions among poll respondents.
This roundup of polling with detailed explanations from FiveThirtyEight.com shows that a majority of Americans believe that Trump abused his power and acted in his own personal interest (YA THINK?). An even larger majority say Trump should cooperate with the impeachment investigation (not much chance there). Such reports explain more thoroughly why Democrats chose to narrow their impeachment focus to two articles, leaving out bribery and an obstruction of justice charge from the Mueller report and instead emphasizing obstruction of Congress.
That’s not so hard, is it media? Even polls that go just a little deeper by asking specific questions give us more insight than asking a Trump supporter at a rally what she thinks of impeachment and waiting for the tear ducts to overflow.
Originally posted on Daily Kos on Dec. 15, 2019.