State and local politics are losing ground to national politics in the minds of Americans. What do we learn from nationalized coverage and what do we increasingly ignore? Daniel Hopkins finds that we are losing state and local knowledge and voting increasingly along party lines, as we move from local to national media sources. Kerri Malita finds that even nationalized political coverage may not inform us, focusing on polls and candidate visits rather than policy issues. Find out if we can recover local issues and concerns in our nationalized era.

The Niskanen Center’s Political Research Digest features up-and-coming researchers delivering fresh insights on the big trends driving American politics today. Get beyond punditry to data-driven understanding of today’s Washington with host and political scientist Matt Grossmann. Each 15-minute episode covers two new cutting-edge studies and interviews two researchers.

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Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest, how nationalization of politics and media changes what citizens learn. From the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.

State and local politics are losing ground to national politics in the minds of Americans, especially with the focus on presidential elections. What do Americans learn from nationalized coverage, and what do we increasingly ignore?

A new book from University of Pennsylvania political scientist, Daniel Hopkins, The Increasingly United States, finds we are losing state and local knowledge, and voting increasingly along party lines, as we move from local to national media sources. I talk to Hopkins about how nationalization affects turnout, vote choices and the strength of each party.

But even nationalized political coverage may not inform us, focusing on polls and visits, rather than policy issues. I also talk to Kerri Milita of Illinois State University about her new article in Political Research Quarterly with John Barry Ryan, “Battleground States and Local Coverage of American Presidential Campaigns.”

She finds that local newspapers and swing states focus on candidate visits rather than issues, missing an opportunity to inform voters. Decisions made my state and local governments, still change American’s day to day lives. But Daniel Hopkins finds, we’re increasingly focused on national politics anyways.

Hopkins: The take-home point of this book is really quite simple. It’s that, here in the United States, we have federalist system of government that divides authority between the federal government in D.C., the states, and localities.

But in contemporary American politics, in particularly, contemporary American voters, are almost simple-minded focused on what’s going on in Washington, D.C. and that’s true, even though we as voters often acknowledge the significant extent to which states and localities have real impacts on our day-to-day lives.

So if you think about many of the policy areas that actually, tangibly likely to affect people in the short term, whether it’s housing or schooling or transportation, a lot of those issues are addressed by states and localities, and yet, we, like moths to a flame, are focused on federal politics.

Grossmann: Based on correlated partisan voting across levels of government, nationalization actually revered in the 1960s and 1970s, before rising again after 1980.

Hopkins: Right as a generation of political scientists noticed nationalization, and speculated that it might be a secular trend, that it might be rising and something akin to a form of, or a side of modernization, right in the 1960s, this part of nationalization, the integration of vote choice, started to decline, and in the 60s and 70s it declined pretty dramatically.

In the 60s and 70s, you saw elections for governor in states across the union that bore little resemblance to the recent or even sometimes contemporaneous election for president. But since about 1980, that element of nationalization has been on the rise again.

Grossmann: But the growing importance of national media has long been on an upward trajectory.

Hopkins: Over time, as we have used different and now highly nationalized sources to get our political information, we as voters have become very engaged with politics in Washington, D.C., often to the exclusion of state and local politics, that is so tangibly right before us.

Grossmann: In comparison to other countries, including Canada, the U.S. has long had more nationalized politics.

Hopkins: The U.S. is nationalized, even at the low points of nationalization in this country, relative to systems such as, some in South America, some in Europe, though in Europe nationalization, in many, particularly of the western European democracies, unfolded relatively early by at least some metrics.

The key contrast, and a key case that I’ve wrestled with a lot, partly based on just personal experiences, is the Canadian case. And Canada remains stubbornly non-nationalized, even in the most recent period.

Grossmann: The starkest indicator of how nationalized our politics has become, is that we are increasingly forgetting the names of our governors, even in state capital regions.

Hopkins: Governors are a particularly important figure and they’re kind of a canary in a coal mine. If there’s any figure in state politics that can generate the levels of visibility and the knowledge and the interest and the engagement that the framers of the constitution might have expected, it’d be governors. And so the fact that knowledge of governors has been failing, that is, fewer and fewer people can tell you who their governor is.

And when I do surveys, I sometimes will ask people just open-ended questions: “No need to look it up, but tell me who your governor is.” There’s a strong sense in these open-ended replies among the people who don’t know, that they should know.

So I get a lot of apologetic notes, that people have just moved into the state, or for some other reason don’t happen to know who their governor is. And you mentioned state capital regions, I think they’re particularly informative because state capital regions are places where, it is particularly affordable to cover state politics, right?

If you have a TV studio based in Lansing, or Harrisburg, or another state capital, or if you have a newspaper, it’s really pretty straightforward to send a reporter to the state capital building to cover state politics and to do so reasonably well.

But what we’ve seen in recent decades is wholesale shift in where we’re getting our political news, that has disproportionately disadvantaged the kinds of media outlets that used to cover state politics in depth.

And so again, using the image of a canary in a coal mine, we see that knowledge of governor and the kind of advantage the increased engagement in state politics that we used to see in state capital regions is nowhere near as pronounced as it used to be.

Grossmann: State politics was never at the top of the mind for most Americans, but it’s increasingly losing ground.

Hopkins: There was not a period in the 20th century and certainly not in the 21st, when people were more engaged with state politics than with federal politics.

There are some countries and some moments in other countries, when we’ve seen that some national politics is actually more engaging to many voters than national politics. And I don’t want to say that knowledge, people are walking down the streets deep in debate about state politics, but there were higher levels of knowledge, there was higher, there was also a higher level of turnout in gubernatorial  elections. That has declined.

And I think that is driven in no small part by the transformation from consuming political information from spatially balanced sources such as local TV news and local print journalism to media outlets that compete for audiences across the country.

Grossmann: And Hopkins finds that our political values are tied to national rather than state identities.

Hopkins: National identities are much more important to them, when you ask people, how do you define yourself? Who are you? People here in this country are much more likely to respond that they are Americans, than that they are Kansans or New Yorkers. But I think also very importantly, it’s not just that, it’s also that these national identities are imbued with much more political meaning.

When you ask Americans, “Why are you proud of being American,” They often respond with political values, with statements about freedom, about equality, about democracy.

When you ask them instead, why are you proud of being a Texan or a Californian, the response is instead, read like something you might see on a postcard. They talk about the scenery, the fishing, the hunting, the surfing. And are much less, so the state level identities then, in contemporary American politics, seem to have less real political meaning.

Grossmann: The loser in nationalization so far has been the Democrats, as they used to have candidates with more distinct local reputations.

Hopkins: The Democratic coalition was a heterogeneous coalition in which there were a number of quite conservative democrats, often though not always representing more rural areas in the country, and they were partly able to sustain themselves politically by building a local brand that was quite distinctive from the national party’s brand, by building a brand that was maybe more moderate, that was focused on the delivery of services, on bringing home the bacon.

But if you think about the 2014 elections to U.S. Senate, there were a whole set of democratic incumbents who tried to run on that mantra of bring home the bacon, whether we’re talking about Senator Landrieu, or Senator Pryor, in Louisiana and Arkansas respectively, or Senator Begich in Alaska, all of them ran on the idea that they were independent from their party and that they were effectively delivering services to their states.

But in this highly nationalized age, those arguments just don’t get you that far.

Grossmann: And the Republican Party’s more geographically spread voters give them an advantage in play space for nationalized elections.

Hopkins: The Republican Party represents broader array of spaces in the U.S. That is to say Democrats are very, very heavily concentrated in more dense areas, cities and suburban areas, and in a system that to some degree rewards representing space whether that is through how we draw our districts or through the U.S. Senate or the electoral college, that also means that nationalization on the whole is going to advantage the Republicans.

Grossmann:  One potential benefit of nationalized coverage, might be greater understanding of policy issues dividing the parties. But Kerri Malita says that’s not the focus of coverage, and even less so in states where presidential candidates are competing.

Malita: Newspapers in battleground states are less likely to cover issues than papers are in non-battleground states, so put differently, those voters that are most likely to decide the fate of an election, those in swing states, are potentially less informed on candidates issue positions.

Grossmann: Rather than the saturation coverage of everything the candidates say we might expect, swing state residents instead see horserace and candidate visit stories.

Malita: Battle ground states are more likely to talk about the horse race, who fell by X number of points in the polls after they had a bad debate performance, but they’re not more likely to talk about issues.

The non-battle ground states devote a much higher value of their articles to talking about what are the candidate’s stances on issues, and arguably that’s the most important type of campaign coverage during the campaign.

Grossmann: And it might be our fault. Local newspapers are delivering what voters want to read.

Malita: Newspapers want readers. TV news wants viewers. So they’re going to give the public what it wants to consume. They’re producing a product that they know is going to generate views or generate clicks.

And I mean they’re catering to public interest basically, and a visit or polls, it’s just easier to understand, and it’s easier to consume and people want to consume it more than they want to talk about net neutrality or the TPP.

So in a lot of ways I’m not sure it’s the media that’s the bad guy, it’s the media is giving us a product that we want.

Grossmann: Malita and Barry Ryan study newspaper homepages in the 2012 presidential election.

Malita: The biggest weakness of using a newspaper’s online homepage, most obviously, if it’s not the entire newspaper. But what we did see is that when local papers do actually see fit to cover a national campaign, that news is typically not buried under the front page.

It’s either front-page news or it’s nothing. I think the biggest strength of this approach of using online homepages is it lets us, I mean we sampled just tons of different newspapers and different media markets and were able to collect the information every other day.

It’s a shortcut approach that just lets us get a really large sample size in terms of articles that we’re able to collect.

Grossmann: They looked for three different types of stories with some crossover, candidate tracking, horse race and issue coverage.

Malita: A campaign tracking story, we also call this a surveillance type of story where we’re following the candidates visits, where are they on the campaign trail, what sorts of stump speeches did they make, where did they stop, what coffee shops did they talk to people in.

It’s just where it’s physically in the country at this given point in time. Where did they speak? They horse race stories are entirely poll driven. Who’s winning in the polls, how did an event or a speech affect their performance in the polls, and that’s really the dominant type of campaign coverage, coverage that we see at the national and the local level.

And then lastly and leastly were the issue stories. And these are articles that talk about what are the major issues in a community or a state or as a country, and more importantly what are the candidates respective stances on those issues?

Grossmann: They read in coded stories by hand as well as by computer algorithm with matching results.

Malita: Fortunately the machinecoded results were entirely inline with the hand-coded sample. So I think this is an approach we’re looking to expand in the future, now that we know that the algorithm is producing results that fall in line with the traditional hand-coding approach.

Grossmann: Like Hopkins, they found a lot of coverage of national politics in local newspapers. But Malita says local stories remain important.

Malita: Newspapers had about an average, just under two campaign stories on the front page each day. The most we saw was on election day of course and one of the biggest newspapers was the Los Angeles Times, which had 16 campaign stories on the front page, on election day and the day before election day.

And as far as how likely voters are to see it, I think it’s important to note that there are millions of people in this country that still subscribe to local news.

In fact, I’d almost make the argument that in some ways local news is even more important than national news, because people that are disaffected or disengaged from politics are much more likely to tune into local news.

They’re going to, that they are likely to watch local news where they can see things that are happening in their communities that affect their day to day lives. And I think it’s this incidental exposure to political news at the local level that’s potentially really profound because you’re reaching people that aren’t reached by national news.

Grossmann: Swing state newspapers surprisingly did not have more campaign coverage overall.

Malita: They have about the same frequency of campaign coverage each day, that was one of our hypothesis, that battleground states would just cover the campaigns more, and they really didn’t.

That’s why we had to delve into this quantity vs. quality. In terms of quantity we didn’t find anything. They talk about the campaign about as much, the thing that predicts the frequency of coverage or these events around the debates, around election day, yeah, then they’re going to, then they cover campaigns on the front page a lot more.

It’s this quality dimension where we found the big difference and that is in the issue coverage, the percentage of a total article that’s dedicated to talking about an issue is significantly higher in a non-battleground state than a battleground state.

Grossmann: It was candidate visits to swing states that generated coverage, often very positive for the candidates.

Malita: When a candidate visits, it is front page news for a couple of days leading up to the visit and a couple of days after the visit, so at least on the local level, visits generate a ton of press, which we don’t see if you’re just looking at national news.

Part of that’s the strategy of the candidates, highly unlikely that they would go to a place where they wouldn’t be welcome, so part of that is very intelligent, strategic management on behalf of the candidates, going to a place and arranging for a warm welcome which of course then the media’s going to cover what it was which was a really positive and enthusiastic rally.

Grossmann: Nationally syndicated stories were also common but they focused on polls.

Malita: The AP stories, the wired news services, those articles were much more likely to be covering the horse race, but it was often reporting national level polls or statewide polls so those types of stories were much more likely to feature horse race coverage and I believe slightly more likely to appear in the battleground states as well which was interesting.

Grossmann: Malita studied 2012, but thinks 2016 increased the importance of candidate rallies. We’ll have to wait for future campaigns to see if others follow Trump’s lead.

Malita: 2016’s such a weirdo…I think it’s likely that we would have seen all around more candidate tracking stories since Trump used those visits to say some pretty outrageous things. Theyjust weren’t in line with what we were used to a presidential candidate saying, they were novel, which made them more newsworthy.

So it’s possible that 2016 had more tracking and issue coverage, just because of the novel home, novel rhetoric and the method of delivery, I think it’s going to be really important to watch this and study it live in 2018 and in 2020 to see if 2016 was a bit of a blip or maybe it’s the new normal.

Grossmann: Hopkins says despite some changed voting patterns, the 2016 election was actually more divorced from local context and predictable nationally based on demographics everywhere.

Hopkins: We know that different individuals and people from different demographic groups vote differently, that has long been true. But what is striking is that we know less and less about what we need to know where someone lives to be able to predict their voting behavior.

If you tell me that somebody is demographically there, they’re white, maybe they attended college for a year but didn’t graduate, I can then predict where I think, which party I think they’re likely to support.

And one of the key features of 2016 is that whites without a college degree in the midwest started to vote a bit more like whites without a college degree in the South.

Grossmann: Malita says nationalization of news does provide some information to help voters choose parties, but may be a net negative for democracy.

Malita: I think that the nationalization of news certainly helps partisan sorting. It helps people be aware of what Democrats think on this issue and what Republicans think on that issue, and that’s a really important shortcut, that’s an important heuristic for voters to have to make informed decisions when they go to the polling place on election day.

But on the other hand, I’m not sure that nationalization of news makes people overall more well informed, in the sense that I think local news helps people understand issues in a local context, in context that’s more relevant to their day-to-day lives.

Grossmann: Hopkins agrees that there may be some benefits but also significant losses, especially for how it incentivizes state and local officials.

Hopkins: The nationalization is not all bad. And that if voters are now going into state and local elections, knowing something about what these candidates stand for, and if that is, they now know okay, this candidate is aligned with a party which at the national level stands for this. If that means that they know more about the likely policy choices of politicians, I think that’s a benefit.

But at the same time, when we’re evaluating nationalization, we have to think about issues and accountability, and we have to think about the perceptions that political elites have of this process. If I’m a governor, if I’m a mayor, and I know that the local newspaper isn’t knocking on my door nearly as much.

And if I know that voters, when they go out to vote, are going to vote with an eye on Washington D.C., rather than an eye on my state or locality, that’s going to shift my incentives, that’s going to potentially mean that I’m more invested in my role and my national party networks than in cultivating a relationship with my voters.

Grossmann: Malita does see a possible path forward with local news helping to not just cover candidates when they visit, but also contextualize national issues for how they affect local residents.

Malita: Following candidates around, it generates cliques, and that for a candidate, for a newspaper websites and generating cliques is what editors, entirely what, that’s their bread and butter, it’s what they go for. And covering candidates actually works, but we’ve got some evidence to suggest that issues aren’t, and covering issues is not a lost cause either.

It is, it’s obviously generating attention. Otherwise the newspapers wouldn’t be covering it at all. So I think there’s a nice ability for those two, those two types of coverage following the candidates around but also reporting what they’re saying about issues and making it locally relevant, that can help you reach people that again, don’t watch national news.

Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. Political Research Digest is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center and on iTunes.

I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Kerri Malita and Daniel Hopkins for joining me.

Read Kerri’s article, pick up a copy of The Increasingly United States, and join us next time to find out how Supreme Court nominations have become more ideological and contentious with the success of The Federalist Society.

Photo Credit: Michael Vadon under CC by 2.0