The campaign trail can be an intoxicating place for any journalist. Each and every word uttered by a candidate can mean a new headline in the paper or a new story on the evening news. Strategy, ad copy, infighting, opposition research – they're all fuel for the journalistic fire. Developments on the road can be fascinating because of the soap opera nature of a campaign and because any little detail could become the next big thing.
But every once in a while, a media critic will come along to point out that when reporters on the campaign trail quote voters, they are usually quoting voters at a political rally – they aren't talking to "real" voters.
That's why, when I told a group of colleagues on the road recently that I'd be headed to Allentown, Pa., to work on a series getting to know the stories of voters in the Lehigh Valley, the reaction from many was, "Oooh, real people!"
Yes, real people. The real people the candidates are trying to reach - many of them undecided, or if decided, still able to be swayed.
The gem of a factoid about the Lehigh Valley – roughly Pennsylvania's 15th Congressional District – is that for the past 20 years it has mimicked the national voting trends in presidential elections practically to the percentage point. Allentown and its surroundings have become one of those, "As goes ____ , so goes the nation," places.
In one contained geographic area, we, as a news organization, can capture a sense of what the nation is thinking and doing. That was the hope. And the Lehigh Valley has not disappointed.
The Valley has real people and the candidates may want to listen to what they have to say. These folks are not the people going to rallies – voters the parties can rely upon without courting. They're real people like Natalie, getting married and buying a new home, not to mention voting for the first time ever this November. On the one hand, Natalie thinks an amendment banning gay marriage is reprehensible. On the other, she's recently learned a lot about taxes and would like to see them lowered.
Real people like John, teaching middle school and running an after-school program for inner-city kids. John has always been concerned about the Democrats' stand on gun control, but as a teacher he has questions about No Child Left Behind.
Real people like Karen, a local union president wondering if her job is headed to China. And real people like Bill and Donna, facing career and family challenges together, but disagreeing politically after decades of marriage.
Recent polls in Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley specifically show a divided electorate, split right down the middle. President Bush has been to the state 27 times since taking office. Sen. John Kerry has made multiple stops in Pennsylvania, too. When the candidates come to speak, however, they may want to watch the rhetoric.
Only two issues appear to meet with near universal agreement in this area. The first is that there is too much sprawl and too many people moving into the Valley – everyone agrees on that. But more importantly to the candidates is that many of the voters here are already turned off by the campaign. Too negative, too critical, too nasty, they're saying. And it's only April.
Both parties this year have discussed the strategy of galvanizing their base, appealing to their core. Through the excitement of the base, they believe they can carry the swing voters in the middle like the Republicans did in 2002. But the operatives at both Bush and Kerry headquarters would be wise to step out of the Beltway a bit and talk to some real folks like the ones in Allentown, Pa.
In this Swingtown, many voters remain uninspired and unimpressed. Come November, these swing voters will decide who wins the presidency and they're not the people at the rallies - they're busy with their real lives.