10 Things I've Learned from Covering State Politics

After more than a decade writing about the states, Louis Jacobson reflects on what he has discovered.
January 5, 2015
Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson  |  Contributor
Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.

A little over 10 years ago, I began writing a column on state politics. It wasn’t a new pursuit; I’d covered state politics here and there as a reporter for National Journal and for political analyst Charlie Cook. But starting a regular column -- initially weekly, then every other week -- was still a leap for me. Now that I’ve been writing the column for a while, though, I've learned a few things.

Indulge me, but I've pulled together a list of 10 things I've discovered while doing it. In time for the New Year, here they are:

1. A good time to pitch the idea for a new column is when your editor is walking out the door for summer vacation. It was 2004, and I had joined Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, as deputy editor. Though I was an editor, I was toying with the idea of proposing a new column on state politics, building on my previous work. A state politics column was not an obvious fit with Roll Call, but by the time I had worked up the nerve to pitch the idea, it was the last afternoon that my editor was in the office before he left for a summer vacation. I didn’t plan it this way, but I have a feeling that if he hadn’t been heading out the door, he never would have approved the idea.

2. Don't give up. The Roll Call column, which I dubbed “Out There,” ran from 2004 to early 2007. Given the persistent clash between the paper’s congressional focus and my interest in state politics, I was surprised it lasted that long. Around that time, my role at the newspaper changed and the column ended. Fortunately, the powers that be allowed me to move "Out There" to Stateline.org, and that’s where it ran online between 2007 and 2009. Once support for the column petered out at Stateline too, that's when the column found it's current home at Governing. The column, no longer named "Out There," remains a freelance gig for me; since 2009, I have worked full-time at PolitiFact, the fact-checking arm of the Tampa Bay Times. My column hasn’t had nine lives yet, but having blown through three lives so far is more than enough for me.

3. State politics is at least as important as federal. This is doubly true now that the parties have become more gridlocked at the federal level -- serious legislating increasingly goes on at the state level. And yet....

4. Covering state politics and policy is hard. If Governing were ever to drop my column, I’ve run through pretty much all the logical candidates to pick it up. The reality is that it’s challenging enough today to cover politics and policy in one state capital, particularly as newspaper staffs have hollowed out. But it’s even harder to track the political trends in all 50 far-flung state capitals at once.

5. Understand that voters do pay attention to the differences between state and federal politics. Voters aren’t dumb. They have the ability to distinguish between elections for federal offices and those for state offices, including the notion that the two types of officeholders have different responsibilities. They have been known to split tickets. In May 2012, I noted that over the previous five election cycles, exactly half of the states with a competitive gubernatorial race in a presidential year -- 11 of 22 contests -- ended up going with a governor and a presidential candidate from different parties. When a state has a competitive gubernatorial race during a presidential election year, the state's choice to fill the two offices is no more highly correlated in party affiliation than a random coin flip.

6. Realize that state politics is becoming increasingly polarized as time goes on. That said, we are seeing a growing tendency for partisan polarization at the state level, reaching a new peak in the 2014 midterms. More legislative chambers in the states are controlled by the same party; more and more, these chambers are aligned with a governor of the same party. Partisan agendas at the state level are increasingly mirroring what the national parties and their allies want. Whether state and federal politics will retain their distinctiveness will be a key question for the coming decade.

7. Leave the Beltway bubble. Doing my job as a columnist means getting "out there," literally. Before I had kids, I took several freelance reporting trips a year between 1994 to 2002. A typical trip would last two to three weeks and include stories in five or six states, averaging more than a story a day for a mix of publications. During this period, I filed stories from each of the Lower 48 states. I ended up filing political stories from 40 of the 50 state capitals.

8. Stick to your sources and they'll stick with you. My trips have produced many of my most loyal sources, without whom I could not have written this column for 10 years. My sources include Jon Ralston in Nevada, Randy Stapilus in Idaho, Burdett Loomis in Kansas, Jay Barth in Arkansas, Al Cross in Kentucky, Bill Ballenger in Michigan and Steve Schier in Minnesota, to name a few. I have never asked my sources about this, but I expect one of the reasons they have been so loyal -- despite my irritatingly frequent requests for the inside scoop in their state -- is that many of them appreciated that I made the effort to visit them on their home turf.

9. Be thankful for email. There’s no way I could have written my column before the advent of email. Speaking by phone to multiple sources in every state for, say, a gubernatorial handicapping column -- which involves 30-odd races during midterm elections -- would be difficult for any reporter, and logistically impossible for someone like me doing a freelance column. With email, I can write up queries after midnight, send them out en masse the next morning, and reap the windfall after the kids are in bed.

10. Finally, remember to reply to every single source’s email you get. Reporting isn’t a one-way street. Why should your source write back to you if you don’t give them the courtesy of a reply, or the courtesy of a finished column?