Craig Gilbert has carved out a distinctive and perhaps even unique niche
in political reporting.
This past spring, Dartmouth College
political science professor and Columbia
Journalism Review contributor Brendan
that the Journal Sentinel’s Washington
bureau chief has “probably done more
than anyone else to integrate political science into daily news coverage.”
Nyhan added that Gilbert’s consultation with academics “frequently allows him
to bring in data or findings that are neglected in mainstream political
Gilbert’s work is a long way
removed the traditional definition of a political reporter – the news hound who
spends his or her time working sources and chasing the inside dope on who’s up,
who’s down, what's the strategy and who exactly are the operatives working behind the scenes.
For example, Gilbert offered a
definitive assessment last year of what was at stake in the state’s U.S. Senate
race by drawing on political science research into the ideology of Congressional
representatives, Nyhan noted. And when Republicans in the state Legislature
considered an end to election-day voter registration in Wisconsin, the Journal Sentinel writer pointed to data
showing the GOP actually gained votes from the practice.
Gilbert acknowledged in an interview last week that he pursues horse-race
reporting far less than some in the business. “It doesn’t interest me nearly as
much as voters” and how they align themselves politically, he says.
In an ever-splintering media
environment, there remains a place for splashing the latest and hottest scoops across
the home page, as demonstrated by the success of outlets such as Politico. But the sort of data-centered
reporting Gilbert has taken to – a path encouraged by a fellowship at the
University of Michigan in 2009-’10 – is something that was difficult to find a
venue for, until recently. “You have to decide what you can do and what you can
do well,” he says, as newsgathering resources become more scarce.
For the next six months, he’ll have
the opportunity to do what he does particularly well. Gilbert has begun a
six-month fellowship at Marquette University Law School to study political
polarization in Southeast Wisconsin in depth, and he’ll publish his findings in
the Journal Sentinel sometime next
And while data will underlie his
work, he also plans to do a lot of traditional shoe-leather reporting,
interviewing voters, activists and others to flesh out the trends he uncovers.
I spoke with Gilbert right after he
and Charles Franklin took part in a
Q&A with Mike Gousha at the Marquette
University Law School, where the TV newsman (besides being a political analyst
and contributing anchor for WISN-Channel 12) holds the title of distinguished fellow
in law and public policy. (Franklin, after directing the school’s ambitious polling
operation during the 2012 election cycle, joined the Jesuit university full
time this fall as a professor of law and public policy – and anyone who didn’t
see that coming wasn't
At the talk held last week, Gilbert and Franklin set the table for
the work they’re collaborating on and the fundamental questions they hope to
answer, with respect to Southeast Wisconsin and Milwaukee in particular. “Are
we a microcosm of the large trends of red and blue divide?” they ask, or an
“There are many kinds of
polarization,” Gilbert said. “What I’m kind of focused on right now is the
geographic divisions that we see in Milwaukee, which are very, very stark.”
Maps of recent voting patterns constructed
by Gilbert using data from researchers at Harvard and Stanford show how
lopsided the margins were for – or against – Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic President Barack Obama. The contrasts, upon
casual inspection, appear to be more dramatic here than in Minneapolis,
Detroit, Cleveland or Philadelphia.
“All of these metro areas have
Democratic cities,” Gilbert said, and their suburbs tend to be patchworks, with
some in the more northern metros trending slightly blue.
The Milwaukee map, however, is surrounded
on three sides by a deep ring of red.
“There aren’t many metropolitan
areas outside the south that have Republican counties that are, in the
aggregate, as Republican as Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington are,” he said.
He calls it a sort of political
segregation. “It’s a rare thing in the Milwaukee metropolitan area to live in a
politically balanced community.” Even Wisconsin’s rural areas host greater
competition between the two parties.
The trends reach as far back as
1968, when Milwaukee began to turn more Democratic and the WOW (Waukesha,
Ozaukee and Washington) counties strengthened as Republican strongholds.
“We’re not unique in being
polarized, but we’re very distinctive in the degree of polarization,” Gilbert
said. Only in the South – where white voters lean even further toward
Republicanism and cities contain populations of African Americans who vote
overwhelmingly for Democrats – is the division so sharply drawn.
The intellectual effects of
partisanship are shown in surveys asking voters whether the president can do
much about spiraling gas prices, according to Franklin. In 2012, Republicans
said Obama could make a difference, whereas Democrats said it was out of his
control. In 2006, however, the results were reversed. Democrats said George
Bush could exercise more influence, but Republicans gave him a pass.
But why is the area’s political landscape so fragmented?
Gilbert hopes to find an answer. “Milwaukee
is more racially segregated than other places, but it’s not the whole story,”
Gilbert said. That explanation doesn’t address, for example, why white voters
in the city vote differently than whites in the suburbs.
Patterns of migration, a sense of
urban connectedness, religious affiliation and ethnic heritage all seem to have
some influence. He also plans to study how socioeconomic shifts, including a
widening gap between poor and wealthy households, may also play a role.
And then there’s news media. Talk
radio is a major phenomenon in the region and seems to have a strong influence
on GOP voters, but it’s not clear to Gilbert whether Milwaukee differs
significantly from other cities in the consumption of partisan news and talk.
“Does it actually produce
polarization?” he says, “Or does it just reflect the fact that Democrats and
Republicans go to different sources of information just because they can?”
And with that, Gilbert went back to
work, combing through data and pondering which is the chicken, and which was