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Data Dude
Craig Gilbert’s revolution in political reporting.

For the 2012 election cycle, Craig Gilbert was one of Politico's "50 Politicos to Watch"

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 Nyhan wrote 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 coverage.”


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 year.


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 paying attention.)


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 outlier?


“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 the egg.

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