Relevance of states dwindle

Here’s an interesting parlor trick. Ask a young kid, one about 4 to 6 years of age, where he or she is from. Odds are good the kid will say he’s from a particular neighborhood or city or town. “I’m from the Bronx.” “I’m from Peoria.” Even if you ask adults, they principally identify with a local, sub-state area. (I’ll acknowledge that there are exceptions to this rule; in Texas or largely rural Western states, they may first identify themselves as being from a particular state when asked.) For most Americans, our sense of place is initially local. Later it becomes national. So a state identity is the last one that most of us assume, often making it the least influential.

In recent years, the rapid mobility of our society has made state even less relevant. In fast-growing states, a significant share of residents grew up in other states, resulting in a populace and electorate that do not share a common background in state civics. I recall once moderating a focus group in Florida during which I asked for reactions to a proposed measure that would “amend Florida’s state constitution.” One group participant, a non-native, looked a bit befuddled and asked, “Do we really have one?” He wasn’t kidding. And he was surprised to learn that Florida indeed has one. Ask yourself, do you know what’s in your state constitution? When was the last time you contemplated it?

And just when transitory states like Florida needed more statehouse reporting than ever because of in-migration, the economic realities of the newspaper and media industries forced cutbacks in staffs covering state politics. According to press insiders quoted by Florida Trend magazine, “In 2000 … there were 92 reporters in the Tallahassee press corps. During the 2009 session of the state Legislature there were exactly half those numbers.” Great Florida newspapers that once were all over state affairs, like the Miami Herald, now largely ignore serious state policy issues.

Nationally, a survey undertaken last year by the American Journalism Review found “just 355 newspaper staff reporters covering the state capitols full time,” reflecting a 30-plus percent decline since a comparable 2003 survey. Forty-four states experienced a net decline from 2003 to 2009 in full-time statehouse reporters. I suspect that broadcast news coverage of state capitols has declined even more precipitously. In some state capitols, the only cameras roaming the halls may be from smaller capital-city affiliates or public TV. Most stations in large markets are too busy covering wrecks, fires and murders to pause for coverage of events under a state capitol dome. It’s a ratings-driven business, and state policies don’t get ratings.

Similarly insidious is the nationalization of our news coverage through cable TV, syndicated talk radio and national newspapers like USA Today. In the latter, state coverage is typically relegated to a three- or four-line news “capsule” for each state. You can be a well-read person in public affairs who subscribes to a daily newspaper and watches TV news on cable several hours a day and still know practically nothing about state government and politics in the state where you live. Even local talk radio often gets pushed out as the number of syndicators of more polished national programs rises.

Is it any surprise, then, that many Americans wouldn’t have much of a sense that state policymakers might offer something constructive to the healthcare policy process?

Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.