The US is gearing up for a dramatic 2020 presidential race: here’s how to follow it from Australia | US news
Whether we like it or not, the upcoming US election concerns all of us, and Australians would do well to pay attention.
There are the usual, practical reasons: the US is Australia’s most powerful ally, a major trading partner, and the two countries have significant cultural and political affinities. What happens in America affects Australia pretty directly.
For some of us, what happens in the world’s most powerful, anglophone liberal democracy also has an emotional resonance.
Previously, Australia’s political junkies have looked to the US election as the most lavish political spectacle that democracy can provide. The drama is underpinned by the knowledge that any political outcome in the US will have a world-historical dimension.
But there’s a darker tinge to it this time, after Donald Trump’s shock victory in 2016.
In the past four years we have had a practical demonstration that none of us can hide from US politics. An unstable US doesn’t send ripples around the world – it dispatches tsunamis.
So how best to understand what is happening from a distance? In a bitterly divided country, who should you listen to for accurate information (besides Guardian US, of course)? Who should you look to for an insight into the mindset of voters? And where can you go for the colour of the race?
The top line
In general, the most comprehensive, authoritative and influential coverage comes from a relative handful of outlets.
The big change over the past few election cycles is the rise of the podcast. Some of the best and most important are independent – more on them below – but major media organisations now have a full complement of podcasts on all topics, including politics and elections, including the New York Times.
A second tier of metropolitan newspapers – among them the LA Times, the Houston Chronicle, the Boston Herald, the Chicago Tribune and the Seattle Times – provide a similar service not only for their home cities, but wider regions that will be crucial in deciding the election.
Cable television news outlets such as CNN and MSNBC now have mountains of print content on their websites. The two public broadcasters National Public Radio and PBS offer credible online coverage. Big city affiliates of national broadcast TV networks such as CBS also offer some of the most well-read news websites in the country.
Be aware that some credible sounding sites – such as Newsweek or the Washington Times – are either much-diminished or less impartial than their name might suggest.
US election season is awash with polls. There are dozens of national polls, run by commercial organisations, media outlets and universities, sometimes in combination with each other. Frequently they also compete with smaller state-specific polls in trying to call particular races.
They may all indicate the same trends, but their methods, and therefore their numbers, are often different. The diehard political junkies wait on tenterhooks for each new set of data; the rest of us might want a more digestible overview. Luckily there are a number of websites that provide just this.
Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight went from 2012 heroes to 2016 zeroes after they and every other polling-focused site predicted that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in. He also made some wrong calls on the primary races that year. Since then, Silver has done himself no favours by engaging, on Twitter, in the kind of punditry he once described as “useless”.
But some of the criticisms were not entirely fair, and Silver has perhaps been caught up in a backlash against expertise in a moment dominated by gut feel populism. (He never said Trump had no chance of winning, just that it was very small, and he wasn’t alone.)
You can also check out some other useful one-stop resources for quantitative information.
Although the site has strange rightwing connections, RealClearPolitics has comprehensive, aggregated polling data. At the New York Times, The Upshot carries out analysis that goes beyond polling numbers into electoral maths, and statistical deep dives into the political and demographic issues that bear on voting behaviour.
By necessity, national coverage leaves out a lot. Even a well-resourced colossus such as the New York Times can only cram in so much information about what might be happening in particular states during primary season, especially during the sprawling events of Super Tuesday.
If you want to have your ear closer to the ground, you may want to tune into local sources. But in a media market the size of the US, it can be hard to know where to start. There are a few ways in.
Some sites, such as Mondo Times, systematically list and link to local news organisations. In the listing for Oregon, where I am based, it handily shows the large cities in bold type; if you click through to a locality, such as Portland, you’ll see all active media organisations listed. The listing for each outlet then has a link directly to the source.
From there you can save time with a few pointers. Yellow crosses by the name on Mondo’s site indicate locally popular outlets. The news section generally lists the more reliable, news-focused sources. From there you can use some rules of thumb.
If you look for the radio station with NPR beside its name, such as KOPB, you will find a public broadcaster roughly equivalent to a combination of local ABC Radio and Radio National – comprehensive, with national resources, and safely down the middle.
The more popular news sources will often be papers of record for a city or a state – in our example, The Oregonian. These can also generally be relied on, and will usually allow you to read at least a few articles free of charge.
But don’t overlook the so-called “alt weeklies” – scrappy, independent giveaways like Portland’s Willamette Week – which Mondo lists in the entertainment listings. Yes, they do provide listings and entertainment guides, much like street press giveaways in Australia. But they also offer edgier, less risk-averse coverage of local news than some of their big brother outlets – go to the street press for the real skinny.
One feature of the Trump administration has been the large number of legal proceedings brought against the president, his associates and members of the administration. Many of these cases are yet to be resolved, and developments over the next few months may have a significant impact on the result. For straight up reporting, keep an eye on Courthouse News. For sharper coverage of the legal travails of Trump world, try EmptyWheel, the blog of independent journalist Marcy Wheeler.
When you have had your fill of reporting, you may wish to know how the unabashed supporters of particular candidates, or representatives of a particular part of the political spectrum, are thinking.
Three or four elections ago I might have been pointing you towards blogs for such partial commentary. Now, such content is more likely to come in the form of podcasts, or to have been aggregated on more partisan websites.
Guardian readers might naturally gravitate towards more progressive viewpoints. Democracy Now is primarily a syndicated broadcast, but its website offers recordings of the daily shows and much more. Sam Seder’s Majority Report is an entertaining and informative leftwing take on national politics. Best of the Left podcast aggregates progressive takes, and is a good way of learning about new shows.
There are independent outlets who wear their affection for particular candidates on their sleeves. Perhaps the most obvious example is Chapo Trap House, the socialist comedy podcast which backs Bernie Sanders to the hilt. Also in Brooklyn, the socialist magazine Jacobin began the election cycle by featuring a utopian illustration of Sanders on its cover.
On the other side, the entire conservative media apparatus is completely in the tank for Trump. Everyone from Fox News to Breitbart to prominent voices at ostensibly more sober sites such as National Review. Even many who were dubious about the brash outsider candidate in 2016 have come, often by means of being anti-anti-Trump, or perhaps due to their fear of the wrath of the president’s base, to be in his corner this time.
Given everything that has happened, supporting the president requires some logical contortions, and significant efforts to smear his critics – including many of the outlets listed above. Many rightwing outlets are not above conspiracy theory when it comes to explaining how so many people in the president’s camp have landed in court, or in prison.
The websites are publicly available, but you may not wish to drink from that well too often. If so, monitoring sites such as Media Matters for America and Right Wing Watch can keep you abreast of the latest developments on the right.