NCSL Podcasts

Talking Politics With Lou Jacobson | LTIS Episode 22

Episode Summary

Host Tim Storey’s guest on this episode is Lou Jacobson, a senior correspondent with PolitiFact and a longtime reporter with extensive experience covering politics and policy at the state and federal level. Storey sat down with Jacobson to discuss the 2024 edition of “The Almanac of American Politics,” a 2,000-page plus tome that will answer every question you might have and some you haven’t thought of about the state of our politics.

Episode Notes

Host Tim Storey’s guest on this episode is Lou Jacobson, a senior correspondent with PolitiFact and a longtime reporter with extensive experience covering politics and policy at the state and federal level. Jacobson is among the most astute observers of our political process, especially in the states. He proudly notes that he has filed stories from 49 states and 43 state capitols. 

Storey sat down with Jacobson to discuss the 2024 edition of “The Almanac of American Politics,” a 2,000-page plus tome that will answer every question you might have and some you haven’t thought of about the state of our politics.

They also talked about how rapidly the political scene has changed in the last 20 years and his assessment of the key Electoral College states in the 2024 election.


Episode Transcription

TS:      This is “Legislatures: The Inside Storey.” Thank you for listening. I’m the host Tim Storey, CEO of the National Conference of State Legislatures. My guest is Lou Jacobson, a senior correspondent with PolitiFact and a long-time reporter covering legislatures and everything states do. But that barely scratches the surface of Lou’s remarkable career covering politics and policy at the state and the federal level.


            I’ve known Lou for more than 25 years and he’s among the most astute observers of the political process especially in the states. He proudly notes that he has filed stories from 49 states and 42 state capitol buildings. I sat down with Lou to discuss the 2024 Edition of“The Almanac of American Politics,” a 2,000-page plus tome that will answer every question that you might have and some you haven’t even thought of about American politics. We also talked about how rapidly the political scene has changed in the last 20 years and his assessment of key electoral college states in the 2024 election.


            It is a tremendous pleasure to have Lou Jacobson on the podcast today with me, Tim Storey. And Lou, I’ve really been looking forward to it. I don’t know if you remember this. You came through Denver probably 25 years ago as a young journalist is my recollection. I was also a young something or other at the time at NCSL and you were looking at different beats you would pursue over your career and you have found the state beats among many. And I think one of the most thoughtful observers and reporters in this space for a very long time. And so, I want to first say thank you for committing your expertise to that and also even thank you for being on the podcast.


LJ:       Thank you. Well, that’s very kind of you and it’s the least I can do to thank you for helping me out. I’ve been handicapping the state legislative chamber of control since 2002 which is more than 20 years now and I’ve always relied on you as a fount of information and insight so thank you.


TS:      Well, if we can keep learning from each other, maybe we will figure it out over at the other end of it. That’s my approach. So, there are a number of things I want to chat with you about including you know kind of how legislative elections have changed over time and your observations through the great sweep of things. But we also want to talk about, of course,“The Almanac of American Politics.” It is on the verge of release or will be released by the time this airs in a few weeks. Tell us what’s going on with the almanac.”


LJ:       Yea so the release date is July 31st. For those who are not all that familiar with “The Almanac,” it started in I think ’72. Michael Barone and a couple of collaborators put it together for the first time. We had our 50th anniversary edition in 2002. And now we have the 2024 edition. It comes out every two years and what it has is profiles of every member of Congress, Senate and House, profiles for every governor, profiles every state and every congressional district plus a lot of other neat charts and tables and stuff like that. Barone, the founder, still does an essay and you can find that as does Charlie Cook, the well-known political analyst. The bulk of it is written by my colleague Richard Cohen who is the chief author. And the three senior authors, which includes myself, Lou Peck, a colleague of mine and Rich’s from our old national journey days and then Jessica Taylor who is at the Cook Political Report. We actually ended up, I believe, at 2200 pages. It’s the first edition to come out after the redistricting round. We had to update every single or virtually every single congressional district in the country. 


TS:      Yeah of course. So, I want to sort of start with the almanac and then come back to it. You have written for many different outlets you know over your time in Washington and I know you are still in Washington.


LJ:       Correct.


TS:      And you’ve had you know numerous beats. I’m always curious, like where did you grow up?  Where are you from originally?


LJ:       I’m actually from Washington, D.C. A native Washingtonian. And then I did go away for college, but then I returned mostly except for one internship at The Economist in London have been professionally always based in D.C. since like ’93. My first decade or so was at National Journal Magazine. It’s got a website and includes some things like the Hotline and a few other things about the magazine, which I wrote for which is a weekly magazine, it does not exist anymore. And then the next five or six years, I was at Roll Call. I was the first the deputy editor of Roll Call. That’s the newspaper that covers congress. Then Roll Call asked me to start a publication called Congress Now, which is kind of a wire service on legislation and hearings and so forth. In 2009 I joined PolitiFact, which is still my main job – my day job. For those who are not familiar with PolitiFact, it is a fact-checking service. We have about 15 full time staffers and some part-time staffers who fact check statements in politics and in social media and write sort of journalistic articles delving into whether something is true, false or somewhere in-between. So, I’ve been there close to 15 years now – 14 years, I guess. But always since the beginning of my time as a journalist in the early ’90s right after a recession and the jobs I could get were kind of few and far between and the pay was not that great. I’ve always wanted to do freelance. So, a significant chunk of my income really for my entire career has been from freelance beyond the full-time job that I hold at the same time. And I’ve really more than anything else wanted to write about politics like electoral politics. I started doing some of that in my national journal days, but then in Roll Call I started a column for them on politics in the states. So not focusing really on Congress, but really on governorships, state legislatures, state attorney’s general, secretaries of state and that sort of thing. And it’s had multiple lives. It’s sort of nine lives like a cat. Somebody kills it and it reappears somewhere else. 


            Currently the descendant of that column is now split two ways between Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia run by Larry Sabato, who I’m sure folks have heard of. And then split also with U.S. News & World Report. I still do handicapping all of the governor’s races and the electoral college for U.S. News. And I still handicap the state legislatures, state AG’s, secretaries of State and I also cover ballot measures for Sabato’s Crystal Ball. So, I keep myself busy.


            The other thing that really trained me well for the gig at the almanac is I’ve had this desire to file a story from every state. Basically between ’96 and 2002, I filed a copy from 48 states, all the lower 48 and I basically I would take vacation time. I would write some stories for National Journal and they would give me comp time for that. And then I would write sometimes 20 stories in a two- or three-week trip and I would choose five or six states ahead of time. I’d get all the story ideas. I’d get them you know approved by various editors at various publications. I’d go out and do four or five interviews a day driving all around hundreds of miles at a time on all kinds of topics. Some on politics. Some on science. Some on food. Really just, you know, a wide variety. And what this did for me was it got me to a lot of the corners of the U.S. that you know a lot of reporters don’t necessarily get to. You know I got to speak to wide variety of folks in those locations and got experience just sort of seeing what a place feels like. I added my 49th state last year. It took 20 more years to get my 49th state and that is Hawaii. And I still want to go to my 50th state, which would be Alaska. Maybe next year I’m thinking. So, I have now filed a copy from 43 state capitols. 


            (TM):  08:39


TS:      So, what have you learned about the country that maybe people you know other reporters who are only focused on kind of national political rabbit of the day. You know the thing that just oh there’s a squirrel. We need to chase it and it happens all the time on the Hill and in Washington, I think one of the things we talk about a lot on this podcast which you know a lot of legislators, legislative staff listen to this is the difference between what we think is where the action is in the states versus you know kind of all the noise and smoke that happens in Washington. What’s your take on that as somebody who really gets both sides?


LJ:       I’ve always been attracted to covering state government because I felt that it is really important. On the national level, there is so much gridlock. It’s so highly partisanized. By nature, a lot of the decision-making kind of flows down to states because the federal government they can’t act. I would say from my experience while I mostly traveled 20 years ago. I still travel a bit today, but the majority of time I’ve spent in my various of the country was about two decades ago. Somebody once joked that you could drive across the country on the interstate system and not see a single thing. And that’s true as far as it goes, but as soon as you get off the interstate, you see lots of different things. And you that there is a character to a place. Each place I’ve been has its own character. Now, I will say that in the subsequent 20 years when you are particularly talking about politics, there has been increasing communization of the politics. You have red states become redder. Blue state becoming bluer. And of course, there are blue pockets in red states and there are red pockets within blue states. But in terms of the politics of it, there certainly has been an increasing level of kind of lockstep partisanship. Geography really does shape politics I believe. That seems to be increasingly true you know. The general trend in the past 10, 20 years has been for down to the precinct level. But certainly, the congressional district level, the state legislative seat level. There’s been an increasing shift towards being solidly red or solidly blue. Part of that flows from some of the factors flowing down from the national political discussion. But some also flows up from the regional nature of a place. This sort of brings us back to the almanac because better than almost anything I know; the almanac really tries to bridge the distance between geography and politics. The core of it are the district descriptions of the 435 congressional districts. 


            (TM):  11:30


TS:      Lou you’ve seen these places change. I mean I think it was actually on one of your legendary road trips when you stopped in Denver and I first met you. You know again, it feels like 25 years ago. If you step back and put on your big hat of perspective and philosophy, what do you think is the biggest change in the elected officials and maybe the voters in general?


LJ:       It’s a great question. I will say that on the one hand change is constant. On the other hand, there does seem to be an increasing solidification of political viewpoints. I do think that certain states have swung in a way that is going to be hard for them to swing back. I did a piece recently where I handicapped the 2024 presidential states choosing which battleground states are toss ups versus lean to yearly noir. I looked back at my pre-election 2020 ratings. This was right before the 2020 election which was 2 ½ years ago and I had states like Florida, Ohio, Iowa as either toss up or like leaner or something. And those states are largely likely are or same are at this point. Probably not likely same are. It’s probably likely are. But just in the past 2 ½ years, what was sort of a lean towards the GOP has really stiffened into more than just a lean. It’s possible the democrats could make comebacks in those states, but it doesn’t look all that likely at least in the short-term. 


            This sort of calls up another story I wrote. I’ve done this assessment twice now. Most recently I believe it was in 2021. It may have been 2022. I had three factors and I listed the states in order for each of these three factors. Percentage white. Percentage non-college educated. And the percentage rural. I ranked each of the states on those three factors and then I did an average of all of them. And basically, using those three factors, you can pretty well predict how a state is going to vote. There are some states which don’t quite go where your demographic thinking would go. Like for instance, Texas by the sort of demography of it is more blue than the voting patterns are. Florida actually is similar to that.


TS:      I was thinking about Maine and Vermont you know which are not the first stage when it comes to race and ethnicity and are very rural. I think Vermont is technically the most rural state in the country, but so you are right. I mean it doesn’t always shake out. But I get what you are saying that we really seem to be we’ve gravitated towards these you know red and blue states. 


LJ:       And you know obviously that can change over time. New like populations can move in and shift the needle whether they have you know higher education or whether they are non-white or whether they are congregating in cities and suburbs. All of that can make a difference, but it’s slow. So, you know you are seeing a state like Texas becoming more and more competitive, but there is still a long way to go before it’s truly competitive. And I think there are a bunch of states in that category.


TS:      Are you starting to think about, you know, the electoral college handicapping. We don’t know who the candidates are although we probably have, you know, like a 90% shot at guessing it that we are going to see a Biden/Trump rematch. You know of course strange things happen in politics. And a week is an eternity. Have you started to think about that what it looks like.


LJ:       About a week or two ago, I came out with my first analysis. And I can tell you what states I have in toss up category. I got Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, the second district of Nebraska, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Those are 63 votes. If you take if you separate those, those are out. The GOP has 235 electoral votes leaning its way and the democrats have 240 leaning its way. Neither of those is enough. So those 6 states and the one district are going to be you know definitive about who wins. 


TS:      Every one of those went for Biden last time right.


LJ:       Yes, they did. Yes. And then 1, 2, 3, 4 of them went for Trump in 2016. I was going under the assumption that it’s going to be Trump against Biden. My sources indicated that at this point, they don’t really see any differences between say like DeSantis against Biden. But obviously if that personnel and the matchup changes then obviously things would change. But we are again so polarized and so blue or red that it’s going to affect probably states on the margins. The democrats are still going to have you know over 200 pretty safe and the GOP as well. 


            (TM):  16:53


TS:      How does that vote for down the ticket. If you had to say, this is going to be the which party will have the wind at its backs one year from now when we are sitting here in August or on the eve of August 2024.


LJ:       It’s a great question. I can try to answer part of this. Ah my next piece is to look at the House and the factors that are going to affect that in 2024 control of the House. And I was looking back. I believe I hope this is correct. I’ll have to check my work, but since ’92 I believe, the party that won the presidency it’s been a coin flip as to whether they gain seats in the house. Four times they loss seats as they won. Four times they won seats as they won the presidency. It’s almost like a separate factor. Now that said, democrats will probably have some advantages going into 2024 in the house. For one thing, there are only five Democrats sitting in districts that Trump won. There are 18 Republicans who are sitting in districts that Joe Biden won. Generally speaking, there will definitely be a bigger turnout in 2024 than there was in 2022 which probably in the margins helps democrats a little bit. Although it’s real hard to predict. Of course, the big story in the Senate is that there are three seats up for the Democrats where they currently hold the seat. And the state voted for Trump pretty solidly. We’ve got Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. And if they lose any two of those and don’t win enough seats elsewhere, they would lose the Senate. Senate is going to be a big deal. I mean right now the Democrats, if nothing else, are able to approve judgeships. If they lose the Senate, all of that will be much, much harder. Lots at stake in the 2024 election.


TS:      Before I come back to the almanac and we wrap up, I do want to talk a little bit about the practice of journalism and how that has changed. You know you referenced National Journal as essentially no longer and it used to be such a deep read peg on the events of the day and not just politics, but policy of course. Are we at the end of that transition. Does AI bring in a whole new round of upheaval to coverage of Washington and state politics. Where do you see journalism going?


LJ:       You know it’s a mixed bag. My guess is that the number of journalists covering politics and policy writ broadly in Washington is still holding up compared to historical levels. Sometimes it’s like behind a big pa wall like a major paywall; not just sort of a daily newspaper paywall. On the other hand, local papers or papers or news outlets in general have really suffered. Now there are some promising you know experiments with non-profit journalism so you try to fill that hole. My sense is that journalism practice in state capitols is really not the same strength it was even a decade ago. So that’s unfortunate because as I said, so much happens at the state level. Look no further than the Dobb’s decision. States are having to decide exactly where to set the lines on abortion and lots of other issues so.


TS:      Well yeah, I mean you reference one thing, but you know the states are moving forward on fentanyl addiction, criminal justice reform, workforce issues, ah mental health, forward ownership of land and immigration policy even. So, you know it is disconcerting that some you know all of those important decisions that actually gets taken place you know the public doesn’t have more knowledge about it. And you know we are always looking for ways to turn that around. Something we promote at NCSL. Let me ask you this because I think a lot of legislators you know they always have let’s say conflicting feelings about reporters. What do you think legislators you know elected officials in particular don’t understand about your job.


LJ:       I think there is value in getting to know people. Journalists shouldn’t be entirely a priesthood that never you know interacts with people who they over. You certainly want distance. You certainly want to be able to print things that are not flattering if that’s what needs to be done. I would encourage legislators to you know reciprocate if a journalist reaches out. It’s their job to understand what you are doing. You don’t have to tell them everything, but if they can understand the process, where you fit into that process, where your party fits into the process, where your chamber fits in in the process. I think all of that is really helpful and I think journalists would welcome that. So, I’m a strong believer in getting to know people personally. 


TS:      So, you would encourage legislators to do that as well like ask a reporter you know what makes them tick. You know how did they get into that game. Why are they covering this story. And I think one of your great strengths is that you’ve cultivated so many sources over the years. What makes a great source and does anybody come to mind when you think of man, I’m so glad I’ve got this person who I have a relationship with.


LJ:       Some of my sources now date back I think 26 years. I’ve been pinging them every few weeks or few months for a quarter of a century now. And the people who I really trust. You know they kind of run the gamut between some are journalists. Some are pollsters. Some are political scientists. Some are legislators. Some are consultants. But what they share for me is I trust their judgement and that they are not going to give me their own little partisan spend. If it’s a Democrat who can say, yeah, the GOP is a much stronger candidate in this race, that’s all important for me and vice versa. Everybody who I’ve maintained as a source, I feel very confident because of literally years of experience. I know that they are going to give me the lowdown and I can trust them. 


TS:      One of our sort of pet sayings is trust is the coin of the realm inside capitols and that really just goes across the board, I think. As much as people think, there is a lot of deception and all in politics. And grant you, you know there’s different levels of withholding information and sharing information and all of that so I’m not being naïve about it. But boy if you establish trust, it is the magic glue that brings you together regardless of where you stand on issues. I want to come back to the almanac. Is there an electronic version or is it only in the classic?


LJ:       So actually, you can get the electronic version. You would go to let me just make sure I have this website correctly. I believe it’s (all together). and then you can order it’s got the hardback which is shipped a little bit later. The paperback which is out July 31st apparently. And it’s also got an e-book which is a little bit cheaper actually for those who want it that way. It doesn’t look as nice on the shelf, but it’s certainly usable. I would like going forward to do a little bit more with our website and having a web only contact. But basically, what we have right now is the e-book and the hard copy and the paperback versions. 


TS:      What is the most important reason somebody needs to spend time with the almanac


LJ:       I mean certain people will need this for their jobs so obviously that’s fairly straightforward. But if you are interested in politics. Maybe you don’t work in politics necessarily, but you just like to follow it, it is I think, unless I’m missing something, it’s pretty much the only place you can go to get the sort of geographical descriptions of places around the country. Every district. I actually updated with first person tour of the Queens and Brooklyn districts in December. I visited over eight hours, I visited close to 20 neighborhoods with a tour guide and got some instruction on the demographics and so forth. And so, we really work hard to keep these updated. Because of this link between geography and politics, I think we are really the best place for that. And so, people who really want to kind of understand politics in a very deep way, you’re not going to read it from page 1 to page 2,200 in one setting. It is obviously more of a reference book that you are going to take off the shelf when you need it. It’s got everything you need to understand the geographical motivations and also the governors and the senators and the house members their backgrounds and where they are coming from. So, it really helps with a deep understanding of American politics.


TS:      Well Lou, what a delight. I really appreciate getting to spend time with you and I just wish you the best cause I know you’ve got another 34 years doing this and by then maybe there will be 600 congressional districts.


LJ:       I would love that. It would mean more work for us. 


TS:      Well, I’ll wrap it there Lou. Thank you once again for being on the podcast. I really appreciate it.


LJ:       Great. Thank you so much Tim.


TS:      I have been talking with Lou Jacobson, senior correspondent with PolitiFact and a longtime observer of American politics. Thank you for joining me and Lou on this episode of “Legislatures:  The Inside Storey” brought to you by the National Conference of State Legislatures.


Ed:      You can check out all the podcasts from the National Conference of State Legislatures by searching for NCSL podcasts wherever you get your podcasts. Tim Storey, NCSL’s CEO hosts “Legislatures:  The Inside Storey” where he focuses on leadership and legislatures. The “Our American States” podcast dives into some of the most challenging public policy issues facing legislators. On “Across the Aisle” host Kelley Griffin tells stories of bipartisanship. Also check out our special series “Building Democracy” on the history of legislatures.