Election Road Trip: Beyond the Sound Bites

Joe Klein's diagonal cross-country drive begins, in search of the news beyond the sound bites

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Peter van Agtmael / Magnum

Bryan Lentz, Democrat from Pennsylvania running for Congress in the 2010 Midterm elections hands out campaign info at a bus stop.

"Hi, I'm Bryan Lentz, and I'm running for Congress," the candidate says, and hands the voter a black-and-white brochure. It is early morning in the Philadelphia suburbs on the Tuesday after Labor Day. Lentz is offering the daily communion of electoral politics, handing out brochures, shaking hands — tedious and sometimes downright unpleasant work but far less toxic than every candidate's other main activity: dialing for dollars. Lentz, a Democrat, is running to replace Joe Sestak, who is a candidate for the U.S. Senate. He's a big guy, a former paratrooper and prosecutor. The black-and-white brochures are an interesting touch. Most candidates go four-color splashy these days, and Lentz had a fight with his staff over this. They wanted splashy; he wanted tabloid-style pamphlets. "They cost less," he told me. "And they look real. People open them up and read 'em like a newspaper. Look." And it was true: all along the train platform, people were reading the Bryan Lentz News.

"The atmosphere down here on the ground level doesn't match what you see on TV," Lentz told me later. "People are frustrated and very concerned, but angry? I don't see much of that. You get a certain percentage — a small percentage — of people who get their news from Fox and MSNBC. You can tell who they are immediately, because they have the same sound bites." Now, there's a revelation; we live in an age when voters have sound bites too. And that is why I'm spending the month of September on the road, driving my way across the country diagonally, from New York City to Los Angeles, because I really don't trust the things I've been seeing on TV and reading in the papers. Yes, you can find angry people right now. A lot of lives have been ripped up by the economic devastation of recent years; a smaller number of families have been eviscerated by war. But this is a complicated country, more complicated than any collection of sound bites. I'd like to find out what people actually know about the problems we're facing and how they get their news. Another reason I'm doing this is, I love road trips — especially across this crazy, brilliant country.

I'm not looking to prognosticate. I know what the polls are saying; it's going to be a big Republican year. But I'm not going to do what journalists, myself included, often do: troll for quotes that reflect the polls. I'm just going to report what I see — in greater detail on TIME.com — and let the chips fall. One thing is immediately apparent, however: even if there's a Republican landslide this fall, more than 40% of the public will vote Democratic — and when you travel with politicians, you meet roughly equal numbers of people on both sides. On Labor Day, when I began my expedition with visits to three different congressional districts in Pennsylvania, I heard wildly conflicting things about the Obama stimulus program. Pat Meehan, the Republican running against Lentz, told me people were complaining to him that all the stimulus had done locally was replace old traffic lights on Township Line Road with new ones. Later that day, up in Allentown, I met Richard Yanzsa, an engineering consultant for the steel industry, who said, "Don't let anyone tell you the stimulus isn't working. People are ordering steel again. General Motors and Chrysler are building cars again. My skills are in demand. I've been on the road a heck of a lot more this year than last."

A final, rather strange bias that I have: I like politicians. They're smart, hardworking and — believe it or not — believe what they're saying much of the time. The price they pay for glory is stupendous: they have to beg constantly for money, and they have to choose among their principles, conflicting and confusing information and their contributors on dozens of votes every year. This is not to say I'm a sucker for pols ... and when they say, as more than a few Republicans do, that you can cut taxes and cut the deficit at the same time, I will confront them. But I'll also confront Democrats when they refuse to acknowledge that the deals cut with public employees' unions, with gold-plated health plans and diamond-encrusted pensions, are no longer affordable. Still, my default position is: politicians are decent, often idealistic human beings who deserve respect.

Mike Fitzpatrick, for example: he's a Republican running in Philadelphia's northern suburbs for a seat he once held. He was beaten in 2006 by an attractive antiwar Iraq veteran named Patrick Murphy. Why didn't you try again in 2008? I asked. "Because I got cancer. Stage III colon cancer, eight months of radiation and chemo. I saw the health care system up close, and I had to get back in to fix it." Fitzpatrick's leaflets are snazzier than Lentz's, but he worked just as hard, standing there for hours in the broiling sun at a Polish picnic on Labor Day, handing them out, doing his job.