The idea of taking a bus trip across America came up during last year's campaign. Elections are often a chance to sense what issues people care about. But the candidates (and, for that matter, the media) seemed out of touch with the coffee-shop and dinner-table conversations that were going on.

So a group of us--led by Michael Duffy, Nancy Gibbs and Eric Pooley of our political team--concluded that it would be useful (and fun) to travel across the country listening to what was really on people's minds. Thus was born our "Backbone of America" project. We decided to take old...

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