So to apply that framework to a couple specific candidates, Mitt Romney is generally regarded as the Republican front-runner. But he doesn’t seem to be generating much enthusiasm, and there a variety of things that may make him objectionable, from his religion to his record on health care. The overriding media narrative seems to be whether he can make himself acceptable to the party. If you were a reporter covering the Romney campaign, what would you be looking for?
I think that basic narrative is pretty accurate, and it speaks well of the journalism community that they’ve settled on that. The basic question is the right question: What can Romney do to make himself appeal to elements of the party that don’t trust him on his religion, on health care? And even beyond health care he had a fairly liberal record in Massachusetts that he was flip-flopping away from in 2008. Those issues still continue.
The thing that I would emphasize is that the people he needs to please are not the voters in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina. Ultimately he has to do that, but the path to doing that is to please important leaders on those issues in the party. So when he gave his speech at the University of Michigan awhile back, the response to that really mattered. And the response within the Republican Party wasn’t very good. I don’t know what the polling results would be about how ordinary voters responded, but what mattered was the National Review, which endorsed him in 2008, was not excited by his effort to explain his health care position.
To take a candidate who occupies a very different position in the race, what would you look for if you were covering Michele Bachmann’s campaign?
Remembering what we were saying a little earlier, the party base is expanding and shifting. The Tea Party leadership might have a stronger voice now, and her support among them matters. But she’s got to have some support outside the Tea Party, or else she’s a factional candidate, and that’s not going to be enough to get her through contests that are not in Tea Party-friendly states. So I would be looking for, are there major party leaders who are either hostile to the Tea Party or just not deeply involved in the Tea Party who are supportive of her?
I don’t think many of the individual claims in your book would draw a lot of objections from serious political journalists. At the same time, the standard model for covering a primary campaign is to assign reporters to follow around candidates, which may reinforce the candidate-oriented frame you’re trying to push back against.
You earned your undergraduate degree from Medill, and worked for a few years as a journalist before starting your scholarly career. So to ask you to put your editor’s hat on, how would you structure campaign coverage to reflect the story as you see it?
One thing you could do is—and I don’t want to overstate the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire; they are important but they’re not the end-all and be-all—you could have someone be responsible for learning about what’s going on in Iowa. So they would go and talk to the various party leaders in Iowa, various activists, people who have been influential in earlier campaigns. You would cover Iowa, rather than covering Michele Bachmann in Iowa. It’s daunting to say, go and understand a whole state. It’s harder than it is to follow around a particular candidate. But that is the place where the questions need to be asked.