PENNSYLVANIA — While campaigns and aligned PACs are raising and spending hundreds of millions of dollars, old-school, retail politics has yet to go out of style.
Gov. Mitt Romney’s five-day bus tour of six swing states ended Tuesday. The Pennsylvania portion included three stops on Saturday: a foundry and machine shop in the northeastern part of the state, a convenience store outside Philadelphia, and an historic site in south-central Pennsylvania.
Getting perhaps the best shot to elevate coverage of Romney’s Pennsylvania drive-through was The Patriot-News of Harrisburg. Patriot-News political reporter Robert Vickers was granted an “exclusive” sit-down with Romney and the chance to delve (or, at least dip) into areas of interest to voters across a wide swath of the central part of the state, where the paper is a key media source. (Efforts to reach Vickers to talk with him about the interview were unsuccessful.)
Such interviews present real challenges. Candidates are on a roll and a schedule. They’re hard to get off script and onto new ground. Reporters often have little time to prepare and little time with the candidate.
So, how did The Patriot-News use this opportunity—and handle the inherent challenges?
The paper’s resulting print story, published Sunday, was a fairly standard candidate-campaigns-in-state recap—quotes/assertions from Romney on the stump, quotes/assertions from a pro-Obama state representative and a teacher’s union official, with a few quotes from the paper’s Romney interview woven in, along with a few nice splashes of color like the following:
Looking something like a 2012 GOP Mount Rushmore, Romney, (Gov. Tom) Corbett, (Sen. Pat) Toomey and (former Minnesota Gov. Tim) Pawlenty basked in the crowd’s adoration, decked out in standard summer campaign khakis, blue jeans and Oxfords with rolled-up sleeves. Noticeably absent from the three visits was Pennsylvania’s former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who had been dismissive of Romney’s conservative credentials when the two men vied for the Republican nomination.
In addition to providing fodder for the print story, Vickers’s interview with Romney was also broken into four video clips on four topics about which Vickers asked Romney—energy, transportation, taxes, and the importance of Pennsylvania to the Romney campaign. The videos were promoted in print and embedded on the paper’s website. A look at the clips offers a few basic lessons for all campaign reporters and editors going forward.
Vickers’s first question was about “coal and gas”—a key topic in energy-rich Pennsylvania. Vickers framed this in political terms, calling it “a contentious issue” and noting “we’ve got Democrats here who are advocating for a more expansive use of coal and gas while the president seems to be a little bit more restrictive there,” and then (the question-ish part) “wondering about” Romney’s “thoughts .and message to Democrats in Pennsylvania who are eager to see coal and gas tapped into.”
In other words: What’s your message to folks with whom in this instance you generally agree? Romney’s response, no surprise, was that he is also eager to “take advantage of the energy resources we have and they will help propel the economy,” noting that “by virtue of horizontal drilling technologies and fracking, [natural gas] is now in abundance, it is very cheap.” Vickers’s question was open and unfocused—inviting as much in the answer. Romney was never confronted with the bigger issue for Pennsylvanians: how to balance the downsides of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas (wastewater disposal, road damage, and methane water quality challenges, for example) with the benefits of more available energy.
And so, a first lesson: Add value. Questions should be based on the knowledge that past positions are a given and build from that foundation. Asking something to which the answer is apparent does little to add value. Asking an open, unfocused question is an invitation to the candidate to revert to generalizations and talking points.
Vickers’s second question dealt with the sorry state of Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges. Specifically, he asked how a Romney administration would “help get infrastructure up to speed” in the state.
Romney, citing crumbling roads and bridges from “the Eisenhower years” in need of upgrades (though in Pennsylvania, it’s more like turn of the century), offered up a rather Democratic response: Dramatic increase in infrastructure investment, public-private partnerships, and toll roads. For local readers and viewers, the answer probably sounded something like that Obama “surrogate” Romney avoided at the Quakertown Wawa on Saturday—Ed Rendell— who as governor advocated leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike and placing tolls on Interstate 80.
Second lesson: Dissect the answer. Often, a candidate’s answer raises additional questions. If there isn’t time for a follow-up question during an interview (and, asking one doesn’t guarantee an answer), reporters should raise the question for their readers/viewers anyway—another form of context.