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.
For Vickers’s third question, he asked Romney whether he would agree to balance spending cuts and tax increases to deal with long-term deficit spending. Here, Vickers got in a follow-up question, trying to pin Romney down on whether he’d accept a certain ratio of cuts-to-increases.
Romney took the no-new-taxes position. But he also added he’d eliminate “Obamacare,” and shift Medicaid, food stamps, and more completely to the states.
Third lesson: Do the math. How does Romney’s idea to send Medicaid and food stamps “back to the states” save taxpayers money? Or, to what extent does he want to eliminate the services altogether? If the math raises questions, those aspects need to be addressed (if not in follow-up questions to the candidate, then for readers and viewers after the fact).
Finally, Vickers chose to focus the last question on Pennsylvania politics. Asked Vickers:
There’s been a certain amount of hand-wrangling here in Pennsylvania amongst some of the leaders of the Republican party about whether or not you’re fully invested in campaigning here and making this a battleground state. Some of the information that’s been reported is that Pennsylvania is not among the first- or second-tier states in the road map to victory for you. Can you elaborate on that for us and for the people of Pennsylvania?
Romney’s answer? He plans to win in Pennsylvania. Not sure what other answer he’d give in that context, but his response did contain this rather amazing claim (in bold) that passed unchallenged:
I’m looking to win in Pennsylvania. You may not see as many ads of mine up as you’re seeing of President Obama, but that’s because he’s raising massive amounts of money. He didn’t have a primary; we did. And of course he receives very large sums of money from organized labor. We don’t have some group that can write checks for tens of millions of dollars and send them to our campaign. So it takes us a little while to build our campaign coffers, but we’ll be working here, just like I am now. This is not my first visit to Pennsylvania. I keep coming back, and I’m planning on winning in Pennsylvania.
Obama has labor unions, yes. The Obama campaign has thus far outraised Romney’s. But Romney has nobody to write big checks in support of his quest for the White House? The Romney campaign was prepared to spend $2 million-plus ahead of the April 24 primary here—a maneuver that essentially ended former Sen. Rick Santorum’s bid. Two pro-Romney PACs today announced a $1.8 millions ad buy here. There are no doubt many challenges on the fundraising front, but big donors to Romney and pro-Romney super PACs are not in short supply (one, former Newt Gingrich-backer Sheldon Adelson, just gave $10 million to the pro-Romney Restore Our Future PAC).
Fourth lesson: Challenge assertions. When a candidate says something that jumps out—like Romney’s “we don’t have some group that can write [big] checks” claim—it needs to be challenged. How does Romney classify his campaign’s largest donors or the larger still donations to pro-Romney super PACs?
It’s not easy to be the reporter in that chair with a pad, a time crunch, and a well-coached candidate. But there are ways to make it a little less easy for that interviewee— with thoughtful question selection and phrasing, and smart follow-ups—and, hopefully, a little more informative for readers and viewers.