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.
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.