The man who explains politics in—and to—PA

When reporters need “here’s-what-it-all-means” context, they call Terry Madonna

PENNSYLVANIA — When it comes to understanding the foundations of Keystone State politics—and how citizens process rhetoric and choose candidates—one name rises to the top.

G. Terry Madonna, a professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College, is, for reporters (and readers and viewers) here, perhaps the most well-known—and, arguably, the most accessible—source for political analysis and history. Last year, for example, Madonna says he was interviewed 2,500 times. The day former Sen. Rick Santorum dropped out of the presidential race, he fielded 37 calls.
Yes, like a good academic compiling curriculum vitae, he keeps track.

For more than four decades, Madonna has studied, tracked, and dissected nuances for news audiences from Philly to Pittsburgh and back. A Google News search shows Madonna has in recent weeks provided plenty of on-the-record insights for news outlets in state and beyond, on topics ranging from campaign finance and the effectiveness of attack ads from the Obama camp to the dearth of women in Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s inner circle.

He can be to-the-point, as when, in the latter story, he sums up the state capitol (“Harrisburg is still pretty much an old-boys network”), or in an article earlier this month in which he spoke about the legislature’s reputation after a state Senate leader was accused of fraud months before his retirement (“It’s hard to do any more than what has been done.”).

His influence extends beyond quotes. Madonna’s own periodic column—Politically Uncorrected, written with Michael Young, a former Penn State professor—appears in state newspapers and is cycled out via social media and email. Beyond newsprint, Madonna hosts a public affairs program called Pennsylvania Newsmakers on Central Pennsylvania’s WGAL station each Sunday, heads Franklin & Marshall’s Center for Politics & Public Policy and its public opinion polling unit, and has written books and numerous articles. He’s also, of course, on Twitter (@terrymadonna).

And, indeed, he returns nearly every phone call he gets.

“I’ve never called anybody to be interviewed,” said Madonna, who said he doesn’t worry about overexposure. “It could be a weekly newspaper in rural Pennsylvania or the New York Times. I feel obligated to call back.”

Madonna feels compelled to help others learn, which he did in the classroom as a valued faculty member for decades at Millersville University in central Pennsylvania before moving five miles northwest to Lancaster in 2004 for a non-teaching role at Franklin & Marshall.

Simply put, Madonna—-perhaps more than any other individual—helps explain politics in Pennsylvania to Pennsylvania audiences (and, often, to non-Pennsylvania audiences).

John Micek, Harrisburg correspondent for the Allentown Morning Call, credits Madonna with helping him gain critical insights when he started covering the state capitol more than a dozen years ago.

“When you come into a beat that is this complicated, where there’s so much history and events are interconnected in ways you don’t understand until you’ve been here a while, it’s great to have a guy like him to bounce ideas off of, to help refine what I’m working on,” Micek said. “Even 13 years down the line, that’s still the case.”

Micek, who sometimes appears on Madonna’s newsmakers show, said he is cognizant of overexposing a source like Madonna to readers, and of the potential risks of having a single individual be the dominant source for “here’s-what-it-all-means” quotes.

“You try to have a deep Rolodex,” Micek said. “You can overuse any source. Other people do what Terry does. Many of them are very good.”

On key political issues, Madonna is never short of opinions. Here’s a rundown from a recent interview with Madonna (who fit me in before a York television station was set to call):

How the public consumption of political matters has changed over time:

“It has become more polarized, ideological. People are now listening and paying attention to news that reaffirms their views. I feel an obligation as a political scientist to observe what each side is saying. You are seeing a rise in solid-party voting, after decades of ticket splitting.”

How money influences elections here:

“Pennsylvania, since the 1960s, has become a quintessential television state. It’s big and too hard to do retail campaigning. You get into six television markets. For $10 million to $15 million you can do a decent race. For $20 million to $25 million, it can be exemplary. In 2008, Pennsylvania was second in most money spent on television. From Labor Day to Election Day, it was $25 million.”

On truth-squadding campaign ads:

“I am a big fan of constant evaluations by the media, fact-checking commercials. I would like to see every single commercial reviewed. Whether it’s on their station or not, stations ought to do this routinely. It’s rare to find a commercial that’s 100 percent accurate.”

How much voters care about money in politics:

“Not nearly as much as they should. What’s fascinating in Pennsylvania: The biggest reaction was not to Bonusgate where there were more than 20 convictions. That didn’t matter much to them. People will decry it, but there’s not a lot of trust. It’s a plague on both [parties’] houses. After the [late night pay hike] vote in 2005, 54 new members [of the General Assembly] were elected. It was the biggest turnover in modern history. That mattered.”

How a scholar should engage in the political process:

“I have a role to provide balance, history, and perspective. History is retrospective; it’s not about the future. I’m always cautious. When I do speeches, they’re filled with historic analogies and polling data. I’m not partisan.”

Still, standing so close to the political fire also makes Madonna a person likely to catch a few sparks. And he caught a few earlier this year when Santorum called him a “Democratic hack” after the professor reported polling showing former Gov. Mitt Romney had caught Santorum in his home state.

“If a candidate is running 20 points behind, I have an obligation to say why they’re 20 points behind,” said Madonna, who noted’s favorable evaluation of his accuracy and record. “My job is to explain. I understand I can become part of the story. I have to live with that and be scrupulously independent.”

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Ken Knelly served as metro editor at The Times-Tribune in Scranton and as senior editor for government and business at The State in Columbia, S.C. He owns Clearberries, a communications consulting and training firm, and works for a Christian college in Northeastern Pennsylvania.