BRIAN LAMB: Dan Balz, what’s the difference in reporting today for newspapers and back in 1972 when Ken Crouse wrote his book, ”Boys on the Bus?”
DAN BALZ: Brian, I think the biggest difference is I don’t think of us as being newspaper people anymore. I think of us as being reporters and news people and the world has changed so dramatically that we’re posting online, in print, we’re doing video. We’re doing so many different things today and we’re doing it around the clock.
So it’s I think it’s a totally transformed business in that sense and sometimes I will refer to, you know, that I work at the paper, but, in fact, I have to remind myself that’s not really the case. That’s only one of the ways that we’re disseminating information.
So it’s a much more competitive world, it’s a much more fast-paced world. There’s less time for reflection. There’s sometimes less time for reporting. Events are moving so much faster. I think those are the biggest differences.
LAMB: How would you compare the information we had today on candidates back then?
BALZ: Well, I think we know as much as we ever did and in some ways more. I think one of the challenges is to sort out what’s important information to know and what’s trivial information that might be fun to know. And, you know, one of the things I worry about in the way that we move so rapidly today is that, you know, it’s hard to sort of separate the wheat from the chaff sometimes.
And we can get fixated particularly people within the kind of the political community who obsess, you know, on a lot of this hour by hour. We can get kind of sidetracked from the main issues of the day or the main arguments or the important things that you really need to know.
LAMB: Move ahead to September/October and you’re the moderator for the three debates that the two candidates will be involved in. What needs to be asked and answered in order for voters to have the best information going into the election?
BALZ: I think for both of these candidates one of the things that needs to be answered in a more concrete way and in a more kind of systematic way is what would they actually do if they were president. We are spending a lot of time at this point relitigating the past. The president is relitigating the Bush years to suggest that Governor Romney would take us back to those years with his policies and Governor Romney’s obviously litigating the record of the president.
But I think what most people want to know is why has this recession dragged on as long as it has? I mean, technically we’re out of the recession, we’re in a recovery, but this is a recovery that’s been very slow and very difficult and very painful for a lot of people.
I mean, we still have unemployment above eight percent. We shouldn’t think that because it’s come down a bit that we’re at a good point in the economy. The economy is very fragile. The percentage of people who are unemployed for more than six months is in the neighborhood of 40 or 42 percent.
I mean, those are astonishing numbers and when you think about what the candidates are talking about, it’s not clear that either the president or Governor Romney has laid out a plan that in kind of a convincing way says to people I have a path forward, here are the steps that we’re going to take and here are the likely results.
LAMB: What are some of the specific questions you would ask?
BALZ: Well, I think I would ask President Obama one of the major crises that he had to deal with was the foreclosure crisis. Why have the various things that the administration has tried not worked and what would you do, what do you have left kind of in your toolkit to try to deal with that?
I mean, think one of the realities of this period is that there are so many people who are under water in their homes or whose homes have simply lost a considerable amount of value that they’re in a sense frozen. They’re frozen economically.
And why given the significance of that problem the administration has not been able to do more? That’s one thing I would ask. For Governor Romney, I think I would ask why he believes that the kinds of significant tax cuts that he’s proposing, A, would definitely stimulate the economy. I mean, the Bush tax cuts that were passed in the beginning of the Bush presidency did not lead to, you know, an eight-year period of dramatically robust growth.
I mean, there was some growth in that period, but it wasn’t as though it was an all out success. So I think I would try to pin him down on that. And second, the question of whether his economic policy, the proposals that he has put forth on the table, why they would not create continuing problems with the deficit.
He’s talked a lot about dealing with the deficit, but I don’t think he’s been specific enough yet in talking about the tradeoffs that he would have to deal with and the potential consequences of those.
LAMB: In the room here we have 18 students from Purdue University. You graduated from another small school not too far away from Purdue, the University of Illinois. When you were there, did you have any idea where you would end up? Like, for instance, from 1978 to now at the Washington Post covering all these presidential campaigns?
BALZ: Well, I have to say I had a hope that I would end up in Washington. When I was a sophomore in college on the recommendation of my brother, who’s three years old than I am and was also at the university, I joined the student newspaper, the Daily Illini, and that following summer I did an internship here in Washington for the congressman who represented my home district in Northern Illinois, John B. Anderson, who later ran for president as an independent in 1980.
And the sort of confluence of working for the student paper and then being out here in Washington kind of hooked me on journalism and federal government being here in the nation’s capital. At that point, I know I really wanted to come back here as a journalist. I didn’t know in what capacity. I mean, I thought, you know, working for the Chicago Tribune Bureau here or, you know, a big newspaper bureau here.
I was lucky enough to get a job at National Journal in 1972. And so I was able to get here relatively quickly. And then I was there for five years and then I was, again, lucky enough frankly to get a job at the Washington Post and sort of have pinched myself ever since.
LAMB: Over those years, which contest, which candidates do you remember the most? Not that you particularly liked or disliked them, but were the most interesting?
BALZ: I think Bill Clinton was the most natural and gifted candidate that I’ve watched in the time I’ve been covering politics. I mean, Reagan was a significant figure. I had very little contact with Reagan. I interviewed him in 1976 for a project I was doing unrelated to National Journal.
I was in Texas during his first term and then I was national editor at the Post during his second term. I did not have a lot of contact with him on the campaign trail. I did the Mondale Campaign in 1984.
But the Clinton campaign and Bill Clinton as a candidate was, you know, just a, you know, wail of a story politically, I mean, given all of the ups and downs that he went through, and to see the ability of somebody who’s under fire, which all candidates are at one time or another, and his determination to kind of push through that.
Also, I thought what he did in terms of kind of reimagining the Democratic party after the losses in 1980, ’84 and ’88 in trying to rethink what the Democratic party needed to do to bring middle class voters back to their side I thought was intellectually a very interesting experience, but Brian, every campaign is, you know, a fascinating campaign.
I mean, you know, they’re unpredictable. The country is always in a different place both politically and economically as we go through these campaigns. The human side of these campaigns is fascinating. And one of the things that I’ve always loved about being a political reporter is that it forces you not to spend all your time inside the beltway and you get to know the country, you get to know the politics of different states, you get to know politicians in different states.
So as you’re following the circus of the presidential campaign, you’re getting, you know, in a sense getting a graduate seminar every four years in kind of where the country is.
LAMB: From your experience, how many people have already made up their mind? What percentage?
BALZ: Probably 85 to 90 at this point. I mean, we are a very polarized country and have been for some time as everybody knows and I don’t think there is anything that’s happened so far in this presidential campaign cycle that suggest that’s beginning to loosen a little bit, if anything. I think it’s very much so.
I mean, we’re in the middle of the recall battle in Wisconsin where Governor Scott Walker’s facing a recall on June 5th. Everybody I’ve talked to about that race, it doesn’t matter which side they’re on or kind of what involvement they had, but everybody I’ve talked to says this is the most polarized state in the country.
And I think there was a recent poll that came out that indicated in Wisconsin on that race they’re probably less than five percent undecided at this point. I mean, these are remarkable numbers when you think about it that in a sense people’s self-identification is either Republican or Democrat has locked them into a voting pattern that we haven’t seen until we got into this period.
So I don’t think there’s a lot of minds that are going to be changed over the next, you know, five or six months, but enough that could swing the election certainly.
LAMB: I want to get our students involved and Rob Kuhlman has agreed to be the first to ask a question as I come across here and trip over everybody. Mr. Kuhlman?
KUHLMAN: Thank you. My name is Rob Kuhlman. I just graduated from Purdue with a degree in history and political science and my question is how have sites like Fact Check changed the job you do as a journalist covering politics?
BALZ: Well, those enterprises, I think, have had a huge effect on the way campaigns are operating now and they are enormously valuable for readers. They do what in a sense we’re supposed to be doing in the routine course of business, but as I was saying at the beginning, things move so quickly and you have to post something. If you’re out on the campaign trail and if you’re one of the people who’s assigned to Governor Romney or the president or any of the candidates during the primaries, if something happens, essentially you’re expected to post it very, very quickly.
There is very little time for a reporter who’s out on a bus or driving in a car in the middle of Iowa or somewhere to be able to really do all of the background research that you would do if you were writing a newspaper story about it.
Fact checkers have the ability and the brain power frankly and the knowledge to be able to go back and begin to unravel some of these things. The arguments that are made by campaigns these days are often over the top. They often stretch the truth. All campaigns do it. And it’s important to have a kind of rigorous and regular accounting of that in a place that readers can go to because if I do it in the context of a story, I may fact check in the 12th paragraph. And if people read only 10 paragraphs, they’re not going to get to that because we know people’s attention spans are pretty short and, you know, if it’s on the web, they may click to the first page, they very well may not click to the second page.
To have a fact check spot on our website or in our print edition makes a huge difference for readers.
LAMB: Next question from Natalie Johnson , a freshman at Purdue.
JOHNSON: Hi. My name is Natalie Johnson and I will be going into my sophomore year, mechanical engineering, come the fall. And my question for you is that I understand that you are the co-author of two different books. So I was wondering if co-authoring changed or altered your writing style in any way.
BALZ: That’s a great question. I’ve had two different co-authors. I did a book after the ’94 campaign with Ron Brownstein, who is now at National Journal, and then I did a book after the 2008 campaign with Haynes Johnson, who’s a former colleague at the Washington Post, Pulitzer Prize winner and teaches at the University of Maryland.
One of the challenges, there are great things to say about collaborating with somebody else and both of my partnerships were terrific. I could not have asked for better collaborators and co-authors. The one challenge is to make a book with one voice.
And frankly, it doesn’t alter the writing style of either author or co-author, but the process is you trade back and forth chapters. Somebody always takes the lead on a particular chapter, but that chapter then goes to the other co-author and they do some rewriting and they do some tweaking and they do some restructuring and they do some smoothing.
And out of that, the two voices from the two co-authors blend into one. I mean, you would not have a good book if it was obvious who wrote which chapters and in both cases, I think most people have not been able to figure out, you know, which ones Ron wrote, which ones I wrote or which ones that Haynes wrote, which ones I wrote.
Collaborating is great. I mean, I’m now working on a book by myself on this campaign and I wake up in the morning thinking boy, it would be nice to have a collaborator right now to work through this particular issue or problem.
ABREGO: Hello. I’m Lisa Abrego and I’m in political science and communication. And going off of that, how do you approach book interviews differently than news reporting interviews?
BALZ: Well, they are different. I think of the book interviews as gathering history. I think of interviewing when I’m working for the news side as gathering contemporary information. Now, there’s a fine line between that obviously, but generally when I’m doing the interviews for the book, I’m dealing with settled events, something that happened six months or eight months ago or three or four months ago and it is really to try to get people to sort of put me back in the middle of that from their vantage point and to tell the story as as they felt it and lived it in those, you know, kind of white hot moments of any campaign, the turning points in a campaign.
When you’re reporting for the Post, what you’re looking for is where is something going today and tomorrow or in the next couple of weeks? You’re always trying to pitch forward as best you can and you’re trying to dig out things that, you know, haven’t been revealed. I mean, you know, that’s the essence of what we do day-by-day. I mean, we’re trying to scoop the opposition and we’re trying to break news and we’re trying to find things out that campaigns don’t necessarily want to come out.
So there is a kind of a distinct difference in that.
IDE: I’m Ashley Ide. I am a senior in communication and psychology and my question is more in reference to your roots again and I was wondering how growing up in a relatively small Midwestern town has shaped the way that you cover and view politics?
BALZ: That’s a wonderful question. I don’t know that I can answer that directly other than to say we all are products of our growing up place and years and the people around us and, you know, Midwesterners, like yourselves, tend to be pretty nice people.
And I think that when you grow up in a smaller community where I grew up in Freeport was 25, 27,000 people. Not a tiny community, but not a big town obviously, and it was well enough away from Chicago that, you know, we weren’t a big city.
I think that there comes from that a curiosity about the world. What is the rest of the world like? You understand what are the values of the place you’re in and I think that carrying those with me through the rest of my career has been valuable because one of the things you try to do as a political reporter is to understand sort of why voters are doing what they do, what voters are thinking about.
And the degree to which you have contact through your own life with different kinds of people is important, but as I say, the other aspect of that is when you’re in a place like Freeport, you’re wondering well, what is life like on the East Coast or the West Coast and it, I think, feeds a curiosity to know more about other places as well as where you grew up.
ROSENBERGER: My name is Paul Rosenberger and I’m a senior in electrical engineering. What I want to know is how has Mitt Romney’s campaign compared with his 2008 campaign and relative in strategy to the way he one - this one compared to how he didn’t win last time?
BALZ: There are a lot of differences. The biggest different starts with the fact that he began this campaign essentially as the front runner for the nomination. He began the 2008 campaign as a essentially little known governor from Massachusetts running against some people who were in essence nationally known and national celebrities: John McCain who had run in 2000 and was a significant figure nationally and Rudy Giuliani who was the mayor of New York at the time of attacks on September 11th and therefore had a national profile.
As a result, the strategy he adopted in that campaign was quite different than what he did in this one, the biggest difference being he had a need early on in that campaign to make a mark, to try to convince people, voters, donors, you know, people who pay attention to politics that he could play in the same league as McCain and Giuliani.
And so he did some early fundraising to create a splash. He did early advertising to drive his numbers up in Iowa. He competed hard in the Iowa straw poll and was able to win that as a way to put himself on the map.
None of which in the end gave him the nomination. He started this campaign and said in essence we’re not going to do it that way. He didn’t put in personal money the way he did the first time. They ran a much leaner smaller operation than they did four years ago. If you went to the headquarters a year ago at this time compared to four years ago, it was night and day. It was a much smaller, tighter operation.
They started more slowly. They paid less attention to the other candidates and kind of decided we’re going to run the race. If we can run the race, we want to run regardless of who ends up as our final competitor. We’ll be in pretty good shape.
So there were a lot of significant differences between the two campaigns.
BDEIR: Hi. I’m Saif. I’m from Jordan. I’m a senior in civil engineering. How has social media changed your line of work in terms of reporting and getting your news information?
BALZ: Significantly, and I think that the change between 2008 and 2012 has been one of the most dramatic that we’ve seen. I mean, the internet is obviously over a number of cycles had a pretty significant impact, but I think that social networking has been one of the most significant changes.
Twitter in particular is now a primary news source for anybody who covers politics and anybody who pays attention to politics. Twitter didn’t exist four years ago for all practical purposes. Facebook is important. The Obama campaign in 2008 essentially created their own version of Facebook with the help of some of the original Facebook people, but now, it is the way that campaigns think about doing organizing, creating community, creating networks.
So those two facts alone have significantly altered the way we approach what we’re doing. I mean, a real-time example would be when the candidates are having a debate, there used to be a spin room. There still is a spin room where at the end of a debate the candidates’ handlers come in and tell you that their candidate did best and it’s a ritualized process and we all go through it and it’s mostly useless, but anyway, it’s still done.
But the reality is in this campaign because of Twitter, campaigns could see instantly as people watching the debate, whether reporters or, you know, ordinary folks, would be tweeting, they would be creating in a sense the conventional wisdom of what was happening in that debate.
By the time the debate was over, the spin room was irrelevant because people had already kind of come to conclusions as to what were the highlights of that debate, who had made a mistake or who hadn’t, what exchanges were important and that sort of thing.
And so, you know, that’s happening in real-time and campaigns monitor that very closely to sort of come to the conclusion of we’ve got a problem on our hands or we’ve had a really good night or, you know, we’re somewhere in-between.
So it’s just much different. As I say, it’s so much more real-time than it used to be.
RAO: Hello. My name is Pranav Rao. I’ll be going to my senior electrical engineering and I’m originally from India. The Republican primary was the first election process to be impacted by the citizens united decision and super PACs and so on and this probably resulted it in it being dragged on and the Republican setting on a candidate who do not completely with and there’s a lot of debate on that.
Do you think there will be an effort or is there a consensus that the unlimited money is not a good thing and will there be any effort to curtail it?
BALZ: I think if you ask the average person what do you think about the role of money in campaigns, most of them would answer, ”It’s too much of it.” They would say that unlimited money is not a healthy thing for the political system and yet, there is no ground swell at this point to change that.
As a voting issue, money in campaigns rarely rises to the level of the economy, health care, education, any number of issues. The role of money in this campaign has been significant and different than we’ve seen as you say in your question.
The existence of the super PACs made it possible for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to stay in the campaign longer than they otherwise would have. So it dragged out in a sense the nomination battle. On the other hand, it also made it possible for Governor Romney to put down the attacks or the rise of Newt Gingrich and later Rick Santorum. His super PAC was instrumental in crushing Gingrich’s hopes in Iowa back in December.
And when Santorum rose up as a formidable opponent, the super PAC helped to take him back down. They are not the only elements that in the end brought the nomination to Mitt Romney, but there’s no question that they had a significant effect on elongating the process and changing it.
I mean, when you have one family, Sheldon Adelson and his wife and others, giving as much money as they did to the Gingrich super PAC, it, you know, changes the nature of the game. And the other element of this is that, you know, there’s essentially no separation and people now take for granted that there is no separation. Technically, the Romney campaign cannot coordinate with the super PAC that’s working in its behalf and yet, the people who are running it are all ex-Romney people. The candidates are allowed to raise money for those packs.
The president’s campaign now is helping to raise money for Priorities USA, which is the super PAC backing the president’s reelection campaign.
So the, you know, closeness of this is obviously a distortion in the process and because of the amounts of money. The other element of this, a lot of the super PACs are taking money under conditions in which they have to reveal who the donors are, but there are others that are taking it to do issue advertising, quote/unquote, and they don’t have to reveal that.
I mean, I’ve felt over the years that there’s almost no way you can take money out of politics. I mean, no matter what the kind of legal structure that’s set up, smart lawyers find a way to get money into the campaign, in significant amounts.
So it may be that until there is a radical transformation that’s a given. If that’s the case, then I think a very strong case can and should be made for as much transparency as possible. I mean, we are in an era where transparency is very easy to do. It can be almost instantaneous and I think that if that were the case, at least there would be some greater check on it and the public would at least be able to say, OK. We know where that money is coming from.
Now, in many cases we don’t. We can have suspicions of it, but we don’t know exactly who’s giving it and in what amounts and I think that’s an important fact that does have a distorting effect on politics and also on people’s perceptions of whether this is an open process or not.
LAMB: Jennifer Tuel
TUEL: Hi. I’m Jennifer Tuel. I’m a senior studying political science. Will the economy be the biggest issue for voter consideration as we’ve heard?
BALZ: Yes, unless something else eclipses it and I don’t mean that facetiously. I mean, if we had been sitting here four years ago at this time, we would not have said the collapse of the economy will totally change the last six weeks or eight weeks of the fall campaign.
It’s always possible that an outside event can transform things and given kind of the nature of where we are internationally, you can foresee something like that potentially happening. Having said that, I think that for, you know, it is likely very likely that the economy will continue to be the biggest issue.
I mean, whenever you talk to people about what’s on their minds or what they’re worried about, it’s some aspect of the economy and kind of this economic insecurity that so many people feel. Some people are feeling a little better than they did a few months ago or a year ago, but they’re not feeling truly comfortable.
And in one of our most recent polls, you know, a significant percentage said they don’t think that we’re truly out of the recession. And so when you have that as kind of the overriding kind of mood of the country, there’s no doubt that economic issues will dominate.
KING: Sorry. Nick King. I’ll be a senior next year in social studies education and political science. And my question is mainly about the whole Republican primary process and how Romney had to appear much more conservative in order to win those crucial votes and overall just the nomination.
So my question there entails is we talked about how even though since this is all polarized many people have already made up their mind, but there’s still that little bit left that Romney can win in certain swing states to win the overall election.
So where does he go to move back towards the middle there?
BALZ: Well, I think for the most part he’s going to try not to focus on some of the issues that he ended up focusing on during the primaries. Immigration, for example, I think he moved himself much farther to the right than he probably should have. I think that the problem that he’s potentially got with Latino voters is significant and could be decisive in some of those Rocky Mountain states in particular that will be in play: Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada.
The Obama campaign says that they’re going to try to put Arizona in play. We’ll see if they’re able to do that. But nonetheless, I think that the gap that Governor Romney’s facing among Latino voters is in part a function of what happened during the primaries.
You know, his pivot at this point from the primaries to the general election has basically been to try to get back to where he wanted to be when he started the campaign. If you go back to the announcement speech he made in New Hampshire last June, that was an economic focus and it was focused on President Obama.
That’s where they have always wanted to run the campaign and when you talk to Romney folks, they will say, ”We have sought to be consistent in the message and to have a message that we started out with, be a message that works in the general election.” And I think as you see him making the move over the last few weeks as he’s begun to do from fighting the primaries to fighting the general election, that’s where he’s trying to be and I think that their feeling is that even with, you know, Latino voters, economic issues can overcome some of the problems that may exist because of his stances on immigration that with women where there’s a significant gender gap that exists and that he’s on the downside of that that economic issues particularly with suburban women can help to overcome that.
We’ll see whether that’s the case, but that’s clearly where he wants to go and there’s no question that for all voters no matter how we slice and dice them economic issues do have a residence. And if he can do that, then he may be successful.
The Obama campaign as we’ve seen this week is going to do everything they can to keep him pinned over in a particular place, farther to the right then he wants to be and also as having a philosophy of economics that’s geared toward helping the wealthy at the expense of or as opposed to the middle class.
So that’s the battle that we began to see unfold and we will see that more and more as the campaign goes on.
ALLEN: Hi. My name is Alleigh Allen and I just graduated from Purdue with a degree in communication. I’m curious to know how you tailor your writing style for a book or a book audience as opposed to reporting and your reporting audience and how you maintain what we as an audience might miss when we read as opposed to your personal experience?
BALZ: In doing the last book on the campaign and this current book that I’m working on about this campaign, I think of this as trying to write a narrative about the campaign. When I’m covering day-to-day, you know, I’m taking a moment in the campaign and trying to analyze it often where are we at this moment and why, what’s happened today and why, what’s behind the latest attack or the latest mistake, where are we in terms of the electrical map.
So it’s an effort as we go through this to as best as I can step back a half a step and try to make sense of it. When you’re doing the book, you have the great luxury in a sense of unpacking everything and putting it back together and trying to get people to understand it in a much broader context.
When you’re in the moment, there’s certain things that you don’t know and when you are able to go back and talk to people about what was really going on at that moment, you sometimes come away with a better understanding. You obviously learn things about specific tensions or debates within a campaign. You see things in a different way.
And I think that when you’re trying to write for a book audience, what you’re trying to do is say here’s the story in full. We’ve told it to you, you know, minute by minute, tweet by tweet, you know, newspaper story by newspaper story, but now, you can read it whole and to some extent we’re putting to the sides things that may have seemed important at the moment that, you know, I may have written three stories about, but in the long-run didn’t prove to be significant.
In the book you can say, you know, we don’t have to worry about those things. Here are the things that mattered and why.
CROSS: My name is Mike Cross. I’m a senior majoring in political science. My question is when covering an election so diligently, how difficult is it to remain impartial in your reporting and not get caught up in the hype of one campaign or another?
BALZ: Well, it’s not as difficult as you might think. You know, when I learned journalism when I was your age, I had a lot of good mentors and this was an era in which the idea of being a reporter was to be as objective as you can be.
Now, we all know that everybody has biases and prejudices and world views depending on how you were raised and where you were raised and where you went to school and who your friends were and what your parents’ politics views were and all of that, but if you come to the craft of political reporting with the idea that I’m going to try to as best as I can give people as full an understanding of what is happening in this campaign, it’s not that difficult to put your biases to the side and I think a lot of good reporters don’t have that much ideology, you know?
There was a colleague of mine who covered the White House many years ago who passed away much too young named, Ann Devroy. She was one of the best reporters ever. And somebody said of her, ”Her only ideology was the ideology of she hated incompetence in government.”
And so she covered the White House in a way in which if there was incompetence, she would root it out and she would, you know, bring it to the floor. Peter Hart, who is a Democratic pollster and who does with Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster of the NBC Wall Street Journal poll, said something to me when I was just starting out at the Post doing political reporting that I’ve always remembered and I think it’s particularly apt today in a period in which everybody’s trying to be a handicapper and handicapping is a great sport and we all have a lot of fun with it.
He said, ”The job of a political reporter is not to be a handicapper.” Your job is not to sort of sit there and try to predict who’s going to win the senate race and who’s going to win this House race or who’s going to win the presidency and which candidate in the presidency is going to win Ohio and which one’s going to win Michigan and which one’s going to win Nevada.
He said, ”What you should be thinking about always is that when people are watching on election night or wake up the next morning and see in the paper or see on T.V. so and so is declared the victor in this presidential campaign that you’re reporting will have helped them understand why that happened. Not that you predicted that it would happen, but they will have an understanding of the forces that were at work that were driving the election. They will have an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates that made it possible for them either to win or to lose.”
And I’ve always thought that was really sound advice because, I mean, there when you look at a presidential campaign, you look at it at a number of different levels. One is, you know, the daily back and forth, the combat that goes on between the two campaigns, the effort to put a message out, the effort to knock an opponent off to the side or to knock them off their game, external events that suddenly throw a campaign into turmoil and disarray.
All of those contribute to impressions of the character of these candidates. At a whole other level, the country is always moving and this is not a static country. Demographics have an impact on where we’re going. The economy has an impact on what people think about.
That’s another element of the campaign that has a huge impact on how the campaign’s going to turn out. You watch different states turn over time. You watch a state go as New Jersey once was from a real swing state to a state that is predominantly Democratic and it’s solidly Democratic in presidential elections. How and when did that happen? What were the reasons that that happened? What were the issues that turned a state like that? Why did California go from a state that often voted Republican in a presidential campaign to one that has consistently voted Democratic?
Those forces are out there and one of the things you’re trying to do is understand though. So it’s all of those things. When you approach a campaign in campaign reporting like that, I think that you’re not thinking about, you know, your own particular ideology. And so you stand back and try to do it that way.
Now, I will say that, you know, we’re in an era where that kind of reporting is less prized than it was when I first started out and in some ways people are critical of it, you know. Their view is that all, you know, people covering campaigns should, you know, put all of their, you know, biases out on the table and talk about it.
I disagree with that. I think there’s a role for, you know, different types of reporting, reporting that is grounded in a particular view point, a particular political or partisan view point, but also I think there are still a lot of people in this country who simply want, you know, them, want us to tell them the way it’s unfolding and let them come to their own conclusions.
WALKER: My name is Kyle Walker and I am a senior in political science. My question, first with the statement, in the past, Americans got their news from print media, the 7 o’clock news or the radio if they’re in the car on the way to work. How do you think the evolution of web journalism, blogs and Twitter will change the relationship journalists like yourself and your colleagues have with reporting election issues in a meaningful way?
BALZ: I mean, if we surveyed this room, I’m sure that half the room would say they’d get their political news from John Stewart and those who don’t would say most of what they get they get on their phone, that they look at their phone.
And that is the way of the world and we are all adapting to that. I mean, I know at the Post so much of the energy and thinking and, you know, creativity is aimed at how do we make sure we are delivering information to people the way they want it.
And, you know, so in a sense, the delivery changes, the news cycle is different. I mean, when I started out, afternoon newspapers had been the dominant side of journalism. They were dying out because people were working at different hours and the morning newspaper was coming to the form, but also television obviously was becoming dominant in political coverage.
We are now back in a sense in which by the time something lands on your doorstep, if you subscribed to a print copy of the newspaper, by the time it lands on your doorstep there’s much of the news in that newspaper you already know and you’ve probably already checked your, you know, phone or your Blackberry for your email that morning.
And so if something is breaking, you know, you’re 24 hours or 12 hours ahead of the printed edition and yet, there is still material in that printed edition that you didn’t know that we can deliver to you whether it’s smart analysis, a deeper reported piece that wasn’t based on yesterday’s events.
But in terms of the flow of information, it’s instantaneous and that’s why we do so much more. We do news alerts in ways we never used to think about not because everything that we alert is, you know, earth-shattering news, but because people want to know about it and people want to know quickly about it.
And so I think that just changes. I mean, consumers change and we have to change with them. How that effects the way political campaigns are run or who wins political campaigns, smarter people than I are going to have to figure that out.
All I know is that we are adapting as quickly as we can to the new world and, you know, all news organizations are.
OLIVER: Hello. My name is Scott Oliver and I’ll be a senior studying communication and my question is in 2008, the Obama campaign was successfully able to captivate the younger audience and now these individuals are going to be at the voting age and how is Romney going to identify with these individuals and capture the votes?
BALZ: Well, I don’t know that he’s going to be able to do it very easily. I mean, I think younger voters, you know, people who voted for the first time in ’08 were captivated by President Obama. I would say they are not as captivated today as they were, you know, four years or three and a half years and the presidency takes a toll on everybody and it’s clearly taken a toll on this president in terms of kind of the way people perceive him.
But I think in terms of where he stands on issues, a lot of younger people identify more closely with that than some with Governor Romney. You know, the younger generation is pushing its way through the electric in a very significant way.
We’re adding lots of people to the voting roles who are young for the first time and we will continue to do that election by election. The younger generation is a much more diverse generation that has grown up in a world that is far different than I grew up in or Brian grew up in or for that matter than Barack Obama grew up in or Governor Romney grew up in and different experiences.
I think that the hope in the Romney campaign is that there will just simply be overall less enthusiasm among young voters and therefore, they will not turn out in as big of numbers. I don’t think that there is a belief that they can significantly change the kind of margin between the president and Governor Romney, but that if fewer of them turn out, the composition of the electric will be more favorable to Governor Romney than it was before.
BRANHAM: Yes, my name is Paul Branham. I’m a senior in nuclear engineering from Keller, Texas. And there’s been a lot of talk in this election as usual about the swing states, but if you had to play the devil’s advocate for one of the states that traditionally swings only one way, what would be your dark horse favorite for either side of the campaign to flip a state?
BALZ: Well, I mean, flipping states is all that Romney has to do. I mean, the president doesn’t need to flip states at this point. If the president were to flip a state, they would say in Chicago Arizona would be their first target because John McCain was the candidate four years ago, Senator from Arizona, they didn’t put a lot of effort into that. The Latino population is growing there. Therefore, they think at some point that state comes into play for the Democrats. They don’t know whether it’s this time or not. They’re going to obviously spend some time and money probing that. We’ll see in the end whether they do that.
For Governor Romney, I mean, there’s a whole slew of states. Now, he’s going to start with Carl Rove has this nice shorthand version of what Romney has to do. It’s called the 3-2-1 plan for winning the electoral college.
The three is to win back three states that traditionally have gone Republican that Obama flipped last time: North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana. I mean, Indiana almost certainly will go back to the Republican column this time.
The Obama team thinks that they can still hold North Carolina. They won it by a very slim margin last time. That’ll be a very tough state for them to hold. Virginia of those three will be the big battle ground and I think Virginia will be the big battle ground right through to the end of the election.
Historically, it has voted Republican since 1964 until 2008, but that state is changing demographically. And so it is a true swing state at this point. Beyond that, Romney has to look at the two big states that have often been the key states in winning elections in this last decade, Ohio and Florida.
Ohio can be tough for President Obama. There’s a significant portion of white working class voters in that state. That’s not a constituency he’s done well within the past. That’ll be a competitive state. Florida he did pretty well there in 2008, but we’ll see whether that is as easy this time. I think that’s going to be a tough state for him.
Then he’s got to, you know, win somewhere else that the president wanted whether it’s Iowa. The Romney campaign says that they will try to put Michigan in play. Michigan has, you know, in the last five elections voted Democratic.
The Romney campaign thinks because he was born and raised there they have an opportunity to put that state in play. I think a lot of political analysts are still quite skeptical of whether they’ll be able to do it, but as with the Obama campaign in Arizona, the Romney campaign will begin to probe it and see what they can do.
NWAOKOBIA: Hello. My name is Jude Nwaokobia. I’m a psychology major. I’m a senior and I’m from Nigeria. And my question has to do with the vice presidential candidate for Mitt Romney. Do you think after the fiasco with Sarah Palin in 2008 he will have to take special care when picking a candidate this year?
BALZ: Yes, absolutely. I think that the experience that John McCain went through with Sarah Palin has made it much more difficult and really frankly highly unlikely that Governor Romney will sit there in the last couple of weeks before he makes a decision and says we really have to roll the dice. Let’s take somebody who’s not on anybody’s radar and elevate them to vice presidential running mate.
I also don’t think that that’s kind of in the DNA of Mitt Romney. I mean, there was a wonderful moment in the McCain campaign. Sarah Palin is on her way up to meet him at his home in Sedona, Arizona, for the interview and he’s on the phone with the lawyer who handled the vetting process, A.B. Culvahouse and Culvahouse had just completed the vetting of Sarah Palin. It was done quite late and rather hurriedly and many people think not particularly thoroughly.
And the last thing McCain said to Culvahouse is, ”A.B., give me your bottom line” and Culvahouse said, ”John, high risk, high reward.” And McCain responded, ”You shouldn’t have told me that. I’ve been a gambler all my life,” which is true. I mean, he’s a gambler.
Mitt Romney’s not a gambler. Mitt Romney is solid, stayed, you know, that sort of thing and every signal that has come out of the Romney campaign to-date is that they are not going to go that route. They are going to pick a governing choice, somebody who will be instantly seen as capable of becoming president in the event that something happened to the president if Romney were to win.
So I think we’re looking at a quite different model influenced both by the problems that occurred four years ago, but also I think the difference between the two nominees.
WATFORD: Hi. My name is Maggie Watford and I’m a nuclear engineer from Austin, Texas, and I was wondering how the excess media coverage on health care has affected the other important political topics such as...
BALZ: I’m sorry, how are the which?
WATFORD: Health care, how that’s affected other important topics such as energy and educational reform and things like that.
BALZ: Well, I mean, sometime this summer we’re going to have health care come roaring back into the presidential campaign when the Supreme Court pans down its decision on the Obama health care law, you know?
Health care was a significant factor in shaping public attitudes about President Obama. I mean, it was a combination of the stimulus package, but also the health care plan that helped to repolarize this country very rapidly after he got elected.
And so health care is an important issue to people simply because of the cost and affordability and availability of health care and the absence of insurance for, you know, 45 million Americans. So it’s a bread and butter issue, but it’s also a politically charged issue.
And when the court makes its decision presumably sometime near the end of its term, at least for a time, that’s going to be front and center and, again, reshaping the way the political debate carries out. By the time we get to September or October, I don’t know whether how many swing voters will have health care front and center or whether it will be some other aspect of the economy that will drive it, but it is obviously a big issue and will have its moment sometime in the next few weeks.
LAMB: Dan Balz, this class is from Purdue University as we said earlier and their leader, Professor Carolyn Curiel is sitting right here. I want to ask her to explain to our audience that has listened to this discussion who these folks are.
AMB. CAROLYN CURIEL: It’s a very diverse group actually from Purdue University. In that, we have liberal arts representative, of course, communication, history, political science. We have psychology as well, but we also have a group of engineers.
The second year of this class, first year we’ve had them, and the feeling is that it’ll help to round out the education that Purdue provides these young people. We also have an international contingent. Five of our students are not U.S. born. They are foreign students including from El Salvador, Nigeria, China, India and I missed one. Which one is it? Jordan.
CURIEL: Thank you. Jordan. Sorry, Saif. So the experience that they have been having has been in many ways what I call ’Washington from the outside in’. And for many of them, a first look at the Capital, we’ve had meetings at the White House, Capitol Hill, State Department. We had lunch yesterday at the New York Times. Next year, I hope with the Washington Post, Dan.
BALZ: You’re always welcome.
CURIEL: And the question that we’ve been asking often is formulas for success. You’ve come to a town obviously very competitive on so many levels and you made a huge success doing a very tough job, political reporting in a political town. And you’ve had staying power and you’ve had just monumental success with a huge newspaper.
What would you advise these students who are thinking of coming to Washington themselves?
LAMB: And hold that thought. I want everybody to know that Carolyn Curiel is a former Washington Poster and New York Times editorial writer, a Clinton speech writer and the ambassador to Belize. Go ahead.
BALZ: So speaking of success stories, the ambassador. You know, I guess the advice I would give people, and I’m not one who is very good at giving advice because I think we all have, you know, talents that we were given and we all have doors that were opened and we all have people who were mentors or guides or just people who gave you a push along the way.
And I look back at a succession of people, you know, starting in Freeport, the University of Illinois, some professors who were just fabulous, some who were practicing journalists, some who weren’t, but who were enormously helpful.
People that I met in Washington when I first arrived, people I worked with at the Post, you know, beginning and in some ways ending with David S. Broder, Dave Broder, who was, you know, for years the political reporter in this town who defined what political reporting is and always should be and who was the most generous colleague that any of us ever knew.
I mean, who made time not in a kind of heavy-handed way of saying here’s how you should do it, but just made time to give you the space to do what you were trying to do and gentle encouragement along the way.
I think that, you know, for anybody starting out, I was lucky. I had a sense of what I wanted to do. As I was saying at the beginning, you know, I knew fairly early on that I wanted to try to get to Washington as a reporter and I was, again, lucky enough to be able to do that.
Every door that’s opened opens other doors. Every door that’s closed on you moves you in a direction where another door will open. My first experience as a reporter after graduate school was at the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1972 and I lasted there about 12 weeks and it was not a particularly happy experience.
I say with understatement they were not enamored with me and it was a difficult summer because it was clear to me that this was just not a good fit. I didn’t think it was because I was doing things that I shouldn’t do or wasn’t measuring up, but, you know, we kind of had a different world view, but it was obvious that it wasn’t going to work.
Luckily enough, National Journal came along and had an opening here in Washington and I leaped at the chance to do it. So, you know, everybody has moments of success and moments of, you know, either setback or worry and stress. Have confidence in yourself, you know? If you don’t have confidence in yourself, others won’t.
Believe in yourself. Have a sense of what you want to do. And also, I mean, the other thing I’ve always said, find something that you really like to do, you know? It sounds obvious and it is obvious, but if you like what you do, it’s a lot easier to get up every morning and go do it and you’ll do a better job at it.
So those are the things to think about. I mean, the education you get is important. I mean, one of the reasons I’ve always liked reporting in a sense more than editing is that you’re constantly forced to learn things. You are always outlearning and, you know, the education of any journalist should never stop. It keeps on, you know, from the time you leave school and take your first job until the time you quit working.
So, you know, all of that is kind of the way I have approached things, but as I say, you know, I feel I’ve been lucky, you know? I landed at the post as an editor and ended up as a reporter. The people at the Post as Carolyn can attest is a big and competitive place with enormously talented people. It’s competitive against its competitors and it’s competitive internally and yet, the Washington Post has always been an enormously collegial place to work and I’ve always counted that as one of the lucky things where I landed that, you know, you don’t know what the inside of an institution is like when you get there.
LAMB: Dan Balz, chief correspondent for the Washington Post. Rosie Clawson, who is visiting with us, the head of the political science department at Purdue, and Carolyn Curiel, and Purdue students, we thank you very much.