Q&A: Political journalist Amy Walter

The IOP fellow and journalist sat down with the Maroon to talk about everything from adjusting to Hyde Park to political campaigns.

By Mike Gaffey

Amy Walter is the national editor of The Cook Political Report and former political director of ABC News. Currently a fellow at the Institute of Politics, Walter sat down with the Maroon to discuss her experience as a journalist and the evolution of political campaigns.

Chicago Maroon: How has your experience as a fellow at the Institute of Politics been so far?

Amy Walter: Well, it’s been excellent; it’s been something of a whirlwind. I’ve been here now…it’s going on my third week. So I am only now figuring out (a) how to get here from where I’m living without getting lost, and (b) I’ve kind of figured out all the one-way streets around Hyde Park so I don’t find myself walking in circles. But mostly, I’ve enjoyed getting to know the students, and that’s happening with more regularity now that I’m able to have office hours and spend time with the folks in the seminars. And I’m hoping now that I’m a little more settled to be able to do more things on campus and within the community besides just being here at the IOP.

CM: How do you feel about the academic atmosphere on campus?

AW: You guys are pretty intense. I have been impressed—amazed—that students are not just willing but are actively engaged in this program, this Institute of Politics. There are no academic credits for showing up at these seminars. They are held at a time of day—4 to 6 [p.m.]—where students have other things they would like to do, and yet they come and engage with me and the guests that I’ve brought into town. Again, this is all self-directed, which is impressive, and I have to say I have been even more impressed with the kinds of questions that they ask. You know, it’s one thing just to show up for a lecture and a seminar and sit and listen and then leave. But to come in and to be intellectually engaged throughout the seminar and then to ask the really smart follow-up questions has been probably the thing I’ve been most impressed by.

CM: In your speaker series, you discuss the nature of modern political campaigns. What major changes in elections have occurred in recent years?

AW: So my definition of recent and your definition of recent are probably different. I’m really looking at this over the last 20 or so years—maybe as far back as 30 years—but really, 20 years or so. And we’ve had an explosion in technology: The ways in which we communicate with each other is different in the way we communicated just as humans 20 years ago. But how do voters and candidates communicate with each other? How is the media adapting (or not) to that conversation? So that has been one very big change, that technology piece.

And then, just the fact that we’re at a period in time where we have so few competitive races, where the incumbent in Congress is sitting in a pretty safe district. So it’s exacerbating a lot of the intraparty fighting that we’re seeing on the Republican side, or at least they’re trying to figure out who they are. And that’s definitely had an impact on the way campaigns are conducted. The rise of these outside groups that are spending millions and millions of dollars—certainly that’s a big change from 20 years ago when it really was the candidates and the parties that were funding campaigns….

And more and more campaigns are trying to get information passively from voters, not just talking to them, but figuring out other things that they do that can give them hints about how they feel about issues, or how they’ll respond to their candidate. So what you do on Facebook, what you do as [a] consumer, what you’re shopping for online, what kind of magazines you subscribe to, what else you do in the social media world—they’re using that to try to get information about you.

So that’s what the seminars are looking at, which again is not whether or not it’s good or bad that there have been changes to the campaigns, but trying to appreciate the changes that occurred and where that’s going to take us, certainly in 2014, but look ahead to 2016 and what kind of presidential election we think that we will have. In 2008, we talked about it as a transformative election, because Barack Obama was a candidate who was willing to take the technological piece of it and really depend on it in a way that no other campaign had done before. So will we find another candidate like that in 2016 who’s going to take a piece of what we’re talking about and maybe turn it on its head?

CM: Do you think that social media has had a positive effect on voters and how they stay informed about candidates?

AW: It’s had an effect. I don’t know we can say that it’s necessarily positive. Well, if you say, “Have more people turned out to vote because we have Facebook and Twitter?” The answer is clearly no. Turnout has not markedly increased over the last few years because of that. Turnout in this last election was even lower than it was in 2008. So we can say it has altered the way that voters think about how they want to get information, the way that candidates want to or should be giving information. And it’s really had the biggest impact, I think, on the media and its ability to control information flow. In the not-so-long-ago days, the only way you were going to get news was because you turned on your television or you picked up your newspaper, and that was the news. Now, you can get news from a billion different channels, and that means it’s much harder for candidates to simply say, “Well, I went on the six o’clock news. Now I’ve reached everybody.” They have to be much more efficient, creative, and targeted when they think about using social media, as well as using the other means of media, such as television, radio, or the newspaper in whatever form it is now, electronic or print.

CM: You mentioned there have been changes in campaign financing. How do you think the emergence of Super PACs has affected the electoral process?

AW: Well, they have affected it in that they are now a voice that is in some cases bigger than that of even the candidate. So they’ve come to be another player in the campaign. It’s no longer just candidate versus candidate; it’s now candidate and their affiliated Super PAC versus candidate and their Super PACs who support them. I think they have, in some cases, just contributed noise and haven’t done much to affect the outcome. I think we saw a lot of that in 2012, where there were groups who spent millions and millions of dollars, and their candidates still lost. So just because you spend more doesn’t mean you’re successful. But I do think they have an ability to take the traditional model of campaigning that we’ve known previous to this, which was [to] look at how much a candidate has: That’s going to tell you how successful they will be. Now a not-so-well-funded candidate can beat a better-funded candidate, because outside groups can come in and spend for them. So I think the best example of this was the presidential primary in 2012, where, on paper, Mitt Romney should have won easily; he had more money than anybody. No one else had the capacity to raise the kind of money he did, but those other candidates—especially Newt Gingrich—were helped by the fact that these outside groups came in and basically propped them up for weeks. If I had told you in 1996 or 2000 that, “Oh, this candidate has only this much money,” I would tell you, “Well, they’re never going to make it because they can’t afford to keep going.” Now these groups can keep a less-funded candidate alive. It didn’t take them over the finish line, but it certainly dragged out the primary process. And there are a lot of Republicans who believe that hurt Mitt Romney’s campaign because that primary dragged out as long as it did. He had to move so much further to the right than he would have if the race had ended quickly.

CM: The government shutdown has preoccupied the media for the past two weeks. Do you think this crisis will affect the way Americans vote in the upcoming congressional elections?

AW: Well, you would think it would, right? I mean, we now have the lowest approval ratings ever of Congress—the lowest approval ratings ever of Republicans. I think right now serial killers may be better thought of than politicians. So we are really now talking about the bottom of the barrel; however, we also know that voters still don’t have much of a choice. When it comes right down to it in November of next year, their choice will still be between a Democrat and a Republican. We still have a two-party system; we don’t have multiple parties. So common sense would argue that if people are really upset with you, then they’re going to take it out on you, but it’s hard to know how to do that if you don’t have many more options. The other question is, how long will this be remembered? Not only do we Americans have very short attention spans, but by the fall of next year, we could be into something even more destructive. Who knows what we’re going to be talking about next November, whether it’s domestic or international? Every year we say, “Gosh, Congress is so unpopular. This is going to be the election where they throw everybody out! Democrats, Republicans are all going to lose!” And that rarely happens, because voters also know that, although they may dislike one party or both parties, if you’re a Democrat and you’re upset with the way things are going in Washington, you’re probably going to still vote for a Democrat at the end of the day—and same with Republicans. They would argue, “All right, I don’t like what Republicans are doing right now, but at least I’d rather have a Republican there than a Democrat.” And the way that we have our districts created now, they’re so safe for one party or the other that it’s really hard to oust an incumbent. It’s always been tough to beat an incumbent, but now it’s really, really hard.

CM: What do you think the high rate of incumbency in Congress says about the nation’s election process?

AW: Well, it says two things. One, at the end of the day people don’t like Congress, but they may like their own member of Congress. “Well, all those guys are terrible, but my representative seems like a good, reasonable person!” [Two,] they don’t feel like they have much choice. So you vote for your incumbent, because you think either the alternative is that much worse, or there’s no one really serious challenging that person. It’s like, “Well, I have this incumbent who is a part of this system that I don’t like, but this person running against him sort of seems like a yahoo, so I’m not going to vote for him.” It also tells you that we should be shifting our focus as a country civically from just talking about November to talking about primaries. The toughest thing to do in American politics is beat an incumbent. They have a lot of advantages. They have money, they have institutional support, but they’re also vulnerable. When you say, “Well, gosh, most people don’t like Congress,” well, then they’d be vulnerable, especially if more people would turn out to vote. And when people don’t turn out is in primaries when only 15, 20 percent of those eligible to vote turn out. And you’re going to get the most extreme elements to actually win and show up in Congress. At the end of the day, I think you’re going to see that some of these folks who have been at the center of this debate of the government and government funding may find themselves with primary challenges, but the only way that they will be successful is if they get people to come out and vote. So that’s going to be their challenge.

CM: What do you think about political groups like the Tea Party? How have they affected party politics?

AW: Well, they have affected it because they show up. Looking over our country’s history, we have always had factions that emerge and get subsumed into one party or the other. So in some ways, the Tea Party is an uncomfortable fit for Republicans because they are more populist-oriented. They are not coming from that traditional, moneyed interest category that many Republicans do. These are people who are very suspicious of Wall Street and corporate America. When I hear commentators talking about how terrible this shutdown or default could be for the economy, and that people on Wall Street and big business folks are calling Republicans to tell them [to] stop, I say, “Well, that’s not going to influence them, because they ran against those people.” So they’re not an easy fit for Republicans. The things they have in common with them are: They don’t like Obamacare, they want less government, not more, and they want to see less spending. So those are the things they have in common, and on some cultural and social issues they have some stuff in common as well.

That said, they are angry and energized, and the thing in politics to know is that you want angry people on your side. You don’t want people who are complacent on your side or even people who love you. People who are happy and content are not good voters…. So again, when you get those activists who are angry and fired up to go turn out, they will have the loudest voice. The only way to temper that is for a whole bunch of other people to show up either to the convention or the primary process, but that’s going to take a change of attitude and a real effort by civic groups or others to get people to turn out. So we’ll see.

CM: Do you think party conventions are becoming obsolete?

AW: I still don’t really understand party conventions, yes. I think that they have already been scaled back greatly; certainly over the past 20 years they have been. They kind of reached their heyday in maybe the late ’90s, early 2000s, when they were five day events. Now they have pretty much been turned into three-day events, but still, they are ridiculously expensive. And we all know what’s going to happen. There’s nothing spontaneous about them anymore; there’s no mystery. And every year, new organizations—especially the big networks—say, “This is a joke. Why are we covering this? We’re going to scale back; we’re only going to show x number of minutes; we’re only going to send this many people.” They show up and they do it, but they certainly don’t cover it the way that they used to.

The one thing I will say about them, though, is that you can cut them down to a day or two days, and maybe not do all the other stuff around it. If you remember in 2012—the majority of Americans don’t pay attention to politics every minute of the day—it was the one time where they had the party’s nominee make the case for why he should be president of the United States. I remember sitting at the convention—now I have the luxury that I go to these things—sitting in Tampa in 2012, and you just had this feeling that everyone who was sitting around was settling. Like people sort of said, “Okay, this is our nominee; we’re not particularly enamored with him, but he will do.” It was all about who they were against. They didn’t care who was running; they just wanted to beat Barack Obama.

When you went to Charlotte for the Democratic Convention, it was all about Barack Obama and who he was. And that came across in the speeches, and it came across in the focus of those two conventions. I would argue that Mitt Romney had a chance at his convention to make the case for why he should be president, but instead he spent a lot of time arguing why Barack Obama shouldn’t be. And Barack Obama made the case, as did Bill Clinton, for why he should be re-elected president and not simply why Mitt Romney shouldn’t be president. So I think, in that area, conventions still do matter. It’s just some of the other stuff we could do without.

CM: Do you think objectivity is still valued in journalism despite the popularity of more opinionated news sources?

AW: I do. I think that what’s happening in journalism right now is this emphasis on voice, where you’re hearing more and more from editors and readers, and they want to hear the writer’s voice in this, not simply, “There was a car accident on I-90,” but, “There was a car accident, yet another example of the poor planning of ramp length by the Chicago Transit [Authority].” Because we all know there’ll be accidents, but why can’t we hear about more than just you reciting? We want some context, and we want some history around that, not just a recitation of facts. So I think that’s important. What is difficult is that in the quest to be objective, you often find yourself doing the on-the-one-hand and on-the-other-hand thing where you’re like, “Well, I want to be fair to both sides. I’ve got to be objective,” instead of saying, “Here’s the deal. This is why there was an accident. We can argue about it, but the planning was really poor. The ramps are too short.”

In politics, it’s a little bit more difficult because there’s usually not one easy answer to why things are the way that they are, and I don’t think there’s ever truth with a capital “T”. So we could have a whole debate about Obamacare right now, and there’s not one correct answer about what it is and what’s really happening. A lot of it is based on your experience with it as a voter. Did you have a good experience, or did you have a bad experience? Is it not impacting you at all? How is it impacting the economy? These are all things that, objectively, become difficult. We can give poll information; we can give data. But, at the end of the day, so much of politics is perception and how voters are perceiving events around them. And what we’re finding more and more is that the news that people trust is coming from the people that they trust (i.e., people who are their friends and are their coworkers). So Facebook becomes almost the most important portal for news than anything else. If all the folks on your feed like something, or they’re tweeting the same article or sending out the same YouTube video, you’re probably going to trust that more than an article from someone that you don’t know that you just read online.

CM: You were a member of CNN’s Election Night team in 2006. What is it like to call an election?

AW: I love Election Night; it’s like Christmas for me. I wait all year for it, especially in 2006, when I covered the House. So from 2005 through the election of 2006, I met about 200 candidates. I studied all the races; I spent a lot of time with these people. So, for me, Election Day is like Christmas where the presents have been wrapped: They’re all sitting there waiting for me, but I can’t open them ‘til the first Tuesday in November. And it’s that same feeling on Christmas too when you open them all, and all of the sudden you’re like, “Oh, now it’s over, and I have to wait a whole ’nother year.” The most interesting election that I was a part of was, not surprisingly, 2000, when we really didn’t have a winner on Election Night, and there was a lot of back-and-forth between the networks, the folks who were doing the exit polling, and the campaigns. The watchword since 2000 really has been to be incredibly careful, that people are really waiting and holding onto information that they’re getting from the exit polls until they feel beyond 100 percent confident that that’s correct. No one wants to see 2000 again, and nobody wants to be remembered as the network that got something wrong. They want to be seen as somebody who got something right.

But the thing about calling an election is that there are two kinds of people; they’re called “desks” on Election Night. First are the academics, the people who build these models that can project based on early vote information, polling, and other things the likelihood that this person is going to win. My job was not to do that. I do not do math. I do not understand algorithms. So the math dudes would do their math and build their models. My job was to give them context and to say, “Look, these are the 10 races I think are going to be too close to call. We should wait until almost all the votes are in before we call this because these races are super competitive. These other races are not competitive—you can probably call those earlier—and then here’s the other pool. We have to figure out how competitive each race in it is.”

And what’s fun on Election Night too is—again, I’ve been waiting all year for this—when I’m watching results come in, I know in my head what that’s telling us about the night and, if this candidate loses, what it’s going to say about the rest of the night. So as you see these things start to happen, the pattern starts to become clearer and clearer. In 2006, when the results started coming in, it was like, “Wow, this is going to be a great night for Democrats.” In 2010, you could say, “Wow, what was going to be a bad night for Democrats turned out to be a super, really awful night for Democrats.” You can watch that sweep across as you go from time zone to time zone. So I would highly recommend it, if anyone wants to do this sort of work being at a network on Election Night, it really is—I find it—super fun. You don’t sleep for two days, but you get to be sitting there while you’re watching all you worked for for two years come to fruition.

CM: I’ve read that you’re a cycling enthusiast. Have you found any good places to ride your bike in Chicago?

AW: No, and in fact I would love any help. So I’ve gone up and down Lake Shore Drive on the path, which is fine. I live in a part of the country that is a lot hillier, so it has been really interesting for it to be so flat here. Anywhere where I can get out of that sort of flat Lake Shore area would be great. I would love ideas or recommendations for any places where I can get off the more crowded city streets.

This interview has been condensed and edited.