Tuesday, September 13, 2016, 12:00-1:00 p.m.
Allison Dining Room, Taubman 5th Floor
September 13, 2016 — Molly Ball, political writer for The Atlantic, discussed the 2016 presidential race, the role of the media, and the prospects for both parties in a conversation with Shorenstein Center director Nicco Mele.
Following are selected excerpts of Ball’s talk. Listen to the full audio recording below, or on iTunes, in which she also discusses her new article about political consulting and her journalism career, among other topics. Ball also offers advice for interviewing politicians and public leaders on Journalist’s Resource.
The current state of the race
“On the one hand, it’s very unsettled. There’s significant uncertainty with some of the issues surrounding Hillary Clinton right now. I have no idea how these debates are going to go. On the other hand, in some ways this has been one of the most stable and least surprising campaigns we’ve ever seen. One person led the primaries basically the entire time, on both sides, and that person won. And one person has led almost all of the general election polls since the nominees became the nominees….anything can happen, but let’s not make this more interesting than it really is.”
On covering a race that has upended expectations
I think it’s important as a journalist to retain your ability to be surprised. It’s very easy to rationalize the things that you see and sound smart by seeming like you expected them to happen.
“I previously was under beautiful illusion that politics was a contest of ideas. And what we saw in the primaries, particularly in the Republican primary, is that it’s much more a contest of identities, and it’s much more tribal and visceral and emotional than I previously believed. We’ve really seen the “us versus them” theme playing out with a very significant group of people voting on the basis of resentment and grievance, and not a set of policy ideas.”
“I think it’s important as a journalist to retain your ability to be surprised. It’s very easy to rationalize the things that you see and sound smart by seeming like you expected them to happen. I did not expect this to happen and so my response as a reporter…is to go out and investigate and try and figure it out, and see it with my own eyes and ears, and understand what’s happening.”
“Last November was when the campaign took a dark turn, after the Paris attacks but before San Bernardino, when Trump had doubled down on his Muslim ban… protestors were getting punched and kicked and beaten up and thrown out of his rallies, and I thought, wow that sounds scary…I wonder if when you’re there, is it this tense, seething, dark atmosphere?”
[Trump supporters are] connected not in the way that people connect with a boring Jeb Bush policy paper that they’ve read on a website, but in the way that they connect with their sports team.
“This one rally in South Carolina in particular… it really didn’t feel dark and scary…It felt joyful, there was a profound catharsis, there was a profound emotional connection that the people in the crowd were making to this performer up on the stage…they were connecting on an emotional level, on a level of identity, in a way that I have rarely seen in politics. I think that’s why people who hard core support Donald Trump cannot be moved off of that, no matter what policy flip-flops he makes or offensive statements…because they’re connected not in the way that people connect with a boring Jeb Bush policy paper that they’ve read on a website, but in the way that they connect with their sports team…they really feel like members of a group, like their voice is being heard in a way that it hasn’t before.”
The future of the Republican Party
“The vast majority of…people in the Republican Party who make up the establishment are pretty angst-ridden about what is happening. A lot of them really believe that their party is falling apart…these are people who devoted their lives to a set of ideas…smaller government, which Trump seems to have no interest in, family values, which Trump never talks about…strong active national defense, which Trump has been all over the map on…maybe all of these people who were voting for Republican candidates weren’t motivated by that set of ideas.”
“The Republican Party was already broken before Trump came along…but since 2010 it’s been the conservative movement, the Tea Party, versus the Republican establishment. I think that has been fractured — Trump is a disruption of that dynamic, not a continuation of it. If that was still the dynamic, you’d expect Ted Cruz to have won the Republican primary.”
The future of Democratic leadership
“I think the Democrats do have a very shallow bench and that’s a problem for them and it’s a product of all kinds of things, starting with the pipeline. They’ve just been getting killed in every single level of the down ballot races for the entire Obama era. And a lot of Democrats feel that is Obama’s fault. He ran as an anti-establishment candidate and didn’t care much about party building…It’s also the case that when you have a candidate as formidable and as backed by the establishment as Hillary Clinton was, that scares a lot of people out of the race.”
The role of the media in the election
I don’t think it is our place in a democracy to say what does or doesn’t qualify someone to be president.
“I don’t think it is our place in a democracy to say what does or doesn’t qualify someone to be president. I think if they meet the Constitutional requirements, it’s up to the public to make that decision. And I think it’s very important for the press not to take sides, in part because that would make us propagandists, and in part because that would remove a lot of our legitimacy in giving information to the public.”
“It’s also the case that news is what’s interesting, news is what’s surprising, and a lot of the coverage that Trump received at first was just our collective astonishment that he was doing as well as he was…I don’t think the coverage of his various insults to people and groups was approving — but voters responded to it anyway.”
“I’m old enough to remember another candidate who dominated the media by being new and sensational and unexpected and interesting: Barack Obama.”
“Everybody talks about this figure, “Oh Donald Trump got $2 billion of free media.” That is not $2 billion of positive campaign ads…in fact a lot of it was negative campaign ads. His message, which was amplified by the media, resonated with a certain core of supporters, but he also came out of that primary, went into the general election, with 70 percent unpopularity among the general electorate…I don’t think it is the case that all of that coverage was an unalloyed benefit to him.”
“When Ted Cruz is giving the same boring speech over and over and over again, I don’t think we should give him equal time as a candidate who is doing something crazy and interesting and provocative. I don’t know how else we should have responded to the sheer newsworthiness of the Trump campaign…I don’t think Republican primary voters would have made a different decision if they had only had more information about Jeb Bush, for example. I don’t think a two-hour Jeb Bush infomercial every night would have made them like him any better — because a $100 million in commercials certainly didn’t.”
Candidate transparency and accessibility
“The personal accessibility of political candidates has been eroding, and I blame the consultants for that in some part, because the consultants consider it their job to protect the candidates from making mistakes, and that means protecting them from the press, particularly skeptical press. So you see more and more candidates at all levels only doing interviews with friendly media, or relying on their communications staff to put out statements rather than engaging with reporters themselves.”
‘This cycle there’s this interesting conundrum where on the one hand, Donald Trump is nastier and more antagonistic and meaner and more arbitrary with the press than most politicians….but on the other hand, he is a lot more accessible, he likes to do the interviews himself, and he talks to all kinds of media, he gives interviews all the time.”