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Q&A: Political journalist Amy Walter

October 19, 2013

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Amy Walter

Amy Walter

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

Amy Walter: 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. Read the full interview at the Chicago Maroon.

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