Political reporters Lisa Lerer and John Harwood know a thing or two about covering campaigns. Lerer, NF ’18, who reports on campaigns, elections, and political power for The New York Times, has covered four presidential campaigns, while Harwood, NF ’90, a CNN White House correspondent covering President Trump, has covered 11. However, both say this year’s campaign is a far different experience given the coronavirus pandemic coupled with a particularly tumultuous and polarizing moment in American politics and society.
During a recent talk with Nieman fellows, Lerer and Harwood discussed the unprecedented challenges of covering the 2020 presidential election, and what we can expect leading up to Election Day — as well as the days, weeks, and months that follow. Afsin Yurdakul, NF ’19 and a news anchor for Turkey’s Habertürk News Network, moderated. Edited excerpts:
On how the logistics of covering a campaign have changed in 2020
Lisa Lerer: I’ve covered a few presidential campaigns before. The reporting on this one is just totally unlike any other presidential race.
Today, I was thinking about going to Texas. The races are tightening there. Normally, at this stage in the campaign, you book a flight. You fly into Houston. You just travel around the state, pick up campaign events, grab voters, do whatever. At this time of the year, there’s more political events than you can possibly catch.
Now the calculation is different. You have to decide, first of all, “What am I going to get out of being on the ground there? Is it worth the health risk?” Texas has a much higher rate of the virus than where I am in New York.
I’ve found that it’s harder to talk to voters. You can’t just grab people quite as easily. They’re understandably a little more nervous to talk to a stranger. Some of that is the virus. Some of that is just the extreme level of polarization.
For so long, my go‑to spot [to talk to voters] — I’m going to give away my little secret here which is not such a secret — was Costco parking lots. You can always get people in the Costco parking lot because it takes forever to load up your car because you’re buying so many items there.
I have been kicked out this election cycle of several Costco parking lots, which is something that never happened before. Some of that is health concerns. Some of that is the polarization of the election. It feels very tense, very contentious. Then there’s the difficulty of seeing actual candidates. Particularly the Democrats, they’re not doing in‑person events to the same level, if they are doing them at all. They’re very small. They’re very limited.
Obviously, the president has gone back to his rallies. Other Republicans are doing events. They’re not the big events of the past. A lot of the campaign is mostly virtual. It becomes a different calculation in terms of whether you’ll actually get to see the candidates.
It’s unlike any election that I’ve ever covered in terms of both the issues and the actual mechanics of the reporting.
John Harwood: The pandemic is a unique experience. I have not been inside [CNN’s D.C.] bureau since March. It’s a skeletal crew that’s allowed inside the bureau. This is obviously the first time in my career — and I’ve been covering the White House since Ronald Reagan — where it’s physically dangerous to go in the White House, because you could get sick.
That’s become more evident over time, but at the White House complex, there was a period where they were taking your temperature when you went in, and they stopped that. Now the White House Correspondents’ Association is stronger than the White House itself and is encouraging people to wear masks and space out in the briefing room. They encourage people not to come to the White House if they don’t have to.
The way we handle this at CNN is that there’s always two White House reporters on duty. One is at the White House and one is across Lafayette Park at the Hay‑Adams Hotel, where we have a suite on the seventh floor that has French doors that open out and have the White House in the background. Half the time when they say, “I’ll go to John Harwood at the White House,” I’m on the seventh floor at the Hay‑Adams with the White House behind me.
That’s a little bit about the logistics. As Lisa said, it’s a risk calculation to travel. I have not traveled. I’m covering it from here.
The other thing that’s different, which has nothing to do with logistics, is that we are living through the complete intellectual collapse of one of the two major parties. That’s obviously Trump and the Republicans.
Most of the things the president says are just not true. Republican policies are not popular, so they tend to lie about what the policies are or make up stuff as justifications for the policies. They know that they’re not popular.
It is a challenge to cover that as a normal political campaign, because we haven’t experienced that before. You had philosophical differences between parties but not one where it is wholesale bullshit on one side. The challenge for us is, how do we describe that? What do we say? You have a president who I think is unwell. How do you describe him and what he’s doing? He engages in self‑destructive behavior all the time, and people say, “Why is he doing that? What’s the strategy?”
I think in most cases it’s not a strategy at all, it is a function of the tortured nature of his psyche. How you communicate that, then how you deal with the reaction of people who follow him, and then how they react to you.
He was at the rally the other day, talking about the “dumb bastards at CNN.” I raised my hand, “I’m one of them.” It’s a challenge when a significant chunk of the country is following that kind of crap, and we’ve got to figure it out.
I think we are figuring it out, and the journalists in general are being more direct and straightforward about stuff that we tiptoed around for a while.
On the difference between covering the president and covering the president’s supporters
Harwood: One of the challenges about projecting empathy is that one of the things that we know from political science research in 2016, and we can simply observe as the campaign has progressed, is that one of the major sources of attraction for Trump among voters is his appeals to racial resentment, racial antagonism, racism. There are multiple ways that you can address that.
We’ve seen that with the summer of George Floyd. Trump has, partly because he shares those instincts and possibly because he’s trying to arouse the maximum enthusiasm in his base, gone hard on racist appeals.
It’s a challenge to discuss that while accommodating the reality that many of these people have difficult lives. One of the reasons they feel what they feel is that they’re fearful of being displaced by demographic and cultural changes in the country. They’ve not, in general, fared well economically because of the ways that the economy has changed.
Lerer: In terms of empathy, you’re just reporting out the details of people’s lives. I had a story in the paper that wasn’t about Trump supporters, but about Biden supporters, people who didn’t vote in ’16, or voted third party, and now are voting for Biden, and they didn’t like Hillary. Frankly, a lot of the reasoning for that was sexist.
You quote the people, and you let the quote stand, and they say things like, “There was just something about Hillary Clinton I just… I don’t know. There was just something about her. She just wanted to be the boss.” Maybe you put something in the story explaining that sort of coded language. But the quotes can be pretty revealing.
I also think, in terms of race, the thing I’ve tried hard to do is treat the white vote [like that of other racial groups]. There’s this tradition or instinct in political reporting that the white vote is like the average American vote.
In this race, white voters are their own group. Just like we would cover Latino voters or Black voters, we should cover white voters because they are voting on racial issues in the same way that maybe those other groups are, along with economics and all these other things.
I think it’s important, particularly as the country changes, to think of the white vote in the same way as we write about the women’s vote, or the Black vote, or the Latino vote, as a diverse group with a lot of different interests, but also as a group rather than just the accepted standard voter.
If you think about it that way, especially given how white the Republican coalition is, it can help tackle some of the racial issues that come up in the politics of a country where the demographics are changing and they’re going to continue to change. There’s value in learning why white voters are supporting Trump. They are still a sizable portion of the country.
On better covering the whole country
Lerer: We have people all over the country, which has been a benefit for us that we don’t necessarily need to travel because we have people in a lot of these states. We’ve been relying more heavily on stringers, who have been fantastic.
We’re definitely out there talking to voters all over the country. We’re also doing a ton of polling, more polling than we did in ’16. That gives us lists of voters that come in. You have the names and the numbers and the information from everyone you pull.
In the spring, a lot of the work I was doing when I was talking to voters was leveraging those lists that we got from the polls and calling people at home, and calling them back and seeing if their opinions have changed.
After ’16, I wondered myself, had I talked to enough people? This time I do feel like we are out there talking to people.
Harwood: We’re all prisoners of our own experience, our backgrounds, who we are and where we came from. There’s a good amount of bias built‑in there. Journalists tend to be more secular than much of the rest of the country.
Conservative Christians are a huge part of the Republican base. In addition, the fundamental bias that is introduced by the nature of journalism today is education. As we mentioned earlier, the bedrock, the propellant for the Republican coalition right now is white people without college degrees.
One thing about contemporary journalists at major news organizations is 100 percent of them have college degrees. That changes the way you look at the world and how you approach knowledge and information, and reason and rationality, and all those sorts of things.
All that is true. Having said all that, I don’t particularly think that we missed all that much in 2016. Trump won a fluke election. He won by a very, very narrow margin. Did journalists predict that he was going to win? No, but upsets happen in sports and in politics.
There were just enough votes in just the right number of places to put him over the top with the help of some late‑breaking developments. He did get the late deciding vote, so that’s not something that we missed in September and October.
In addition to that, there was a non‑trivial intervention by Russian intelligence in this process which had an effect on the campaign.
Personally, I think the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails was ridiculous and way overstated. I thought so at the time, it was obviously something that she did that was unwise, that was selfish, that was stupid, but not criminal.
Journalists at the beginning of the Trump campaign overcorrected for what they decided was their mistake, and spent all this time in Rust Belt diners talking about what Trump voters, how they were perceiving the situation without recognizing that Trump’s coalition, which was small to begin with, was shrinking, and we had this burgeoning movement which exploded from the first day of Trump’s presidency among suburban women that ended up flipping the House in 2018, and is propelling the Democratic campaign right now.
Everyone is, we’re all fighting the last war and thinking like, “Oh my God, what are we missing? Things are going to change.” But for all the reasons that Lisa pointed out, this is a much different situation.
The candidate with the coalition that is shrinking demographically, dying off, the older, rural, evangelical, non‑college whites that are part of his base, are likely to go from 44 percent of the electorate in 2016 to 42 percent merely by the passage of time.
David Wasserman, who’s a very smart elections analyst at The Cook Political Report, calculated that if you change no preferences, but simply accounted for the shrinkage of the Republican coalition, Biden would win on the strength of that alone if everyone voted the same way by party as they did in 2016.
That is not a guarantee that Joe Biden’s going to win, but I do think that sometimes we beat ourselves up for the wrong thing.
On covering foreign interference with voting
Lerer: I think in ’16, there were a lot of things that we, as journalists, hadn’t experienced before in a presidential campaign like a candidate who just lies and lies and lies and doesn’t seem to have any concern about the truth in such an open way, the dalliances with conspiracy theories in such an intense way, even the leak of the emails from the DNC.
In terms of our political system, journalists hadn’t covered things like that before, and now we have. We’re better able to deal with these things as they come up. You see that clearly with the Hunter Biden story that, of course, ran in the New York Post. You haven’t seen the major news outlets follow on it at all. In fact, what they have written is, “This is highly unsubstantiated, and we can’t determine anything about it.”
It could be a link to Russian disinformation. I think we’ve learned how to cover these sort of extraordinary things, and the shifts in our system. I would like to think that’s made some of these Russian disinformation efforts a little bit harder.
Also, I have heard that the social media platforms have been better on that stuff. They’re far from perfect by any means, but they’ve been more aware of it.
On what topics will dominate post-election coverage
Lerer: Regardless of who wins, I don’t think the political fights go away. On the Republican side, there’s going to be a huge battle over what the Republican Party looks like without Trump. What’s the post‑Trump vision for the Republican Party? I don’t think Trump is going to go away even if he loses. I’m not talking about whether he concedes or doesn’t concede.
I still think he’s going to pop up. He’s going to want to have the spotlight. Maybe he becomes a radio host or he gets a TV network. Who knows what he does? But it’s not going to be like any post‑presidency we’ve ever seen, where they tend to defer to the current president and stay relatively quiet and get involved in feel‑good things that unify the country. That’s just not going to be Donald Trump. He’s going to still be a player in some way.
Traditionally, we look at elections as a way to tell us where a party is headed, what that party’s vision is. I don’t think we’re going to have that with the Democratic Party, even if Biden wins, because he is such a transitional figure.
There was a very large portion of the Democratic primary electorate that just felt that he was a security blanket, a safe choice. They didn’t have to worry about sexism or racism. They could just pick the older white guy and he was the least risky choice to accomplish their goal. That’s driven Democrats throughout this whole period, which is just ousting Trump.
If Trump is ousted, if he leaves, then the Democratic Party has to grapple with a lot of things. How far to the left do they want to go on issues like extending the Supreme Court? I don’t think it’s going to be just like we revert back to some pre‑Trump thing. There’s going to be some serious reckoning on both sides of the aisle.
Harwood: I think the election will be decisive enough that there’s not going to be a protracted civil war over who won the election. There will be some unrest. I would say some unrest but not catastrophic unrest.
I do think that the Democratic Party is going to face big internal divisions. The principal fulcrum for them is going to be the likelihood that they win the center but narrowly. In that case, they’re simply not going to have the power to achieve the most aggressive things that the left part of the Democratic coalition wants to achieve.
The left part of the Democratic coalition is an essential part. It’s not the decisive part. If it was, Biden wouldn’t be the nominee, but they’ve got the power to make problems for the party if they want to. They made problems for Obama to some degree.
One of the questions is going to be, to what extent does the party decide we’ve got to pull together and govern, and figure out what we can do?The Republican Party is going to revert to an all‑out posture of resistance to the Democratic administration. I do think that the fight for the next Republican nomination is going to get started pretty quickly. The effort to define what the Republican Party is next will come fairly quickly.
I know there are people who think — I could be proven wrong — that Donald Trump is still going to be the most important influence on the Republican Party going forward.
There’s a nontrivial chance that Donald Trump goes to jail. Partly, his attention is going to be focused on fending off legal challenges from the Manhattan district attorney and the New York attorney general being the most likely places.
Then in the longer run, the fundamental thing that will change American politics — I don’t know when this will happen. I thought it was going to happen after 2012. The Republican Party prescribed for it to happen, but it didn’t because Trump overtook them — is when the Republican Party decides in a serious way that they’re going to pursue the votes of non‑white people.
When that happens, that breaks the ice. You have a much more open competition across multiple constituencies. Until that happens, if the Republican Party defines itself as the party of fearful white people who think that they are being shoved to the side by changes in the country, that is both a long‑term losing formula, but it’s a formula for greater heat and conflict.
I just don’t know how long it will be before they come to the reckoning that the demographic trajectory is going down sufficiently that they simply can’t sustain that as a strategy.