Four prominent political journalists brought their insights, and predictions to the Emerson Paramount Center on Tuesday, October 22, to talk about the defining issues of the 2020 presidential campaign.
David Chalian, vice president of political coverage and political director, CNN; Sue O’Connell ’84, New England Cable News journalist, radio commentator, and co-publisher of Bay Windows and the South End News; Miriam Valverde ’10, contributing writer to Politifact; and Politico Executive Editor Paul Volpe talked with moderator Ed Harding ’75, WCVB Channel 5 news anchor.
The conversation, Covering 2020: News, Trust, and the Future of the American Presidency, sponsored by Emerson’s School of Communication, touched on the strategy, issues, media coverage, and public opinion surrounding the upcoming election.
“I couldn’t be happier about the way the evening went,” said School of Communication Dean Raul Reis, who led the event’s planning. “We teach our communication students to focus on the issues that affect people’s daily lives, and that’s exactly what we did. We covered an amazingly broad and deep range of issues in the discussion, and we learned from a lot of important insights and analysis.”
Here are some highlights from the evening:
On risk of Trump losing part of his base:
Sue O’Connell: The difference in Trump’s win, as opposed to a Bush win … was white, college-educated women. … If we look at the congressional votes in the [midterm] election, you can see many of those women stayed home. … They don’t want to talk about the things that are happening, they’re disillusioned, they don’t like the way the president is acting. They may agree with his judicial appointments. They may agree with his tax cuts. [But] the president could lose college-educated women.
But when it gets down to it, I think the only thing that matters for Trump to win is Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida. People in Wisconsin are probably the most key voters, I think, in this election. Whomever can appeal to those voters will have the key to the presidency.
On the state of the Democratic Party:
David Chalian: The Democratic Party is clearly a party that has moved to the left in terms of the driving conversation. What I think we lose sight of sometimes is that the Democratic primary electorate is still made up of a great portion that identify as moderate or conservative Democrats, older Democrats, and of course, non-white Democrats. Those three groups … are Joe Biden’s stronghold. That’s why he’s still the leader in the race, because the electorate is not how it looks on Twitter, necessarily…
I think the state of the Democratic Party, though, is a party that is infused with a youthful, leftward-moving activism that we saw drive much of the energy inside their success in the midterms. When I say their energy, I mean it was the fuel, that leftward activism was the fuel inside the party. How did they do it? They put up good campaigns in moderate districts … it’s not that they elected a whole bunch of left-wing liberals, but that was the energy that was fueling the success of the party.
On whether the impeachment inquiry a good strategy for Democrats:
Miriam Valverde: I think one of the things that we’ve seen, at least on my end as a fact checker, is that there’s a lot of misinformation that comes out from impeachment inquiries, and that can have a counter effect to the Democrats’ strategy. For instance, the claims that we fact checked based on if Trump is impeached but is not convicted in the Senate, then he gets to serve an extra term, and then that creates some sort of friction in the people who support impeachment or who are against it. We’ve seen claims that say Congressman Adam Schiff wrote the whistleblower memo, that’s another falsehood that we checked.
So we have seen some counter messages to the Democrats in their impeachment efforts, and whether that’s the impact that that may have on the strategy remains to be seen. I think it’s worth noting that with those efforts to impeach also come efforts to discredit that effort.
On which Democrats should get out of the race:
Paul Volpe: I think this is an unusual year in the sense that you have your top three, but you have some like Andrew Yang, who is polling at 4 percent, versus someone like Steve Bullock, who is a popular Democratic governor of a red state, who has a pretty good record of legislative accomplishments, who can’t even get to the debate stage. I’m curious to see what happens in Iowa. Is it really going to be the retail politics, or is it going to be national media, debates, and social media that really drives the frontrunners.
Miriam Valverde: I think that we’ve seen too, with every debate that we’ve had so far, in the first one we saw Senator Kamala Harris, she picked up momentum, but she has lost that momentum … and just now Mayor Pete Buttigieg seems to be rising again. I think it’s fluctuating after every debate, but we definitely see the top three remaining at the top: Biden, Warren, and Sanders.
David Chalian: I think that the early states, they’re always … very important in determining the nominee. I think they will play an even more important role … than usual because of that quest for Democrats to find the Trump dragonslayer, the one that can beat him. [I] ask voters all the time in Iowa and New Hampshire who tell me, “I just want the one that can beat Trump.” I say, how do you know? How do you judge that? You’re looking at general election polls a year out that are largely meaningless, how do you determine? What are your metrics for this so-called electability?
I do know one thing that defines electability: winning. When somebody does win that first contest, that second contest, they are going to be seen by this very hungry Democratic electorate as a winner, and that’s going to have a compounding effect as we go through the calendar.
On what will be the defining issues of the 2020 race:
Sue O’Connell: I think it’s really going to be about the economy … I think if the economy starts to go south for any number of reasons — for example, … the dairy farms in Vermont, which are having a hard time hiring workers, who are often migrants – if that starts to translate to your kitchen table … where you’re paying more for ice cream, you’re paying more for butter, I think that could be an impact to sway voters from Trump, and I think that’s really, when you get right down to it, what most Americans care about, is the economy.
Miriam Valverde: I think one of them is immigration, for sure, because a signature issue for Trump was campaigning on his promise to limit illegal immigration, he was going to build a border wall, to deport people here illegally. Often, I think when there’s news that’s very critical of him … [things] are not going his way, I think we see him fall back on his immigration messaging and saying, ‘We’re building the wall,” or “Look at the ways we’re trying to cut funding to sanctuary cities.” I think he’s able to appeal to the emotions of the voters who do want reform.
Paul Volpe: It’s interesting, I think, because the issues that are driving the general election are not necessarily the ones that are driving the Democratic primary. For example, there were not even questions in the last debate about immigration or about climate change. I think largely that’s because there’s general agreement on [these issues] there’s very nuanced differences on things from health care to climate change. That’s going to be very different when you get to a general election campaign.
David Chalian: I would just say this: Of all the issues mentioned, Donald Trump is going to be the issue of this election in many ways. This is his appeal to America to renew his contract for four years. While his campaign and he will work doggedly to make certain as best they can that they have a lot of money and [a] really smart, savvy ability to target the voters where they are and how they consume information, his goal is to make it not a referendum, to make it a choice. They are going to do their best to present to the American people, whoever the Democratic nominee is, to make them a totally unacceptable choice.
But this is a reelection campaign. Fundamentally, at some point, as hard as they will try to make it a choice, there is a referendum here with his name on it.
On gun control and climate change as issues:
David Chalian: [Gun control] has not proven to be, over time, a primary voting issue, a motivating issue, the way the economy tends to be for voters. But we have seen that there are real moments of salience when there is … a mass shooting. You see the numbers on this move dramatically as people pay attention, and then the interest fades, and then people resort back to where they’ve been. I have no doubt that … this will be a debate flashpoint. I just don’t know if it’s going to be the thing that tips the balance, that motivates voters to vote.
Sue O’Connell: The sad but fortunate outcome of the Parkland shooting and climate change awareness and the acceptance of the science of climate change is that younger people are registering to vote and voting and taking … action and protesting in ways that we haven’t seen in a very long time. So I think that energy will drive it.
And I think it’s also important to note, we talk about these terrible, tragic, awful mass shootings, but every single day, we have shootings in America that are not driven by mass shootings or by all these rifles that can fire all these bullets all at once, but by poverty and by discrimination, and by crime. The communities of color in our country are most impacted by gun violence, and that’s a harder thing for candidates to sell to the general electorate. So I think we will have gun control conversation, but it is going to be around banning these weapons, rather than looking at the systemic problems ….in our neighborhoods.
I think climate change, as soon as the insurance companies start deciding that we are no longer going to insure your beachfront property, and the government says we’re not longer to use our taxes rebuild after a hurricane that we know is caused by climate change, people will start reacting. I think that’s a sad fact about how humans are.
On “fake news”:
Paul Volpe: There is a bifurcation right now in the country in terms of what people choose to see. It’s been going on for a long time, so … it’s somewhat offensive to me that half of the country feels like the work that we’re doing is not real. The reality is that’s their perspective, and so they have chosen sources that they believe more credible…
On how well the media gives platform to underrepresented communities:
Miriam Valverde: One of the findings, I think, from the 2016 election Is that there seems to be a disconnect between what someone in, say, the Midwest cared about versus what someone in the D.C. newsroom might think is newsworthy. I think since the 2016 election, I’ve seen that some newsrooms perhaps tried to improve on that and [put] reporters in Texas or Ohio or elsewhere. Not just to go there .. write a story in two days and get out, but I think there’s been some sort of effort to make sure we were on the ground consistently, to make sure we’re listening to the nation as a whole.
On Facebook’s impact on the next election:
Sue O’Connell: I think we need to press our lawmakers on every level to work to make Facebook or make social media more accountable and be aware of just putting up guidelines. The genie is out, it’s not going back in, but let’s find a way, even with political ads. If someone’s buying an ad … they immediately get to put this ad up without this big review process. At South End News, a small community newspaper, I used to reject ads from people who came in because they didn’t want their name on it, or they wanted to pay with a personal credit card, which was against campaign finance laws. Facebook should do the same thing.
Paul Volpe: The challenge … that we have is it’s not just campaigns that are doing this. You have foreign influence and foreign governments that are looking to influence this election. That’s an entirely different thing. It goes outside of the campaign finance laws, it’s a national security issue.