Behind the Scenes of Election 2012 with The New York Times

March 12, 2012

With nearly half a year remaining until the U.S. presidential race concludes, journalists from The New York Times gathered at the Times Center in Manhattan to discuss how the election is shaping up so far. On Feb. 23, national political correspondents Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny, and White House correspondent, Helene Cooper spoke with assistant managing editor Rick Berke about what goes on behind the scenes and provided their insider take on the candidates thus far. Here are some highlights from the conversation.

On the current Republican contest:

Zeleny: Santorum is an amazing story because he has really no campaign infrastructure at all. His press secretary lives in Little Rock, Ark., and his campaign director lives in Columbia, S.C., and he is on the road with just a couple of people. If Romney is a Fortune 500 company, then Santorum is a mom-and-pop convenience store. Just the size of this…And despite all these organizational advantages for Mitt Romney, there is one thing that money can’t buy, and that is enthusiasm. And the Conservative activists are more enthused about Rick Santorum than Mitt Romney.

One of the big questions going into this presidential campaign was how the activists in the party, who were so important and influential in the 2010 elections, how big of a role they would play in the 2012 presidential elections. And we weren’t sure, actually. But now I think we’re seeing that the sort of sentiment of the Tea Party movement and just other Conservative activists are looking for someone that can excite them and that explains Rick Santorum’s popularity. But if campaigns are in the future like they have been in the past, it takes an organization to win… So it’s hard to pull that off without some type of a real muscular an organization. I think that Rick Santorum has challenges in the long run, but in the short run, he has one thing that Romney does not have: the enthusiasm.

On financing the campaigns and the super PACs:

Rutenberg: Four years ago, Obama made it clear that he did not like these outside groups playing in elections. And he didn’t need those outside groups four years ago because he had so many donations rolling in. No campaign wants to rely on outside money because they want to call their own shots. But this year, Obama has had a harder time raising money and the Republican side, which is so galvanized in terms of beating Obama...has tons of money now. Obama finally had to say: If you can’t beat them, join them.

Cooper: He’s spending a lot more time at fundraisers. [In February], he went out to the West Coast. He stopped in Milwaukee to give the usual post-State of the Union jobs speech. Then he went to LA where he did three fundraisers. He had to kiss and make up with the Hollywood types who he had alienated while he was deciding this online piracy fight. Hollywood is a big Democratic base, so he did a fundraiser that Will Ferrell hosted.

Then he went to San Francisco and hung out with the high-tech people, who they are hoping are the new partner base, and he did a couple fundraisers there. And then, he went to Seattle because that wasn’t enough high-tech, and did a fundraiser where Bill Gates was present and there were a lot of techy types. He did two fundraisers in Seattle.

He did two public events on that trip and probably 10 fundraisers, in three days. That’s the kind of trip where it’s purely about money. You see a different kind of Obama. Whenever you talk to the donors who go to these events, who go to the more intimate events that cost $35,800 per plate, it’s interesting to hear how they relate to Obama.

Rutenberg: One problem for Obama this year is that he was the grassroots movement guy four years ago and now he’s having to do more traditional political things.

Rutenberg: [American hotel and casino magnate] Sheldon Adelson and his family gave $10 million to a super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich. If he had not done that, there is good argument that Newt Gingrich would have been out of the race ages ago. That’s the amazing thing about this new Supreme Court ruling. A single person can totally change a national race in a major way. John Huntsman — his father was keeping him in the race by giving money to an outside super PAC. If there had not been a super PAC, he would have been gone ages ago. These guys cannot afford their own campaigns.

On capturing Bin Laden:

Zeleny: It was one in a series of foreign policy achievements in an area that he had no experience overseeing or leading. I covered his campaign in 2008. I have been following his sort of political rise since I met him in 2001 as a state legislature, and I was working at the Chicago Tribune at the time.

And this is completely not his area of expertise, but he had become a foreign policy sort of president. I thought, “This was finally the moment that happened,” so at the time, I thought, “How could he possibly lose this election?”…but it gave him a credential that can never be taken away from him and I think that he took off the table something that Democrats have really struggled with election cycle after election cycle, of being viewed as weak on national security. He still has many other weaknesses in the eyes of some Republicans.

Cooper: Anytime he’s giving any kind of sweeping speech, he brings it up. And he’s gotten to the point where he can kind of rattle this off like in the State of the Union…and it’s a great applause line for him. But it’s interesting how quickly that Obama bump [in approval rating] went away. He got that bump in May afterward, and then it went back to economy. I’m sure this is going to be coming up in the debates [and on the campaign trail].

On the reporters’ access to President Obama:

Cooper: On the record, I’ve had one interview with [the President] and off the record, a lot more. We only do [off the record] interviews if we are in the press pool and he is going to come to the back of the plane and ask the reporters if “you’re OK with me coming back here to talk.” The Times does not necessarily think that it is beneficial to have him saying things to us that we cannot use because he’s the President and you’re The New York Times reporter who covers him. But if he’s coming back there, the only other option is to lock yourself in the bathroom.

Sometimes I am incredibly close [to him] and other times further than you. We are on Air Force One probably about 40 percent of the time when we travel with him. Other times, we’re either going commercial or we’re on the press charter. We’re on the plane more because so few print organizations can afford to travel or are willing to pay to travel. So we get the print pool or the magazine pool. You either go on Air Force One or you chase him by commercial.

On observations about President Obama:

Cooper: He is smart enough that he doesn’t appear as controlled as he is. There is nothing I’ve ever been able to ask him that he wasn’t prepared to answer. There are some politicians that you interview and you can see that they glaze over and resort to talking points, and they say, “this is what I was supposed to say to this topic.” He’s incredibly well read and he does more than just read the briefing books — he has the history. He’s so smart that he’s able to give the appearance of giving you information and giving you something expansive even when he’s doesn’t. That’s because only really confident people, people with [astute] backgrounds are able to do that.

On Obama’s leadership skills and what they mean in this election:

Cooper: He’s talking to us a lot more now and coming to the back of the plane to talk to reporters a lot more because we’re in an election year. And he didn’t do it that much in the first couple of years, but now he is doing it a lot more because he is trying to influence us and he’s trying to appear more sympathetic to the reporters who cover him. For us, it allows additional insight into the way he’s thinking about stuff.

He’s a good campaigner and he has enormous confidence and faith in his own ability to turn it on when he’s ready. He could still do it even at the depths of his high disapproval ratings last fall. He seems to have a lot of confidence in himself as a campaigner to turn it on…This is a very focused and controlled person and you’re not going to see Obama making a huge number of gaffes that could get him into trouble.

Zeleny: [A]s a leader — we’ve seen time and time again — he’s pragmatic and he will do anything to win. He has a flexible leadership policy. Now, some of his Liberal supporters or Liberal base are a probably a little it frustrated that he hasn’t changed Washington, [D.C.], but we’ve seen a flexible kind of leadership from him. And the history books will have to judge if that’s good or bad — whatever he accomplishes — but he will do what it takes to win. And that super PAC decision was a pretty important leadership decisions because it was the exact opposite of what he had promised.


Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


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