The Carroll News sits down with Sheldon Gawiser

March 21st, 2013

Last week on March 14, The Carroll News interviewed Sheldon Gawiser. Gawiser is the director of elections at NBC News. He has worked with NBC since 1975. Before taking his current position, Gawiser taught in the political science department at John Carroll University. One of his most famous students was fellow future NBC coworker Tim Russert. Below is the interview:

Dan Cooney: I guess I’ll start out with how you used to teach at John Carroll. How does it feel to be back? What do you remember? Have things changed?

Sheldon Gawiser: It’s a lot bigger. I was just telling a group of students that to me, the greatest thing about teaching at John Carroll was the class size. I think that the most important interaction is between the professor and student on a campus.

When you have huge classes, you can’t really do that right.

Katelyn DeBaun: I read a segment of the book “How Barack Obama Won” earlier, and it talked about the timing of potential presidential candidates in regard to their choice of year to run. Looking ahead to 2016, do you see that potential candidates that a lot of politicos are talking about right now like Clinton, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, etc. Are they seeing this as their time to run?

SG: Well look, there are a lot of people who think that it is their time. We’ll have to see what actually happens when they get there. Remember “President Howard Dean” who we anointed in the media? If you don’t put your hand up early now, it’s harder to be treated as a serious candidate. Jeb Bush, for example, is giving hints that he wants to run, but he has also said that he is not going to. He might, but this is the process. You’re just seeing more of it than ever before. There are going to be an awful lot of candidates whose names are going to be raised in the next couple years that are not serious candidates and will never run in 2016 anyway. There will be plenty of names of people who think they are serious candidates for 2016 and end up, when they figure out how much money it is going to cost to do it and how much time you’ll have to spend fund raising, will not run. It’s really hard to know what the field will be in both parties.

Sam Lane: I have tried to figure out why Republican leaders can never seem to get at least over 50 percent in an election. When it comes to the polls, for example, in 2016, how much the Hispanic factor plays in?

SG: Well those are a couple different questions. The Republicans have a demographic problem in this country. Minority populations are growing faster than white populations.

In fact, we won’t be calling them minorities soon. Newcomers to the political system, if they are favoring one party, help that party. In the current configuration, the growth is in the demographics that favor the Democratic party.

Unless the Republicans can make inroads there, over time it will be more and more difficult for Republicans to get elected to national office, and probably to statewide office in competitive states that have minority populations that are high. The problem with that is that there is a difference between how well Republicans do in this regard to elections.

SG: The problem with that is that there is a difference between how the Democrats do in an area and how Republicans do in an area in this regard.  If you have a Democratic district it is not unusual for 80-90% to vote Democratic.  If you have a Republican district, it is usually 60-70% that vote Republican; they seldom get up to the 90%.  So there is a lot of wasted votes by district or by state.  So the Democrats do well because there is that difference even though the minorities are growing it will mitigate somewhat, the impact of the minorities growth.  But if the Republicans can’t solve it, they got a big problem, long term.

SL: Well I’m just fascinated with say between 1988 and 1992 how big a change that was, and that was before the major Hispanic influx.

SG: Well that’s a different thing. Economics will have a huge impact on what’s going on.  Other things can happen that impact on it, we have things called wars sometimes, there are a lot of different components.  Candidates themselves still matter.  The right candidate can do very well for a political party and the wrong candidate can do terribly wrong, terribly far behind the average you expect.  John McCain in 2008 ran behind a lot of Republican candidates in various areas.  Probably that would not have happened if he hadn’t gone out and said “Oh the economy is doing great”.  So there can be events, there can be candidate qualities, all kinds of things impact on the election.  I mean look, a hell of a lot of Republicans got elected in 2012 and in 2008.  So it’s not as if it’s a clean sweep for one party or another.

DC: I have a question kind of based off of a Time Magazine article I read where they did an in depth look at how Obama won with his teams.  I know that’s the subject of what your book was.  I know his teams looked very much into details.

SG: It’s called microtargeting.

DC: Explain that a little bit.

SG: Well let’s back up historically a little bit.  It used to be if you were running a political campaign for president, you would go to the networks and you would buy lots of television time.  You would broadcast it across the country.  That’s the way it worked.  Everybody in the country saw the same commercials, they saw the same ads.  Then the politicians started saying “you know, as a republican candidate, I don’t think it pays to advertise in the District of Columbia area” and a Democratic candidate said “you know, I don’t think it pays off to advertise in Utah”.  But national television, you had no choice, it went everywhere, so they began to in the 80s they began to target states.  That was the lowest level of aggregation.  Then they got down to markets, “80 eyes, the areas of dominant influence” is a term within the broadcasting industry of where your reach is.  If you buy a Cleveland station, you get Akron and Canton and other areas. So they got it down to that level.  With the advent of cable television, you can buy neighborhoods.  So you can actually pick and choose where an ad shows, you could put it in this neighborhood but not in that neighborhood.  Now you end up paying a lot more per household when you advertise nationally getting this targeted audience, but it allows them to really target even television advertising to very small areas.  So if you’re smart you don’t say “I don’t advertise to the people who are going to vote for me for sure, I don’t advertise to the people who are going to vote against me for sure.  I only want those guys in the middle.” (although you still want your people to come out and vote for you so you’ll do something for your people anyway), but they’re going to target those people that are persuadable, and that’s what they are able to do. That of course is just with TV advertising.  Now you got things like Internet presentations, ads that are served on the internet, emails lists that you can buy, direct mail, all kinds of micro targeting.  Obama’s people are terrific at it.  They are actually going to form an organization to do this for other people.

DC: Now would that only be for Democrats?

SG: [Laughs] I would think it would be for only Democrats but you never know.

DC: Do you think Republicans will ever catch on to that thing?

SG: At a conference this week they have been discussing how they are going to do this better.  But they had a real problem this time that was fascinating.  Their polling that they indicated was much more favorable to Romney.  I know Neil Newhouse, who is Romney’s pollster, he is a very good guy, he is very professional, he is very knowledgeable, but I do not understand why this was occurring. I mean I know what happened.  They were modeling the electorate to make it look like 2010, not 2008 or 2012 which was a bad mistake.  But the rest of us were doing polling and we got it right and why they didn’t, I don’t know.  That’s something they’re also having a conference talking about, how to fix that.  That is an important problem for them.

KD: Last year being an election year we had a lot of events on campus to promote youth voting.  Our Student Union got buses out to the polls for everyone to be able to go and vote.  But can you tell us realistically how important youth vote really is in determining the outcome of an election?

SG: Well, in Ohio, very important.  Seriously it depends on where you live.  If you lived in New York state you would not only see no commercials but your vote did not really matter for president.  The same thing is true of Utah or Wyoming or any of the other heavily Republican states.  It’s very important, the youth vote has made a significant difference.  It made a difference in 2008 and it was not down nearly as much as people said it was going to be 2012, it’s an important part of it.  The votes in Ohio, the votes count because it is a competitive state.  The real problem is what do you do to motivate people in states where it doesn’t really matter what they do, you’ll never get enough people out to vote to change the result.

SL: Yesterday I read an article that spoke about the only Republican congressman in New Mexico who is from a heavily Hispanic district and he’s fairly conservative.  But he was trying to prove the point that just simply showing up helps turn voters in your favor even if your politics are very different.  With all the technology and everything else today, how plausible is it in the election cycle?

SG: Well absolutely, because it gets replicated by the media.  If it was closed doors and he showed up and nobody knew that he showed up, it only impacts the people that are there.  But the media picks t up and it gets to be a story.  The problem the Republicans have with Hispanics is not that they show up, it’s that the national brand is viewed as anti-immigrants.  That’s the problem and you can’t say that “we don’t really like you, but we want you to vote for us.”

SL: Ok. But I wonder for states such as those in the Northeast.  For example I’m from New Jersey, or also consider New England states where they do not have as high an immigration influx and it.  It seems to me that there are a lot of people who would prefer the Republican brand but they are just used to the whole social issues matter that they just say “I’m going to vote Democratic”. But I wonder if the Republicans actually turned out and campaigned in those states could they perform better?

SG: Well, the real question is are those people persuadable?  You also have to recognize that the people you are talking to may not be a good sample of the population.  One of the problems we have in this country is that we have this polarization of ideas.  The people who read the Wall Street Journal, watch Fox News, who only read the articles that are Republican oriented, they do not see the opposite side.  Same with people on the Democratic side; they watch MSNBC, they read the New York Times, those are reinforcing it.  When you used to read a newspaper, they were very nonpartisan.  You may see articles that were against your views.  You may not read them but you were at least exposed to them.  It is much easier to avoid them now. So you get this reinforcing process and that’s very difficult.  It is the kind of thing that creates more and more, it’s almost a self fulfilling prophecy.  Polarization creates more and more polarization, and it’s very bad for the country.  We should have competitive elections!  Right now we have most of the districts in the house of representatives are either so Republican or so Democratic that the probabilities of them switching are very small.  It’s only a few of the seats, about 10-20% of the seats are at all competitive, let alone really competitive, that is not good for the country.  You want everybody to satisfy their constituents as a whole not just certain ones.

DC: Do you find any news sources, newspapers that you mentioned that are still pretty non-partisan?

SG: Well it depends on the paper.  The news in the Wall Street Journal is pretty straight, the news in The New York Times is pretty straight.  There is an interesting phenomena, I don’t know if you know the history of how newspapers became not partisan.

DC: I feel like I learned about it, but I don’t remember.

SG: Well, newspapers when they first came out, the pennysheets, were supported by people buying the newspaper.  That’s where all of their revenue came from.  So you wanted to have subscribers who were really interested in your newspaper because they actually had to spend money to get it.  That meant that you would find a group of people and you would reinforce their opinions in your newspaper.  That worked fine.  You had left wing, right wing, Whig. Non-Whig, whatever it was. Then along came advertisers and advertisers said “we will pay you good money (a lot more money than you get from subscriptions), but you have to deliver to as many people as you possibly can.” So the newspaper people said “Hmm, If I’m still a left wing paper, I am eliminating half of the population who are never going to read me.  So I’m going to move to be for everybody.  So they became non-partisan.  Television started, radio started in a non-partisan role.  Then with cable television, for example a channel like Fox News or MSNBC gets a huge revenue from what are called carriage fees.  They get paid when the channel is on a cable system and as a result they want a group to go to those cable channels and say Comcast you better carry Fox News because they carry a lot of their revenue. So they’re back to those old subscription models and therefore they make money.  You know if Fox and MSNBC are the way they are than that’s the way to make money. That’s how business works and that’s what’s happening look at what’s happening to CNN.  CNN is having terrible trouble because they are not getting that kind of exposure they want.

DC: Kind of going off of these other questions, what has been the most interesting election season for you in your time as elections director?

SG: In some respects the most interesting was the 2000 election, I mean I would rather not do that again but because that was a very difficult election to have done.  Elections seasons, they are all very different.  I mean they have the same rhythm and pattern but they are all very different.  There have been more surprising elections and less surprising elections.  But most of the time, other than 2000, we’ve had a pretty good idea of who is going to win before election night.  2000 was the closest election I’ve ever been involved in and I expect that it is about as close as it ever can get given the way the states break now.

DC: Since Tim Russert is a graduate here, did you ever have any interaction with him? What was he like?

SG: Sure, he was a student of mine here.  I knew Tim longer than anyone else at NBC.  It’s interesting because I just had a colloquium with a bunch of students. One of the real big problems when I was here was getting students to ask questions, to question what you were saying.  It was very difficult for you to get students to disagree with anything you said in class.  That was not true of Tim.  He was very willing to disagree.  I would say things that were blatantly wrong in class and too many of the students would just sit there and write notes on it not ever challenging it.  The interesting thing about Tim was that he had a very unusual personality.  He would end up interviewing political candidate or politician, absolutely skewering them, but they felt that he did it so nicely and gently, that they walked out saying he was a friend.  Now that’s the hardest thing to do in that kind of a job.  He was a great guy! We enjoyed working with him very much, very smart!  His political connections were absolutely excellent on both sides of the aisle!  He was just a really good journalist. Even though he came from a partisan viewpoint, he worked for several Democrats but he was really good, I mean his ability to get almost anyone as a guest on Meet the Press was unparallel. Just a great guy.

KD: So a lot of people felt that the 2012 election was going to be really unpredictable.  In your opinion was there any certain aspect of the Obama campaign that caused him to win it or any aspect of the Romney campaign that caused him to fail?

SG: That’s an interesting way of putting it.  I think this was an election that went very much like we expected it except for those who believed their own models of the electorate, which I still do not understand.  Romney never connected personally with the public, he just didn’t connect with them.  That’s what the Republican polling showed, and that’s what the Democratic polling showed.  He had an opportunity because the economy was in terrible shape, although it did improve throughout the campaign which didn’t help him, but it really was in terrible shape.  Even though the population thought Romney could do a better job fixing it, they didn’t like the guy and it’s a terrible indictment of our political system I guess but American voters want to like the guy that they are voting for. You know that want the “George W. Bush, I want to have him over for a beer kind of thing” (everyone chuckles), that’s what they like. They didn’t like him.  With Obama, they knew what they were getting.  They liked him personally, even Republicans liked him as a person.  They didn’t really like what he was doing with the economy, but there were also a lot of people who blamed Bush for the economy, so he was able to get through.  I don’t think it was…my biggest angst was in 2012 was that the Republican pollsters maybe knew something that I didn’t know.  Or any of the other media pollsters didn’t know that was the concern that we had.  Other than that it went down the wire just like we expected it would.

SL: Kind of branching off that question and answer, I was following the election and did not believe the accuracy of the polls saying Romney was going to win, it seemed to me like Obama was going to win from the offset.  I thought the main reason though was because of the Republican congress that would cost Romney any chance of winning. How much would you say according to the polls that it played a factor in the outcome?

SG: A minor factor.  The problem is that you can tease out what the Republicans say about Congress.  But how that played out on the perception of Romney is very hard to tease out. I’m not sure how much the population understands how much it impacted their view of Romney.  He just didn’t connect, so it was very hard for him to overcome and kind of thing.  The 47% comment really did hurt him, I mean he was already…like you heard that he was putting in an elevator for his cars.  These are the kinds of things that matter to the American public a lot.

DC: Well to us as journalists, we wonder why that would matter so much?

SG: Because you want someone who is going to care about you and your problems and it’s hard to understand how someone who is worth a lot of money, who has always been worth a lot of money as far as they knew, how they would ever relate to how can I worry about paying my bills this week? That’s the problem.

SL: Well now that you mention that I was wondering do you believe that very thought is a new phenomena because what I have read that even as recently as the 1990s people said that they would vote for someone like Bill Clinton but they would still think at the same time that he was kind of a questionable guy.  Even Reagan was considered to be personally distant but they still thought he would make a good president.  Is it just now that they really look for the personality?

SG: Well it has always been there but it’s really now more of the celebrity type evaluation than it used to be.  Dwight Eisenhower, nobody wanted to be his buddy and have a beer with him.  But he was a national hero.  John F. Kennedy was unknown, his biggest issue that he had to overcome was that he was Catholic.  It was just a major issue, even if voters didn’t tell you that is why they wouldn’t vote for him, it was a really critical thing.  Now of course we didn’t know about his personal behavior (all laughs), but seriously there is a big difference. A lot of what you are seeing now is a reflection of the media no longer being reticent of what they report or what the guys say.  The guys on the bus, there used to be a campaign bus that would follow the candidate with lots of our reporters on it, they used to give them a pass on a lot of stuff.  They just wouldn’t report on it.  Nowadays if they sneeze hard it’s going to be reported all over the place.  So it’s a different environment, it’s a lot more like the paparazzi chasing the celebrities of different sorts and they look at everything and they report everything, and it gets built up into a big deal.  Take John Edwards and his haircut, a $400 haircut.  Doesn’t help you with ordinary Americans if you go out and get a $400 haircut.  So it is worse. The 24 hour news cycle also has an impact.  I mean the news is voracious with trying to get enough material and when you start to do it for 24 hours, 7 days a week, you need an awful lot of material.

DC: Well thank you very much for meeting with us!

SG: You’re welcome, my pleasure!