D-Day was easier to organize than this year’s political coverage. Which is why Chuck Todd has his dream job…
Politics: The media came under attack in the final stretch of the campaign. Do you think there’s any truth to conservatives’ complaints about the mainstream media?
Todd: I’m sorry, both sides cry wolf so often on media bias that I don’t pay attention to most of their gripes. Just like a football game, the losing team is always looking for someone to blame other than their own team, so why not blame the refs? Now, if the left or right were more sophisticated about their bias claims and, say, claimed that the media is too pro-Wall Street because of proximity or too anti-gun because of geography or made serious claims that got to the heart of how a reporter, depending on their own upbringing or status in life might have a different view on certain cultural issues, they might at least make some of their claims come across as more valid.
Politics: You got a lot of criticism yourself for saying Hillary Clinton’s chances were over the night of the Indiana Primary.
Todd: It was an unfair critique, but Tim was reporting what Clinton people were telling him. People keep forgetting this. Clinton people were telling me that it was over. They knew it. They had a plan, which was to keep [Obama] in single digits in North Carolina and whip his tail in Indiana. It didn’t happen. They knew that was their last chance to change the dynamic of the race. And the fact is, the campaign was effectively over.
Here’s the thing, though. I never get upset when campaigns rail on us publicly. It’s a tactic; I get it. Go for it. Losing campaigns usually do that. Rarely do winning campaigns rail on the media. It’s a fact of life. Frankly, Bush didn’t rail on the media in 2004, now did he? And Bush didn’t rail on the media in 2000. It should be a lesson to folks. The campaigns that worry about the media—like the coaches who worry about referees—they seem to somehow have taken their eye off the ball, which is getting votes.
Politics: It seems like we’ve had wall-to-wall political coverage for the past 20 months. But are there any events you had to fight to get airtime for?
Todd: I was excited that we got NBC to cover the rules committee meeting. I was pushing it. I said we should cover this event live, it’s a big deal, it’s probably the end of the Clinton campaign if she doesn’t get her way. Nobody believed that people would watch, but people watched. Hubert Humphrey’s biography was titled The Joy of Politics. Politics is fun, it’s exciting, and it can be a good thing. The more people who understand it, the better. I think this election, more people are following it, more people are starting to learn the intricacies, and more people are starting to realize that the word politics isn’t a bad word. And, ultimately, that’s going to make for a better government—or at least a better understanding of what government does.
Politics: For people who are post-Watergate, this election cycle is the biggest story in a long time.
Todd: You always have to be careful when you think that you’re involved in history. You don’t know. I didn’t think we’d ever have an election like 1992. A genuine three-way race. A candidate not with any major party who was leading the presidential race for a good six weeks, not a small period of time. Three-way presidential debates. And the idea that Democrats would lose control of Congress? For half the people in this town, it hadn’t happened in their adult lifetime. Then we impeach the president. Then, in 2000, we had basically a tie—the popular vote going one way, electoral college going another. That’s happened twice now in 200 years. And of course there was 9/11, which was a tragic big story. So the next story is always bigger, and that’s something you’ve got to remember.
Politics: What have you learned about politics that surprised you this past season?
Todd: The difficulty of breaking through with a TV ad in the presidential race—that’s new, and it’s changing the way money is spent in presidential politics. It’s amazing that we’re seeing so much money being spent on town hall meetings and live events, buying 30 minutes of television time in Scranton to have a video town hall. I thought there would be more experimentation, frankly, on the paid television front. Right now the candidate ads are just simply brand reinforcement. We’re not seeing paid ads drive message the way they used to. In some ways, media coverage drives the message more.
Politics: One of the other trends is that campaign consultants and political staff are becoming full-time pundits.
Todd: Do they become pundits or are more and more people claiming to be strategists who aren’t? Trust me, I’m trying to tighten up our definition of what somebody can call themselves. Just because they work at a Democratic law firm doesn’t make them a strategist. Just because they don’t want to be identified as a lobbyist, doesn’t mean they’re a strategist. If they really are a strategist, at least we can identify them correctly. We’re trying to clean that up.
Politics: NBC must feel like a very different place since Tim Russert passed away. How have things changed?
Todd: There’s no doubt things have changed. I think everyone is trying to contribute to the ballast that Tim was for the news organization, from anchors to correspondents to producers. But in many respects very little has changed; we haven’t had time to think about how to radically change anything yet. In six months, we’ll look back and say, “Oh, yeah, that changed more than we thought.” But it is all subtle and fill-in-the-gap in the moment right now, so there isn’t a sense that things have changed dramatically.
Politics: What do you think he’d have enjoyed most about this election cycle?
Todd: What Tim always loved the most was that the public was aware of just how consequential this election was going to be, rather than looking back in hindsight at a consequential election, like 2000.
Politics: Do you think about trying to create some iconic image like Tim Russert’s white board, that everyone remembers?
Todd: No, I don’t care about that. My biggest fear is just getting something wrong. Like when I do this math for the delegate counts. You’re going out there and making a projection by yourself. On Super Tuesday night, for example, I said, “Okay, Clinton’s not going to win the night on delegates.” We were the only ones who said it for a long time. Those are the gulp moments, and that’s what I worry about. I don’t worry about creating an iconic image.
Politics: You’ve got some diehard fans out there. Some sites call you “The Chuck,” and others are planning your fantasy presidential candidacy. And is that really your grandmother answering questions about you online?
Todd: Yeah, that’s a little weird. I don’t know if that’s really my grandmother. I hope not.
Chuck Todd is the political director and an on-air analyst at NBC News. He was the editor-in-chief of National Journal’s The Hotline from 1992 to 2007, when the late Tim Russert recruited him to NBC.