To start the year, MSNBC.com tried something different: We assigned our reporter who covers Republican presidential candidates to follow the Democrats and our Democratic beat reporter to follow the Republicans. Here’s what they learned after a week reporting on the other side across Iowa and New Hampshire.
Benjy Sarlin: Hey, everyone! I’m Benjy Sarlin and I’ve spent the last year covering the ginormous Republican presidential field.
Alex Seitz-Wald: And I’m Alex Seitz-Wald. I’ve been covering Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and the rest of the come-and-gone and never-come (looking at you Joe Biden) candidates since early 2014.
Benjy: There’s a good chance you’ve mixed us up on TV at some point (we’re the two guys with the beards), but we’ve never covered each other’s candidates even once before now. The hope was that a switch might give us a fresh perspective on the race and maybe challenge some of the assumptions that naturally develop after listening to hundreds of speeches from one side’s candidates and conducting hundreds of interviews with the same side’s supporters.
For my half of the arrangement, I drove 1,100 miles across Iowa last week, where I attended four Hillary Clinton events on Monday and Tuesday, a Bill Clinton speech on Thursday, and three Bernie Sanders events on Friday. Alas, I was not able to work Martin O’Malley into the mix.
Alex: I started out in New Hampshire, where there’s “a jump ball for second with five candidates,” as Jeb Bush himself said. I saw several candidates individually and at a forum, and I briefly crossed state lines to see Trump in Lowell, Massachusetts, the once-booming manufacturing city where thousands lined up in frigid temperatures to see the GOP front-runner. I finished the week in Iowa, where I caught up with Ted Cruz on his six-day bus tour of the state.
What was your quick impression of every candidate you covered?
Benjy: Hillary Clinton: Confident and polished. She had a very programmatic speech, ticking off concrete proposals on things like tax credits for caregivers or spending $2 billion a year on Alzheimer’s research.
Bernie Sanders: Relentlessly focused on his core issues of inequality and money in politics. At the same time, he also made a substantial electability argument at his events in which he read polls showing him leading Republicans by wider margins than Clinton.
Bill Clinton: Not a candidate, but there is no one like him in politics. He mixes heartfelt anecdotes with the wonkiest policy talk of anyone running. One moment he’s talking about how he met his wife (he was “ogling” her at the Yale library and she introduced herself), and the next he’s giving an in-depth explanation of how this year’s health care enrollees are younger and how the age mix will level off premiums next year.
Alex: Donald Trump: His mega-rally was like a WWE wrestling match with more show tunes, less script and all the violence occurring in the audience, not the ring. But I was impressed by his ability to connect personally with a crowd that size.
Jeb Bush: As advertised -- a potentially good president, but a less good presidential candidate.
Chris Christie: A master of the town hall who has softened his image with endearing self-deprecation and a kumbaya message of party unity -- which is belied by his eagerness to shiv his opponents.
Ted Cruz: He seems to have reverse-engineered his campaign speech after a careful study of the conservative base. He brings an impressive work ethic as he stumps across Iowa.
Marco Rubio: The most classic-looking politician of the bunch, polished and focused on national security and his generational argument.
What stood out most talking to voters?
Benjy: I was caught off guard by how specific and personal Democratic voters’ issues tended to be. One woman told me she had lost a job because she had to take care of a sick relative and wanted paid family leave. Another woman told me her insurance stopped covering a certain medication that had grown too expensive and she liked how Clinton and Sanders talked about lowering drug prices. One man told me his wages were stagnant at his hotel job and he was looking for policies to increase them.
“We're talking about bread-and-butter issues,” Phyllis Thede, an Iowa state representative backing Clinton, told me when I asked about her constituents’ top concerns.
By contrast, Republican voters tend to be excited by more abstract issues: One of the most common answers I get from Cruz voters when I ask about their leading concern is “the Constitution.” There are fewer “I have a specific problem in my own life, and I’d like the government to do x about it” responses.
The other shock was just how far apart the party’s interests are this election. In 2012, the election was dominated on both sides by the economy. This year, there’s much less overlap between what Republicans and Democrats think the most important issues are. It’s not so much that voters disagree on something like climate change as Democrats care about it while Republicans rarely give it much thought.
Alex: You’re right, the two parties are operating in different parallel universes. In my experience, the one place where the blue and red universes come closest together, surprisingly or not (older people disproportionately vote and attend political events): Social Security and Medicare. I’ve also heard a lot about guns on both sides.
And while electability has become a major issue in the Democratic primary, Republican voters I talked to said it was more important to pick someone who represents their values than to try to guess who can beat the Democrat in November. The candidates likewise didn’t spend much time making their case in electability terms. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders is reading his general election match-up poll numbers on stage at rallies, and Clinton is running ads saying only she can beat the GOP.
Which issues did voters bring up the most?
Alex: One word: ISIS. Though New Hampshire and Iowa are thousands of miles from Syia, Paris or San Bernardino, terrorism and national security was easily the most important issue on the minds of Republican voters I talked to. It wasn’t even close. “If you don’t have national security, nothing else really matters,” Sandra Nueberger told me at a Cruz town hall in Mason City, Iowa.
Of course, I also heard about immigration, the economy and abortion. And in New Hampshire I heard a lot about opiate addiction (I saw a forum on the topic with five candidates) and in Iowa I heard a lot about ethanol subsidies. The latter seemed to chase Cruz, who favors phasing out subsidies for corn producers, everywhere he went. He got in a somewhat heated exchange with a man in a gas station convenience store as dozen TV cameras circled inches away.
Benjy: Jumping off Alex’s experience, I was struck by how much Democrats were focused on domestic issues. Prominent examples voters raised included income inequality, health care, student debt and gun violence. When I saw Clinton in Davenport, Iowa, on Monday, she only got to national security about a half-hour into her stump speech.
“It’s important, but more Americans die from lack of health care,” Jackson Sanfacon, a 28-year-old veteran of the Marines, told me when I asked him about terrorism at a Clinton event in Des Moines. An Iowa grandmother in Davenport told me she was more worried about white supremacists than ISIS.
One thing I found across party lines is that voters didn’t usually have many specific ideas about what they want done in Iraq and Syria so much as they wanted someone they trusted making those decisions. The bigger difference was in what partisans fear going wrong: Several Democrats told me they were worried we’d overdo it against ISIS and end up in a quagmire, while Republicans are usually more worried about not doing enough and ending up with terrorist attacks.
Was it different reporting on the other side?
Benjy: Goodbye, access! I e-mailed a Clinton aide before the candidate's Iowa tour to ask which of her stops were most likely to include a "media avail,” which is shorthand for a brief Q&A with reporters. The aide sounded confused by the question. When I talked to the candidate’s traveling press corps the next day, they told me Clinton hadn’t held an avail with them for a month.
In Sanders’ case, I attended what the campaign billed as a “press conference” on paid family leave on Friday. After speaking for a bit on the topic, Sanders asked the reporters if they had any questions, waited just under two seconds, and then, before anyone could respond, he moved onto an audience member’s question and left without talking to us. It was bizarre.
Based on my experience covering Republicans, Alex, I’m guessing your week was different?
Alex: Hello, access! I’ve covered Hillary Clinton for more than a year and half and gotten only a tiny handful of questions answered by the candidate and very limited personal interaction with her. But for Republicans, ironically, considering their love of bashing the media, the press is a crucial potential ally to be courted, not a liability. I participated in four media avails in as many days with GOP candidates, and I was always able to watch them work crowds up close. The one exception was Trump, who now has Secret Service protection, but he gives out interviews like candy at Halloween.
In his stump speech, Cruz says that under his administration, newspaper reporters and editors will be forced to “check themselves into therapy," presumably because he'll put the media in its place. But -- and I'm sorry to reveal this, Sen. Cruz -- his traveling press corps was perhaps the most content I’ve encountered and gets along swimmingly with the senator and his staff. (It also might be too late for reporters to start therapy.) Bush has also made a point of being very accessible, and he and his team have good relations with the press.
I chalk most of this up to front-runner syndrome. Clinton has no interest in shaking up the status quo of the race, and there’s a risk in doing any interview or press conference. Sanders feels pretty comfortable where he is too. Besides, both Clinton and Sanders have deeply personal reasons for distrusting the media. For Republicans, fourth-estate bashing seems like more of pose to excite the base. The Republicans, meanwhile, are eager to shake up the race or tear down their opponents.
What else about the candidates leapt out to you?
Benjy: It felt weird to follow Hillary Clinton after spending more than a year listening to the caricature version of her among Republican candidates as an unaccomplished has-been running in vain from President Obama’s failed record. Instead, she used her stump speech to lash herself to Obama’s legacy at every turn while promising to take his policies even further. I don’t think I realized just how much her campaign strategy relies on linking herself to her predecessor -- one of her biggest applause lines was “I don’t think President Obama gets the credit he deserves for making sure we didn’t fall into a Great Depression.”
One thing that struck me was just how hard Democrats are playing to their base on issues that they might have feared were a general election liability just a few years earlier. Immigration used to be difficult territory for Clinton in 2008, but Bill Clinton’s Cedar Rapids, Iowa, event featured remarks from a DREAMer. Trump is running on open bigotry against Muslims and his rivals are raising fears about refugees, but Sanders was introduced at his Cedar Rapids event by a 17-year-old Muslim high school student. Clinton’s stump speech excoriated the other side’s “wrong and shameful” rhetoric about Muslims and the audience loved it. The other big example is guns, where Clinton spent much of Friday attacking Sanders over his relatively moderate records. It’s a very different feeling than 2004, or even 2008.
Sanders was funnier than I expected – he had a recurring deadpan about how the early pundit response to his run was that “he combs his hair really nicely, clearly he’ll be the best dressed president we ever had.” The energy at his Cedar Rapids evening rally was also impressive. There’s no one who commands his kind of crowd sizes outside of Trump.
Alex: I had a few more candidates to cover than you, Benjy, and I didn’t even make it through the entire field. I took a decidedly superficial view, having seen most of these candidates only once or twice, but that’s the view that voters get. And as Richard Nixon or Al Gore can tell you, superficial things can really matter.
First of all, how does the world not know that Trump, who seems eager to end the GOP primary with a testosterone-measuring contest, chooses to score his raucous mega-rallies with Andrew Lloyd Webber? All of his events begin and end with “The Music of the Night” from the "Phantom of the Opera" and “Memory” from "Cats" (a song about a former “Glamour cat”), along with some Adele tunes. Perhaps that’s real authenticity? Easily the most surprisingly bit of my week.
The rest his 8,000-person rally at Lowell’s brightly lit Tsongas Arena borrowed more from the aesthetic of a WWE match or a Monster Truck rally than Broadway. But it’s impressive how, despite the format, Trump manages to connect so directly with his audience. That totally does not come across on TV. “Isn’t this more fun than a regular boring political event? To me it’s fun,” Trump said. He’s not wrong.
Reporters and operatives told me I had to see a Christie town hall, and I was not disappointed. He’s a master of the form, spending a full hour answering questions and staying to shake every last hand before giving even the press a few minutes of his time. He’s softened his image with plenty of self-deprecation and seems to want to be viewed as a teddy bear -- but with sharp claws. "Authenticity" is a total fiction in presidential politics, but Christie oozes the thing we talk about when we talk about authenticity.
Bush was almost exactly as advertised, competent and reasonable, though funnier than on television. Unfortunately for him, the skills required to run for president are only tangentially related to the skills required to be president. He seemed to view humans from the detached view of a think tank fellow. When a woman at a town hall in Meredith, New Hampshire, shared a heart-wrenching story about her daughter's murder, Bush addressed her policy question on gun control before her personal story. “OK, well. I’m happy to answer that and my heart goes out to you and your family,” he said. The conclusion to his answer invoked a famous moment from a Hollywood presidential candidate: “I’m sorry for your loss. Look, there’s lots of crazy things going on in this world each and every day,” Bush said.
Meanwhile, in his pressed blue suit and gleaming smile, Marco Rubio looked the part when I saw him in Nashua, New Hampshire. Everything about his presentation was meant to convey youth and vitality, and indeed his audience was one of the youngest I’ve ever seen at a weekday political event. He’s undoubtedly magnetic, and several voters I spoke with left as converts. Still, the youth card seems to play both ways, as others I spoke with questioned his readiness.
Ted Cruz’s stump speech seems reverse-engineered after a careful study of the conservative base. It’s a clever format, inviting his audience to imagine the opening hours and days of a Cruz administration as he ticks through a right-wing wish-list of actions. But it loses some of its magic when you see it more than once, since he delivers it exactly the same -- intonation, jokes, pauses and all -- at stop after stop. Every politician has a stump, but this is different.