New York Times’ Adam Nagourney

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NYT L.A. bureau chief assesses key West Coast races in the upcoming midterms.



Tavis: Adam Nagourney is the former chief and national political correspondent for The New York Times who now serves as the paper’s L.A. bureau chief. Adam, good to have you back on the program.
Adam Nagourney: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: Glad to have you. I’ve always been – how might I put this? One of my personal political pet peeves has always been that because we live here on the West Coast nobody gives us any respect. They start telling you who won before our polls are closed; nobody cares about our races. We are like an afterthought here on the West Coast, but this time around some fascinating races here on the West Coast, starting with a couple races here in California.
Nagourney: Right. There’s at least three, arguably four if you include the propositions, races that I think have national attention being focused on them. Obviously in California you have the Senate race, where Barbara Boxer is facing a really tough challenge, and the governor’s race to replace Schwarzenegger. I think those are both really important national races.
Right now I think the most important race going on in the West is the contest between Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader out of Nevada, and Sharron Angle, his Republican opponent. It’s very close, and I think that race is going to capture more attention than probably any other race on election night, the way things are going right now.
Tavis: Let me take them in the order that you offer them. First of all, Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina. Of course, Barbara Boxer, 18-year now veteran in the U.S. Senate. Carly Fiorina we know from her fame at HP, Hewlett-Packard, Republican in this race now.
It appears – the polls I’ve seen of late – that Boxer is starting to pull away here, certainly has a lead over Carly Fiorina, and yet the Republican party still has great focus on this race. Why so?
Nagourney: Because here’s why – I think that in order for the Republicans to take control of the Senate, which is possible, difficult but possible, Boxer is one of the people they need to knock out. There’s some clearly vulnerable Democrats or Democratic seats are going to go across the country, and that’s one that’s always been really tempting to them.
I think the feeling on both sides is that race is getting away a little bit from the Republicans. Given the size of the intensity on the Republican side, I would not write it off for them right now. But what’s interesting about that race is that in a Senate race, the fact that Carly Fiorina is conservative on various social issues – abortion, also I guess on the environment, oil drilling – I think that makes it easier. I think that’s more of a problem for her.
I think it’s one of the reasons why Boxer might be pulling out. Again, with the caveat that we’re still a ways out and I don’t really trust polling this year, and Republican intensity is very strong.
Tavis: When you say you don’t trust polling, you added the phrase “this year.” Does that mean you have trusted it in the past and something –
Nagourney: I have trusted it in the past. I think it’s harder – I’m not a polling expert, but there’s a lot of polls out there that I think are suspect. None of the ones that we’ve had in California for years, but I think lots of people are doing polling; it’s getting lots of attention. Everyone knows there’s various methodological problems with polling now because of cell phones and do not responds from a lot of people, so it’s difficult.
We do polling; The New York Times does polling. We have not done polling this year out here, and it’s hard. I think we’re still doing okay, but I’m struck by how many people are doing polls. A lot of organizations realize that when we can get attention it’s just by doing a poll. You’ll see these polls with a sample of 400 people and you’re just suspect.
Then again, I think it’s a little bit hard to measure things right now. But you learn to watch movement in polls, and I have sensed a movement in Boxer’s direction over the past two weeks or so.
Tavis: So what are you sensing in the race for governor between Meg Whitman, of course, of eBay fame, and Jerry Brown, reprising his run for governor from what, 30 years ago.
Nagourney: I think before either one of us were born. (Laughter) (Unintelligible)
Tavis: What are you sensing in that race?
Nagourney: Here’s the thing. She has spent a phenomenal amount of money. I think the latest was $119 million of her own money, and he up until recently has not run a very energetic campaign. The polls show that either she’s tied with him or he’s ahead of her, so there’s something wrong here. She’s having trouble closing the deal. People are not ready to go with her.
You’d think at this point, after that kind of investment, after the number of television commercials, the fact that Brown has not run the best campaign in the world, you’d think that she’d have a bit of a lead here, so she doesn’t. So at this point I think the race is tied. That’s what most polls are suggesting. But I think that Brown – I think that there’s a sense here – part of this is a guess – it’s a Democratic state, so people tend to vote for Democrats.
The other part is I wonder whether in this kind of environment, when the state is in such bad shape, when people are so worried about the deficit and the management future of the state, whether people are going to be more likely to want to go with someone who’s done this before, who’s had the experience, which as you know in other elections can be a downside, versus someone who’s new to it.
I think here the experience with Schwarzenegger, fairly or not, might make people more reluctant to go with Whitman.
Tavis: But the counterargument to that would be that we seem to be experiencing or witnessing this spirit, this mood in the country where we want to throw –
Nagourney: Incumbents out, yeah.
Tavis: – the incumbents out. Throw people out who’ve had too much experience, that we want to have somebody who knows how to handle these economic issues. Certainly that’s the argument that Meg Whitman is making. With all due respect to Jerry Brown, if the best Democrats can do in this state is to reprise a guy from three decades ago?
Nagourney: No argument there. No argument there. I do think, though, this could be the one – if you had spoken to me two months ago I would have been saying the same thing you just said. This might be one state where the – one race where the throw the bums out may not fit.
Tavis: May not fit.
Nagourney: Just because of the sort of crisis it’s in. Listen, at this point we’re just guessing, right? But maybe at this point people will be saying, you know what? The state’s in really bad shape, Jerry Brown’s been there. At least he knows what to do; he knows how to handle it.
Tavis: There’s a front-page story in our paper today talking about the fact that the GOP stands to pick up governor seats this time around.
Nagourney: Absolutely.
Tavis: But maybe not here in California.
Nagourney: But not in California. No, not in California. I don’t think in California. The GOP generally is going to pick up a lot of states, and that’s going to be a real big advantage for Republicans going forward.
Tavis: Before I jump to the Nevada race, which I want to get to in just a second here, since I referenced this a moment ago, I’m curious as to your take – I don’t mean to make you political, but I was at a dinner party literally just two days ago and this conversation came up, and with all due respect to all the persons who are running for office, it seems to me that this year, across the country we have so many uninspiring candidates running for office.
In Illinois they don’t know who to trust – the Republican or the Democrat in that Senate race. In Connecticut one guy lied about his record, the other has no experience in government. In California you got a guy who was here 30 years ago, there’s not a single Democrat in this state who in 30 years we have prepared to be governor, versus someone who has had no experience in government and has spent $120 million of her own money to buy the seat.
In Nevada, you’ve got a Senate majority leader who has not been the greatest, not the most aggressive, somewhat milquetoast, against a woman who’s, pardon the pun, angle I can’t really figure out.
Across the country I’m starting to get the sense that something has happened to our politics where we’ve kept out the good people from running and we’re getting these – again, I don’t want to demonize anybody, but these uninspiring candidates.
Nagourney: Right. Well, two things. One is it might be cyclical, but then I also wonder whether the environment that we the media helped to create is making people who might be higher quality candidates go, “Why should I do this?” That’s what I worry about, because I feel the candidates that I’ve covered in the past – I’ve been doing this for a long time – did tend to be better.
One exception I would make, and probably lots of people out there will disagree with this – whatever you think of the way President Obama has been as president, I think he was an extraordinary political candidate. I’m not saying he’s a good president or a bad – right.
Tavis: No, I think we agree on that.
Nagourney: That’s the exception. But generally, if you ask me do I think that the quality of candidates for various offices has overall declined, I think that is probably true, and I often worry about that because I wonder how much of that is because of us, because there’s a lot about – I think there’s a lot of terrific political journalism out there and I think that what we do is really important, and there’s some great, great reporters out there.
But I think there’s also a lot of gotcha journalism, and it makes candidates wary of everything that they’re saying. One thing that you notice this year is that candidates are doing less public events or less entanglements with the media, and I think it’s just because they just look at the media as sort of an enemy that’s just trying to trip them up.
Tavis: That’s true on both sides of the aisle.
Nagourney: Absolutely, absolutely.
Tavis: Christine O’Donnell won’t talk in Delaware; Andrew Cuomo won’t talk in New York. So Republican or Democrat, you’re right – people are avoiding the media. But it seems to me, Adam, it may just not be the media that’s responsible. Indeed, in Washington itself –
Nagourney: It’s the culture.
Tavis: The culture.
Nagourney: It’s not just the media; it’s the culture, yeah.
Tavis: Our lack of real focus on campaign finance reform keeps, to your point, certain types of people from ever putting themselves in these races.
Nagourney: Right. Would you want to go into Congress in this kind of environment right now, knowing that you were going to get the stuffing knocked out of you and get accused of being corrupt and get nothing done? I think it’s discouraging for people.
Tavis: So to Nevada – Harry Reid.
Nagourney: Right.
Tavis: It seems to me, and again, you tell me, you’re the expert here, if Republicans lost everything else on election night but Sharron Angle upsets Harry Reid, that’s their storyline. That’s their narrative.
Nagourney: That would certainly make them happy. He is their absolute top target this year for a whole lot of reasons. I think they’d still be upset that they lost everything, but I think your overall point is right. They really see a chance in beating this guy, and he is having lots of trouble. He’s spent lots of money there; he’s got a lot going for him just in terms of organization. He can’t break above 43, 44 percent.
For a lot of reasons, there’s just a lot of people who are ready to vote for anyone but Harry Reid, and if you ask Republicans what is your main strategy for winning this race, particularly with a candidate as I would say flawed as Sharron Angle – again, I’m not saying she’s good or bad on issues; that’s for people to decide – it’s that people don’t like Harry Reid. They just don’t like what he stands for.
He’s always had big problems in that state. Now, the other side of that is he knew that coming into this race and he’s been spending a lot of time over the past two years preparing for this, and I think the biggest thing that we want to watch over the next three weeks, and particularly on Election Day, is what kind of organization does he have to get the vote out.
Tavis: One of the things – and you’ve been covering this, obviously, more than I have, and it’s a perennial question as to what makes individuals in a particular state throw someone out who does, in fact, have power and clout to deliver for that state and go with a novice who’s going to be at the bottom of the pecking order. You must really not like somebody to throw them out if they’re the guy in charge.
Nagourney: Absolutely. It’s fascinating to me. That’s what shows you the intensity that it’s like for Harry Reid, and also it’s the intensity of just for government. Because he is the Senate majority leader. The odds are pretty good he’ll still be the Senate majority leader when he’s elected. He is in a position to deliver all kinds of things to his state, whether it’s money, whether it’s keeping after the nuclear repository in Yucca Mountain.
There’s a whole lot of stuff he can do. She will not have anywhere near that much authority, and if the Democrats are still in control, you can trust me that Nevada will get nothing while she’s senator.
But people, we’ve seen it again and again. Time and again, people tend to throw out majority leaders – majority leaders or Senate speakers or whatever. It’s weird, but it happens.
Tavis: Yeah, it’s happened a few times – Tom Foley, Tom Daschle.
Nagourney: Absolutely, yeah.
Tavis: In 30 seconds, I was on “This Week on ABC” yesterday and my friend George Will and I kind of got into a little bit of a debate about this, but quickly, his column in “The Post” yesterday was called “The Obama Referendum.” Is this election a referendum on Obama?
Nagourney: I don’t believe that at all. I realize that there’s a real difference about this, and I think this is a referendum on Democrats versus Republicans. I think you’ll want to keep watching is Obama’s favorability rating still is up there around 45 and 50 percent. I think that you’ll see it going up as we’re getting closer to Election Day.
I don’t think people are going in there and voting thinking, I hate Barack Obama, I dislike Barack Obama. They might not like some of the stuff he’s done, but that’s a big difference.
Tavis: So to all my friends watching on the other side of the Mississippi, the West Coast does matter. (Laughter) At least we will on this midterm election. We are pleased to have Adam Nagourney in our town now as the L.A. bureau chief for The New York Times. Adam, good to have you here.
Nagourney: Good, thank you.
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Last modified: October 18, 2012 at 4:24 pm