Interviewee: Dan Balz
Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post
In 2004 – National Political Correspondent for The Washington Post
Interviewer: Dr. Michael Nelson
Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College
Fellow, SMU Center for Presidential History
January 6, 2014
This transcription has been prepared according to the strictest practices of the academic and transcription communities and offers our best good-faith effort at reproducing in text our subject’s spoken words. In all cases, however, the video of this interview represents the definitive version of the words spoken by interviewees.
Q: Dan, you’ve been covering campaigns for president since when?
BALZ: Nineteen eighty is really when I started, although I was the political editor at the Post for the ’80 campaign, so I was more in the newsroom than out. But I’ve been doing them ever since.
Q: Eighty-four, ’88?
BALZ: Eighty-four, ’88, again, I was an editor that year, and then from ’92 forward, purely as a reporter.
Q: I might ask you, what’s the difference in perspective you have from being an editor, and being out there in the field?
BALZ: Well, there’s no substitute for being out there in the field, (laughter) I think, is the simplest way to put it. I mean, when you’re an editor, you know, you’re obviously thinking about the coverage, kind of, in its totality, and part of it is a logistical exercise, just making sure your reporters are in the right places, that the coverage is looking at all aspects of the campaign at any given moment. You know, when you’re a reporter, you’re trying to get the story, and you’re trying to be in the places [00:01:00] where the story is unfolding. And, you know, you’re watching it with a bird’s-eye rather than kind of from a more elevated standpoint.
Q: So, when — this might be a way of asking when did the 2004 election actually start, when did you start covering that story?
BALZ: Probably right after the 2002 midterms. You know, presidential campaigns today are, at a minimum, two-year exercises, and in some ways, they’re two and a half to three-year exercises. There’s so much that goes on well in advance of the time when voters actually begin to pay attention. And so, it’s always been kind of our rule of thumb that we start covering the presidential campaign the minute the midterm elections are over. But even now today, I mean, in the year after President Obama won reelection in 2012, we spent not a huge amount of time, but we spent time paying attention to [00:02:00] who was getting ready to run in 2016, who were the candidates who are looking at it, kind of, what the field looks like, what the prospects are. So, in some ways, for the press, it’s more of a four-year exercise, for better or worse, than a two-year exercise. But in terms of the ’04 campaign, I started writing about that almost immediately after the midterms.
Q: What does it mean, actually, to cover an election campaign? What did you do during those two years before the voting took place? Where did you go? Who did you follow?
BALZ: Well, when you have an incumbent president seeking reelection, the role that I usually play is to spend more time with the party out of power, rather than the party in power. For the early stage of the campaign, the incumbent, the President, is doing his job, and mostly in the White House, and working on what you would expect a president to be working on. Meanwhile, the out party is looking forward to, [00:03:00] usually, a pretty robust nomination battle. And so, that’s where I would tend to spend my time. So, in the ’04 campaign, to be specific, I think I went out to Iowa, which of course has the first caucuses, probably in January of ’03. I’m not 100% sure of that, but I think it was in January ’03. As I recall, there was the inauguration of Tom Vilsack for a second term as governor that year, and that weekend drew some of the prospective presidential candidates to a dinner in one of the Iowa counties. And I remember going out to look at that, to see what they had to say. And I actually did a quite informal focus group that weekend that I setup myself around Cedar Rapids, just to talk to some Democratic activists, to get their early view of what the Democratic field looked like. So, from that point forward, I and others were out on the trail.
Q: And then, [00:04:00] you stayed with the Democrats most of the time through the convention?
BALZ: No, really, until the nomination is wrapped up.
BALZ: Now, in that early period, in — you know, in the winter of ’03, I remember doing a piece, I think, with Mike Allen, who was then with us, who’s now at Politico, about the Bush campaign beginning to take formation, and kind of the broader goals, the aspirations they had, you know, the fundraising targets that they were setting up. So, we did that piece, probably, in February, maybe in March of 2003. So, there were times at which, though my focus was much more heavily on the Democratic race for the nomination, I was paying attention to what the Bush campaign was doing in the embryonic stages of getting going.
Q: Can you reflect on how covering 2004 was [00:05:00] different from covering previous elections? What had changed in the process, or what had changed in the political media?
BALZ: Well, with every cycle, there are several changes that are almost a given, and the question, then, is how do we all adapt to it? Technology changes with every campaign, every four years, and I think that we’ve seen an acceleration of that post-’04, even more so than pre-’04. But the degree to which information moves rapidly was changing from, you know, ’92 to ’96 to 2000 to 2004. I mean, with the advent of cell phones, and BlackBerrys, and means of communication that we didn’t have earlier. That’s part of it. Another part of it is the fracturing of the media. You know, when I started [00:06:00] paying attention to politics, and covering politics, this was still an era when three major networks were dominant, when a handful of big newspapers, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, tended to set the agenda, and in some ways, were considered gatekeepers for information. What we saw from, I would say, from sort of the mid-’80s to the time we got to 2004, was a kind of general breaking down of that old order. So, you got to the point where The Washington Post did not have the influence that it once had, The New York Times did not have the influence to set the agenda that it once had, the rise of cable television created a different sense of audience. And I think that candidates, as a result of that, began to develop strategies. And we saw this as early as 1992 with Bill Clinton, they began to develop strategies aimed at going around traditional media to get directly [00:07:00] to the voters, to be able to deliver their message. I always had this feeling that people who ran campaigns had a better understanding of how we did our business, and therefore, could try to work around us, than we understood how they did their business. And so, you would often come out of a presidential campaign and say all right, here are things that we should not do again. Here are things that they sort of got the better of us. We need to be more rigorous in the way we hold campaigns accountable. So, all of those things were changing through that period.
Q: And it’s interesting, all of the major news organizations you mentioned that used to drive the coverage tried to play it straight down the middle. And am I right in thinking that by ’04, you’ve got part — highly partisan websites, bloggers, cable news has become more fragmented along partisan lines. Is that — and you all
are starting to be called, you know, [00:08:00] the mainstream media.
BALZ: (laughter) Right.
Q: As if that was some weird, you know, category.
BALZ: (laughter) Right.