Election campaigns full of surprises for news veteran Jonathan Alter

Jonathan Alter spoke with the staff of the student newspaper, The Pendulum, inbetween his question-and-answer session and speech at Elon University on Sept. 29.
Jonathan Alter spoke with the staff of the student newspaper, The Pendulum, inbetween his question-and-answer session and speech at Elon University on Sept. 29.

by Andie Diemer
Sept. 29, 2008

Jonathan Alter, a senior editor at Newsweek since 1991, spoke to the Elon community on Monday night about the election campaigns, the current status of the country and the issues the next president will face.

Students, faculty, staff and community members crowded into McCrary Theatre to hear Alter speak. While Alter was pleased with the turnout, he wasn’t surprised. He said he has seen large crowds and a similar interest and intensity at every venue he’s visited this year.

“People are taking this choice seriously,” he said.

Prior to his speech in McCrary, Alter sat down for an exclusive interview with The Pendulum. He shared his insights on the youth vote, last Friday’s debate, Sarah Palin and more. To read the full interview, go to http://www.elon.edu/pendulum.

Diemer: This is the seventh election you’ve covered for Newsweek. Has anything surprised you?
Alter: Everything is always surprising me. That’s what keeps it fun, is that every year there are big changes in American politics. I think particularly in this election year, we’ve seen a number of major changes. To give you a quick example, four years ago, hard as it is to believe, YouTube hadn’t even been invented yet. It didn’t start until 2005.

In the past, campaign finance was dominated by fat cats, big contributors. This year you have the Obama campaign — about half of their contributors are giving under $200 and large numbers under $100. They have about 2.5 million contributors, which just dwarfs anything we’ve seen in the past, so that’s very surprising.

D: Why are young people more interested in this election?
A: I think there are three reasons why they are turning out in greater numbers this year. First is how close the 2000 election was, when they were very young, and they remember that. The second is the aftermath of Katrina and 9/11 and the recognition that the stakes are very, very high for who the president should be. The third is the emergence of Barack Obama, who has a very unusual and particular appeal to younger voters.

D: Why are kids so drawn to Obama?
A: There is sort of a combination of a freshness and a coolness to Obama, a hipness that just intrigued young people from the minute they laid eyes on him.

You’ve mentioned a lot of differences between this campaign and past ones. Do you see any similarities?
A: I think the most significant one is it’s still very possible to get the campaign off of the major issues that will face the new president, distracted onto lipstick-on-a-pig-type issues that are really just campaign flaps or gaps or charges and countercharges of the day that don’t really have anything to do with the actual issues that the next president will face.

D: What messages have been put forward by each camp that have had a lasting, negative effect on the other side?
A: I think that the basic Obama message that John McCain is maybe a hero, but he’s out of touch for the 21st century, is a resonant message and a problem for John McCain. I think John McCain’s message that Barack Obama is not passionate enough about real people’s problems and maybe a little too inexperienced to handle certain international issues — that will continue to be a problem [for Obama]. I think a deeper problem for Obama is when McCain and Palin push these class buttons: ‘He’s not like you; he’s the other; he’s exotic; he doesn’t really come from the same place that you are.’ Some of that may be a little bit racial, but some of it is not racial. It’s just a depiction of him as having a different kind of experience.

D: On the topic of the debate, do you think there was a clear winner?
A: I think they both did quite well. I don’t think there was a clear winner. There was a clear loser, and the loser was Sarah Palin. The reason that she was the clear loser is that both McCain and Obama set a very high standard for knowledge and fluency about the issues. If she just goes into her debate this week with a lot of canned sound bites, a lot of attacks on Obama, and doesn’t show a command of the issues, she will be compared unfavorably both with Joe Biden and, more importantly, with Obama and McCain in terms of her readiness to be president.

D: Since Palin was picked, there has been a lot of information, negative information, that has surfaced. Do you think the McCain camp is rethinking its choice?
A: I don’t think they are — they put so many chips on Sarah Palin and they came up such a big winner at the Republican convention, that I think that they really believe their faith in her and her abilities, and that she has real talents, politically, and they will be validated by her performance.

Do they wish she had done better in the interview with Katie Couric? I’m sure they do, but I don’t think that they’re reassessing their decision to pick her and I think there’s zero chance of her being taken off the ticket.

D: What are the most important issues in this campaign? What does the next administration need to focus on?
A: In many ways, there’s only one issue, I believe, for the next president. The reason there’s only one issue is that almost every other really important issue flows out of that one issue. That one issue is restoring America’s global leadership, restoring America’s prestige in the world.

On the range of really big international problems, whether it’s dealing with a nuclear Iran, winding down the war in Iraq, dealing with North Korea, dealing with climate change, with terrorism, with AIDS — these are all international problems. If we don’t restore America’s leadership, we will not be able to address those problems. So, to me the preeminent question is which of these two men can move most effectively to reestablish our leadership.

D: Who do you think is going to come out on top?
A: I honestly think it could still go either way, and I’ve been saying for the last several weeks that it was 50/50. I would now put it at about a 55/45 edge for Barack Obama, but that still gives McCain a very, very good chance to win this election. While I would maybe bet $5 on Obama, I wouldn’t bet $10.

Whitney Bossie contributed to this article.

Watch to hear Alter’s tips to make it big in the news industry:

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