Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 11, 2016

How to Ruin Your Interview With Stu Rothenberg

After interviewing more than 1,000 candidates for the House and Senate with my colleague, Stu Rothenberg, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what makes him tick and what just plain ticks him off.

Over the course of the past 25 years, Stu has garnered somewhat of a reputation of being a “hard” interview. And some party strategists and consultants probably have more colorful adjectives than that. Those are also probably the same folks who prepare their candidates for the alleged onslaught they will face when stepping into The Rothenberg Political Report offices.

But I’ll be honest with you: Stu is more bark than bite, and if candidates come in and act and talk like normal human beings, the vast majority come out on the other side unscathed. But there are a few ways a candidate can virtually guarantee a less than ideal outcome.

Come with a giant entourage
If you’re a state representative running for Congress, don’t come to the interview with a delegation of five people as if you were going to the United Nations for a peace summit. State Sen. Barack Obama came to a 2002 interview for his 2004 Senate race with one person, and things turned out OK for him. You’re not that important yet, and it makes it look like you can’t stand up for yourself. And you will force Stu to drag more chairs into our tiny conference room.

Come with a chip on your shoulder
I distinctly remember our interview with Nebraska Republican Jeff Fortenberry, who was running for an open seat in 2004. I’m not sure what he expected the meeting to be like, but it felt like he was prepared for war from the beginning. It doesn’t have to be that way. Stu is not out to destroy candidates and candidacies. That’s not how he approaches it. He genuinely wants to get to know candidates and become more knowledgeable about the race.

Don’t answer basic biographical questions
Here is a quick tip: The first question candidates get is, “What is your date of birth?” This might seem simple, but we have had candidates refuse to answer, and we might have as well ended the interview right there. One candidate refused for security purposes (I subsequently found his date of birth through the Google machine.) while another candidate refused because she was offended that we asked her. We think she forgot she was a public official running for public office. The bottom line is that the biographical questions come first and should be easy.

Talk About running for student council
It might seem funny to you. But Stu has heard that joke roughly 867 times.

Forget the names of your campaign team
If you can’t name your media consultant, your pollster and your direct mail consultant, it can be a good indicator that you’re not putting together the caliber of campaign necessary to win a federal race. You might try to be acting like you’re above all of that campaign rigmarole, but it just comes off as amateurish.

Try to explain why you don’t need to poll
You do. And if you don’t have the money to do one, that’s a different — and larger — problem. And whatever you do, definitely don’t say, “The only poll that matters is the poll on Election Day.”

Don’t answer questions about recent policy issues
Stu liked Arizona candidate Martha McSally. He really did. But she didn’t do herself any favors by continuously invoking the Mark McGwire strategy when Stu asked her if she would have voted to re-open the government. This is the case where McSally’s determination to focus on the future and not the past might be the right campaign decision, but it made the interview awkward as she ducked the question multiple times.

Try to run out the clock
Everyone knows the allotted time for the interview before it starts, so don’t try to filibuster it by going on and on about that city council race where you were the top vote-getter or by just taking potshots at your opponent. Let us guide the pace of the interview to try to cover everything that needs to be covered and keep everyone on schedule.

So what should candidates do? In short, be yourself. Be comfortable. Be willing to talk analytically (even critically) about your own candidacy. And demonstrate a knowledge of your race, including a reasonable path to victory. It sounds so simple, but you’d be amazed at how many candidates manage to mess it up.

  • becca33160

    As a retired attorney, I read your article with great interest. You are right on point. The issues you raise are almost exactly what any attorney tries to cover when conducting either a deposition or trial, with pretty much the same results. It seems that whether a candidate or witness starts to answer questions, he or she forgets that the purpose of the questions is to get information.

  • deydey

    Here’s one way for potential candidates…

    You don’t need an interview w. a “inside the Beltway Political Analyst” (who only hard core pol. junkies have probably aware of) to win a race……..

    Just talk to real Voters in your constituency or district or state or the nation as the case may be…

  • Mr Media Training

    As a professional media trainer, I find your insights and experiences to be right on the mark. Too often, media consultants try to turn candidates into entirely new people; the much more successful strategy is to find the candidate’s strengths and emphasize them. As you say, that requires that they be themselves and show their humanity.

    The only advice that gives me pause is when you wrote this: “Be willing to talk analytically (even critically) about your own candidacy.” The problem is that if you introduce a negative, too many news organizations will ignore everything else you said and publish a negative headline that does the campaign no favors.

    I’m not sure whether or not you or Stu ever use a negative statement in a headline. If you don’t make that a general practice, I suppose it’s a function of researching each journalist to whom you’re speaking in advance. Journalists who are unlikely to use a negative quote as the headline (or the main focus of an article) might get more candor; those who make it their norm will not.

    Great post!

    Brad Phillips
    Author, The Media Training Bible

    • nathanlgonzales

      Brad- Thanks for commenting and you bring up a great point. When we ask candidates to talk candidly about the campaign and race ahead, that part of the interview is on background, or sometimes even off the record, depending on the situation.

      Our goal is not to play “gotcha” and get a headline out of the interview. We are actually trying to give the candidate an opportunity to address a potential weakness that could come up later in the campaign.

      And a candidate’s ability to admit any weakness or legitimate challenge can show that they actually know what they are getting into.

      But you are absolutely correct that different reporters have different intentions.

      Thanks again!

  • Don Robertson

    If candidates took this advice fwhen appearing in public, we would all be better off.

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