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“This Will Be the Super Bowl of Elections”: An Interview With Norah O’Donnell

Susan Collins announces her vote to acquit Donald Trump during an interview with Norah O'Donnell. (Photo courtesy of CBS.)

Back in September, Washingtonian spoke with CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell about a recent experiment: The decision to move the evening broadcast from New York to Washington. The relocation was conceived by CBS News president Susan Zirinsky, a veteran of Watergate, and a wager that politics could offer a path to grow CBS’s viewership. A longtime inside-the-Beltway reporter who once studied at Georgetown University, O’Donnell described working in Washington as the only way to yield “the best information, the best sources, the best scoops.”

Days after that interview, news began to percolate of a mysterious whistleblower complaint. Within a week, the country’s third impeachment was underway. O’Donnell covered the events on her nightly broadcast and during the Senate trial, a period that led the ratings among all three networks. (Since the first DC-based broadcast in December, though, CBS remains in third place.) In addition to covering the early 2020 primaries state by state, O’Donnell will also host an upcoming Democratic debate in South Carolina.

Washingtonian spoke to O’Donnell again to check in about the broadcast, covering the 2020 election, and her new life in DC.

Has the experiment worked?

I think moving to Washington, and moving the broadcast here, has exceeded our expectations. And little did we know we’d be moving to Washington in the midst of what some have described as a constitutional crisis. And certainly impeachment of a president, [and] one of the most consequential elections of our lifetime. As one top intelligence official has said to me, this is going to be the Super Bowl of elections, because of foreign interference from not only the Russians but the Chinese and the Iranians.

What being here has allowed us to do is to sort of relaunch the program… and b) get close to the story. I’m back and forth to the Hill. I’ve been over to the White House. I’ll meet somebody for lunch and do reporting. So I’m doing a lot more reporting now as the anchor of CBS News because I’m here in Washington. And I think that ultimately makes the broadcast stronger.

You also had the top-rated impeachment broadcast—speaking of things that might have exceeded your expectations. So that was a clear slam-dunk?

It was affirming to know that we did so well in the ratings during the impeachment hearings. And I think that was because maybe viewers tuned in to us and said, ‘They’re there. They’ve got people on the ground, Norah’s been up and down on the Hill, they know what they’re doing.”

Part of this reorganization of CBS News is a brand-new special events team, that’s going to carry us through the upcoming CBS debate in South Carolina, through Super Tuesday election night. Super Tuesday [is] our big one—we’re on the network for two hours. We’re going to broadcast it from here, from this brand-new set in Washington.

It makes me wonder if there was truth to what the former head of this network [Les Moonves] said—which was something like, ‘Trump may be bad for America, but he’s great for CBS.” Is there some truth in that?

I would have to go back and look and see exactly what he said. But I would say, what’s good for CBS News is original reporting, and great storytelling, and that’s always been where CBS did its best—60 Minutes obviously being the gold standard.

There was pushback from some corners of the left recently because of the network’s decision to hire Reince Priebus. As analysts go, it’s not like you hired Stephen Miller. But it’s a concern for people who want to believe that there will be some repercussions for officials they view as abetting malefactors. What’s your response to that?

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We want to hear from every voice that is influential. I understand if there is some criticism that we hire Reince Priebus. But he’s the former head of the Republican National Committee, he’s a former White House chief of staff, he’s very tapped in and reflects a point of view that a large number of Americans agree with. We cannot have one point of view on our air. We just can’t. And it has been a hallmark of my career: I try to be friends with everybody, I try to listen to everybody, I try to talk to everybody. It’s not my personality or my profession to say someone’s viewpoint is not worth listening to. Now, the facts are the facts, and we will hold people accountable. But we need to hear different viewpoints.

You were recently in Manchester, New Hampshire, covering the Democratic primary. What has the political media learned since 2016? I wonder if that experience has affected the way you report 2020.

I think a lot of the fundamentals of political reporting remain the same. I do. [In 2016,] they looked at the national polls, saw that Hillary was ahead, and assumed that Hillary would win.

The electoral college matters, and what happens in specific states is going to be important. I can remember in 2008, I had one-year-old twin infants at home, and pregnant with number three, and covering the 2008 primary season between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. That lasted way into June, and that was about delegates, it was about—it’s a numbers game. It is about support, it is about the policies, and the debate performance, but ultimately, it’s about who wins the map.

That makes me wonder if 2020 will have more in common with 2008 than with 2016. With less certainty and a longer slog to the convention.

We’re prepared for a long Democratic primary season. And that’s because, not only is there a crowded Democratic field that’s well-funded and has strong bases of support, but also because of the Bloomberg factor, which is like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

I was just going to ask about Bloomberg.

That inevitably is going to prolong this process. But look, we have two states [that have already voted], and one percent of the delegates have been chosen. So we still have a long way to go.

What does the rise of Bloomberg suggest to you? He’s outspending everyone in Super Tuesday states.

I think Bloomberg has long had a desire to be President of the United States. You know, when you’re worth tens and tens of billions of dollars—he made that choice to get in. I think he has a real shot.

Wow.

Of winning the Democratic nomination. It’s always been earned media versus paid media, it’s the oldest trick in the book. You’d prefer to do paid media because you can control the message. He [Bloomberg] has a very savvy advertising strategy. He has a very savvy digital strategy. The Trump campaign has certainly advertised and spent a lot of money on digital advertising. The only one that’s matching him or exceeding him is Bloomberg at this point. I think a lot of this battle will be fought in the digital space.

[Two days later, Bloomberg qualified for the February 19 debate amid controversy surrounding previous remarks he’d made about women and his policing policy as mayor of New York.]

Do you think we’re in a big political “realignment” as some political scientists say—like the 1960’s or the 1860’s? We have a former Republican billionaire running in the Democratic primary. You have Bill Kristol saying, “We’re all Democrats now.”

One of the things I’m doing now is I’m taking tennis lessons. And my tennis coach today was like, Did you read that article about the political scientist that says there’s no swing voter? And you know what, I actually did.

It’s the oldest motto in every election: Well, it depends who turns out to vote. But I’ve covered six presidential elections. I was on the road in 2004 with Karl Rove. They turned out not only Republican voters, they grew the Republican base. We went to parts of Florida where there were new retirees going in and they registered new Republicans. They grew the base. That’s how you win.

The Trump campaign, I’m told by Republicans who look at this every day and are longtime political strategists, is running the most sophisticated voter operation that has ever been done in American politics. And that’s because everybody that requests a ticket to a rally has to provide their info and their mobile phone number. That voter is then tagged and searched by the campaign and then reached back out to.

The very best political strategists try and do that. You know that somebody has voted Republican every election, you know everybody has voted Democrat, there’s some people that go back and forth. But you want to get the person who hasn’t voted in ten years, who feels so passionately and fervently, and kept up with mobile Tweets and texts and rallies—that’s how you win elections.

OK. I wanted to ask about your new life in Washington. How about those tennis lessons?

It’s hard to find a tennis court in New York—you have to go all the way out to [Randall’s] Island. [Now] having my mornings—I don’t have to be in until later because I work later—my goal was where are ways that I can grow. I thought I would take a tennis lesson once a week.

Are you better?

I am. Backspin and topspin. I love this coach, David Parker. I just play for fun, actually trying to learn specific shots and learn something new, at 46. I like that someone is teaching me how to make a spin shot, which I’ve never been able to do, and then when I land it it makes me happy.

Is there anything else about your life in DC that might surprise people?

As my good friend once told me, the difference between New York and Washington is that now I’m a “mother trucker.” A lot of my time is just transporting children. My kids don’t have school today and my daughter was at a sleepover in McLean, Virginia, and I just said, “I hope you have a ride home.”

Benjamin Wofford
Staff Writer

Benjamin Wofford is a staff writer at Washingtonian.