National political reporter Salena Zito arrived in Hillsdale last week, but not in the way you might expect.
“I don’t fly, I don’t take highways, I don’t take turnpikes,” Zito said in her speech in Plaster Auditorium on Oct. 22. “I only take back roads. If I fly or take a highway I’m going to miss the story between point A and point B.”
Zito, a columnist for the Washington Examiner and New York Post, as well as a contributor to CNN, gained national notoriety four years ago for being one of the few journalists to correctly predict the results of the 2016 presidential election.
Zito, the Dow Journalism Program’s second Eugene C. Pulliam Visiting Fellow in journalism this semester, taught a two-week seminar titled “Journalism in the Era of Trump.” She also delivered a public lecture last week.
Zito’s approach to journalism has given her unique insights into American politics, she said. A native and lifelong resident of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a proud “Yinzer” in the local vernacular, Zito credits her time at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for much of her journalistic success.
Zito’s big break came from an astute observation she made during the 2016 presidential campaign: Trump’s supporters take him seriously, but not literally; his opponents take him literally, but not seriously.
To many, Trump’s historic win was a shock. But not to Zito. For more than a decade, she’d been traveling beyond urban areas and talking to people from all walks of life. She understood the pulse of the electorate better than many of her colleagues and saw the momentum building up to the 2016 election.
“I listen to voters,” Zito said. “The thing I learned in 2006 is that voters feel they are sending people to Washington and the politicians keep misreading why they’re being sent there.”
The 2006 election resulted in many frustrated Republicans voting for Democrats in hope of a change, proving to Zito that voters would go across party lines when necessary. When Barack Obama won in 2008, he ran an aspirational campaign of hope and change — a message that drew a lot of people together.
“In that campaign he still kept the New Deal coalition of the Democratic party together,” Zito noted. “And what did that mean? It meant working class whites were still welcome in the Democratic Party. By 2012, Barack Obama decided to shed off the New Deal coalition. He was going to rebuild the party with the ascended coalition — minorities, young people, women, and people with 32 different degrees.”
That change, as Zito saw it, “left a lot of people on the table.”
“2012 was not hope and change,” she said. “It was slaughter and divide.”
Then came Trump, who Zito said “came across as a guy who wanted to shake things up and build stuff.” He appealed to regular Americans long-ignored and mobilized a new conservative populist coalition among Republican voters. In Zito’s view, Trump didn’t create the coalition, but was a result of disenchantment with D.C. politicians that began years earlier.
When Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, Zito’s takeaway was a strong message to voters — one that would ultimately win him the election.
“What I heard was, ‘I got your back, I have your communities’ back, and I am going to break things apart in D.C. because D.C. does not have your back.’ That’s what voters heard. They didn’t hear the things reporters wrote about,” she said.
Unlike most mainstream reporters who focus on big cities, Zito zeroed in on specific counties that could swing the 2016 election, most notably in her home state of Pennsylvania.
“In July of 2016, I decided to drive across all 67 counties of my state,” Zito said. “I knew my state. I knew there had already been a trajectory in my state that most national reporters hadn’t picked up on. People think of Pennsylvania as a blue state, but what everybody missed is that Pennsylvania had become just a smidge — 0.4% — more Republican every four years.”
Zito said driving through rural towns provided an insider view that couldn’t be seen from driving across the interstate.
“As I drove around those 67 counties and did interviews, 10 counties stood out to me as over-excited for Donald Trump,” she said. “I saw homemade signs, houses, and barns painted with ‘Trump’ on the side, and even a horse with ‘Trump’ painted on its side.”
These observations led to a prediction that would bring her national fame and criticism: Trump would win the 2016 election.
Senior and journalism student Isabella Redjai said she enjoyed Zito’s class.
“Zito’s lecture, in conjunction with her class, gave really down-to-earth insight about who the real American voter is,” Redjai said. “She looks beyond the opinions and views of coastal elites and is passionate about telling the stories of forgotten American voters who elected Trump in the first place. To Salena, everyone is from the ‘middle of somewhere,’ as she likes to say, and her stories on the road show what’s important to those who often aren’t given a voice by the modern media.”
Heather Tritchka, who attended the lecture because her daughter is a sophomore at Hillsdale College, said she was surprised by how much she enjoyed the lecture.
“I didn’t know who Zito was before I went to the talk, so I didn’t go with expectations,” Tritchka said. “When she started talking, I was so impressed with how relatable she was and I felt like I was talking to her personally. I didn’t even look at the clock one time and I was disappointed when the talk ended. I could’ve listened to her talk a lot longer.”
Zito still covers elections the way she did in 2016 — by going to often-forgotten but important counties and getting to know their cultures. She concluded with a piece of advice for those in any field.
“No matter what you do or where you go in life,” Zito said, “take the backroads.”