Salena Zito spoke in Plaster Audi­torium last week on issues driving the 2020 election.
Kalli Dal­rymple | Collegian

Salena Zito writes daily for the Wash­ington Examiner, weekly for the New York Post, and a monthly column for the Wall Street Journal. She was the second Eugene C. Pulliam Dis­tin­guished Vis­iting Fellow in Jour­nalism this semester.

When did your interest in jour­nalism begin? How did you get started in the industry? 

My grand­father was a newsman and his father was a newsman. So I think my interest began as a young kid, and my grand­father would bring all these news­papers from around the world home on Sundays. And I would just plough through them. I would read these news­papers from all over the country and that really sparked my interest in news. I worked in the high school news­paper. After I got married, I was a stay-at-home mom until my kids were teenagers. I did a variety of small jobs, but only when the kids were in school, and then I went back into writing in the early 2000s. I wrote a couple stories for a blog that had national impli­ca­tions and the local news­paper asked me to be a columnist. Within two weeks, they hired me full time, so I started as a columnist and then quickly became a reporter and columnist. 

You were one of the few reporters who took Trump seri­ously in 2016. What’s your pre­diction for the 2020 election and when do you think we will actually know the results? 

So 2020 is dif­ferent from 2016. I would argue that it’s also dif­ferent from 2008 and 2012, where you saw a tra­jectory of where people were going and you saw less reluc­tance of people to par­tic­ipate in polling. You under­stood that it was more likely than not that Barack Obama would win both elec­tions, both by voter sen­timent and also by polling. In 2016, you saw a dif­ferent phe­nomenon, but you still saw a tra­jectory towards Donald Trump. 

The 2020 election cycle has been a chal­lenge to predict for a variety of reasons. We’re not quite sure who people end up blaming in the voting booth for COVID-19. I think it depends on where you live. There are some people who are going to blame local offi­cials, local gov­ernors, local county offi­cials, and they will suffer in the voting booth. Some people will blame the pres­ident. So there’s the COVID-19 factor. 

Do you trust political polls?

If you look at polling, college-edu­cated voters robustly answer polls because they’re working from home. Most of them cannot wait to tell you that they’re not going to vote for Donald Trump. But with non-college-edu­cated voters or college-edu­cated voters in suburbs where there’s a mix of college and non-college edu­cated voters, you see people more reluctant to answer that question. So I think polling is off, not because the poll­sters are bad, but because they’re not getting the full uni­verse. I’m more likely to believe that this race is a jump ball, that if Joe Biden wins, it won’t be by the large numbers that people are pre­dicting. Con­versely, if Donald Trump wins, it’s probably going to be by an equally small margin. It might resemble what we saw in 2016. But I hon­estly can’t say who I think wins. But I do think that polling is a chal­lenge these days.

If polling isn’t reliable, what do you think is the best indi­cation of voter opinion?

I tend to rely on cul­tural cues. People won’t tell you directly but will tell you indi­rectly through their behavior or things that are important to them. That’s where I look: things that tend to make us want to gather around and par­tic­ipate in that are non-political, that have become political, like national sports. That’s a cul­tural cue, and the amount it has dropped off in view­ership. You would think that because a lot of us are stuck at home because of COVID, we would be rushing to watch sports because sports has always been the great con­nector. Because sports orga­ni­za­tions, in par­ticular the NBA and the NFL, have decided to become social justice war­riors, there’s a cul­tural cue in how the view­ership is down. So culture is telling us some­thing. Also, another indi­cator is the amount of people who are first time gun owners. The Second Amendment is some­thing that people have largely thought only belongs to people on the fur­thest right in our country. That’s not been true. But nonetheless, if people are pur­chasing guns, guns are not cheap, and it requires an investment of time in to learn how to use one,are they going to then go vote against their no pur­chase? So those kinds of cul­tural cues are things that put the brakes on the from saying, ‘oh, Biden’s gonna win this.’

Do you have any thoughts on the future of con­ser­v­ative pop­ulism in the U.S.?

It’s not going away. Whether Donald Trump wins or does not win, this new coalition of con­ser­v­ative pop­ulists is not going away. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. They’re not going to be the party of Mitt Romney. That’s part of who con­ser­v­a­tives are, but that’s not the whole cloth, like it used to be. And I think it’s really important that people always under­stand that Donald Trump did not cause this movement, this realignment of the Repub­lican Party. He is the result of it.

A lot of people get their news from Twitter, or other social media. Is this a good source of information? 

No, do not get your news from social media. A recent study by Pew Research Center on Twitter use, con­cluded that just 10% of users pro­duced an astounding 92% of all tweets, and 69% of the highly pro­lific users are Democrats. If you break those numbers down further, democrats that are on Twitter are pre­dom­i­nantly liberal, more so than Democrats who aren’t on Twitter. In other words, anyone reading Twitter to get their sense of what the average Democrat thinks we’ll get a skewed impression. Twitter only has 36 million daily users; that’s what Pew’s survey showed. And it also showed that there are at least 3 million people who are respon­sible for nearly all of those tweets. And so, in other words, Twitter is not a reliable place to under­stand what’s going on in American pol­itics, nor was a great way to under­stand what was going on with Brexit, not once, but twice. 

How should people follow the news?

If you’re an average person, and you really want to under­stand what each can­didate stands for, I would go on YouTube and just look at their speeches. There’s no filter there. That’s the best way of looking at the things that they say at like county fairs or at local school boards, or at a road rally. That’s without a filter. Now, speeches are usually written by someone else, but you get a sense of what’s important to this person. 

Do you have any advice for college stu­dents, specif­i­cally Hillsdale College students?

Put your phone down. That’s easier said than done. I was on Twitter for 12 years. I had 80,000 fol­lowers. I had a blue check, yet I was not a better person because of social media and I was not a better reporter. I think it’s more important to be con­nected to a com­munity than it is to be con­nected to social media. When the internet first came out, because I’m old and I know when that happened,the idea was like the Wild Wild West. It turned out to be more of a weapon, rather than a resource. I find the things that I learned in my life don’t come from social media. They don’t come from cable news. They come from life expe­ri­ences, and I would highly encourage people to be more con­nected to their com­mu­nities and less con­nected to their devices in their hands.