By:
August 1, 2022

If you closely follow national elections on TV, you know this guy: Steve Kornacki.

The MSNBC/NBC News analyst, all hopped up on Diet Coke and wearing his trademark khakis and rolled up sleeves, stands in front of the big map and furiously yet assuredly brings viewers everything they need to know about the votes. Big cities, small towns, counties in the middle of nowhere? Kornacki has the numbers — and the why and how behind those numbers.

He’s become something of a cult figure for political junkies.

It feels like he’s been around forever. But this November’s midterms will be Kornacki’s fifth national election night for MSNBC. Over that time, two things in particular have changed since his first night in front of the big board during the 2014 midterms.

One, the interest in politics and elections has ramped up, especially since Donald Trump entered the political arena. And two, elections are conducted differently, with wrinkles such as early voting and voting by mail.

“It has really transformed how the vote count happens in most states,” Kornacki told me during a phone interview late last week.

Once upon a time, the polls closed at 7 p.m. and by the 11 p.m. news, you had a winner. Nowadays, with various forms of voting, the count might take days.

“I don’t think of it as election night,” Kornacki said. “I think of it as election week.”

And Kornacki’s election week doesn’t start in November. He’s already hard at work now. In fact, tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern on MSNBC, Kornacki will host “Decision 2022: Countdown to Midterms.” It’s part of NBC News ramping up coverage with just 100 days until midterms. Already the election season is in full swing with primaries, including many in the month of August.

But again, to be clear, he’s more than someone adding up numbers and pointing at a map. He’s helping to explain where votes are coming from, why they are coming in when they are, and why a candidate’s lead might shift from way ahead to far behind over the course of hours or days.

This is not an overstatement: At a time when so many cast doubts on the legitimacy of elections, Kornacki plays a key part in defending our democracy.

“That’s a huge part of it and I feel that, definitely,” Kornacki said. “There are a lot of places where I think there is almost an unreasonable burden that has been placed on the public to try to understand the pattern or results. … The bottom line is that the average voter tuning in to find out who won an election in a lot of states is going to get understandably confused watching these wild swings that can take place. And trying to understand how it can take days for the votes to come in and trying to make sense why three days after the election has taken place, there’s still a hundred thousands votes from X county yet to come out.”

Kornacki continued, “I make it a priority to really try to understand on my own exactly what the nuances are in every state and every county.”

He then takes those nuances — hundreds of them — and shares them with the viewers, explaining why you might see an extreme shift in the tabulation of votes, and ultimately, why an election is legitimate.

He also has a good sense of how things might turn out, and already has a feel for this November based on what we’ve seen so far in the primaries. Turnout for Republicans in the primaries has increased a lot more than it has for the Democrats. The 2018 primaries were just the opposite and, Kornacki said, “It ended up being a portent of the blue wave that November.”

The trend this year could bode well for Republicans come November.

“Traditionally the most dependable marker heading into a midterm is the president’s approval rating,” Kornacki said.

Right now, President Joe Biden’s numbers are way down, falling below 40%.

“If you were somehow to move into the mid- to high 40s,” Kornacki said, “the Democrat prospects would increase dramatically. But right now what the Democrats are trying to pull off is something that’s, historically, kind of without precedent in modern times.”

That, too, bodes poorly for Democrats.

“What Democrats are trying to pull off is they believe there is a slice of the electorate that is skeptical of the Republican Party, but very disappointed with Biden,” Kornacki said, “and they’re trying to find messages that will get those voters to the polls more motivated to vote against Republicans than to vote against Biden.”

That message could center around several hot-button topics — issues that have always been at the forefront of politics but have taken on even greater significance in recent months: guns, the economy and, especially, abortion.

As far as the battle for Congress, Kornacki said Republicans have a strong hand in House races, so he is concentrating more on the Senate — especially races in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Wisconsin, which he said, “could be the closest race in the country.”

“Are we looking at an election where it’s going to be suspenseful in November — is it going to come down to one state that decides the whole Senate?” Kornacki said. “Or is something going to happen in the next few months that is going to just break this campaign open?”

Whatever happens, Kornacki and his big map will track it.

Making the rounds

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin pulled off a rare accomplishment on Sunday. Manchin is believed to be the 31st person to appear on all five Sunday morning news shows. The first to do it was William Ginsburg, the lawyer for Monica Lewinsky, back in February of 1998. The most recent, before Manchin, was Dr. Anthony Fauci in March of 2020 when COVID-19 was starting to take hold in the United States. So as you can see, it takes a major newsmaker or notable event for one person to make the rounds on all the Sunday morning shows.

Many have been quick to point out that modern technology made Manchin’s trip around the airwaves much easier Sunday. Instead of appearing in the studio of the five shows, as many others have, Manchin did all his appearances via remote from one studio. He, by the way, is getting over COVID-19.

Manchin was mainly on the shows to talk about the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 —  the climate, health-care, taxes bill that will accomplish many of the things that Biden pushed in the Build Back Better plan. That plan was shot down in large part because of Manchin.

But let’s get to what Manchin said that really made news Sunday. Or, rather, what he didn’t say. Manchin danced around the question about whether or not he would support Biden as the presidential nominee in 2024. When asked by ABC’s Jonathan Karl on “This Week,” Manchin said, “Everybody’s worried about the election. That’s the problem. It’s a 2022 election, 2024 election. I’m not getting involved …”

When Karl interrupted and said it was a simple question, Manchin said, “It’s not. I’m not getting involved in that, Jon. I’m really not.”

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” moderator Chuck Todd asked Manchin if he wanted to see Democrats retain control in Congress. Manchin said he thought people were sick and tired of politics. When Todd pushed him on whether he wanted Democrats to remain in control, Manchin said, “I’m not making those choices or decisions on that. I’m going to work with whatever I have. I’ve always said that. I think the Democrats have great candidates that are running. They’re good people I’ve worked with. And I have a tremendous amount of respect and friendship with my Republican colleagues. So I can work on either side very easily.”

Bedingfield staying

White House communications director Kate Bedingfield in a photo from March. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

In somewhat surprising news, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield announced she will remain in her job less than a month after she announced she was leaving.

The New York Times’ Peter Baker reported Bedingfield began having second thoughts after her original decision and was asked to stay by Biden and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klein. Bedingfield told staff in an email, “The work is too important and too energizing and I have a lot of gas left in the tank.”

Puck senior political correspondent Tara Palmeri wondered on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” if the White House had trouble finding someone to replace Bedingfield and added that it “… just suggests to me that people don’t think they’re going to be working in the Biden administration for more than two more years.”

Murdoch and Trump

Still plenty of conversation going on about whether or not media mogul Rupert Murdoch is backing away from former President Donald Trump. Two of his properties — The Wall Street Journal and New York Post — wrote editorials criticizing Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

But what about Fox News? I’m in the seeing-is-believing camp and I have yet to see Fox News really show that it has turned on Trump. Then again, are we seeing subtle signs?

The New York Times’ Jeremy W. Peters notes, “It’s been more than 100 days since Donald J. Trump was interviewed on Fox News.”

And that could be getting under Trump’s skin. Peters writes, “In the former president’s view, according to two people who have spoken to him recently, Fox’s ignoring him is an affront far worse than running stories and commentary that he has complained are ‘too negative.’ The network is effectively displacing him from his favorite spot: the center of the news cycle.”

Meanwhile, The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison and Jeremy Barr wrote, “Murdoch’s support for Trump has been crucial to his political career and at times to his efforts to reverse his 2020 election loss. But as Trump inches closer to a third presidential run under the glare of criminal, civil and governmental investigations, multiple associates of Murdoch told The Washington Post that it appears he has lost his enthusiasm for Trump.”

Ellison and Barr added, “Murdoch associates say his frustrations with Trump have only grown; the two have barely spoken since Trump left office. But Murdoch’s reputation for pragmatism and Trump’s political durability make it hard to say for sure where their relationship will end up.”

On Sunday’s “Reliable Sources,” CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy put it best when he said, “I think it’s unlikely that Fox will ever explicitly come out against Donald Trump, but what they can do is they can dim the spotlight that they have put on him over the years. And they can shine the spotlight a little brighter on other candidates like (Florida Gov.) Ron DeSantis. I think that’s what you’re seeing them do.”

It should be noted that on his Fox News “MediaBuzz” show Sunday, host Howie Kurtz said, “I can report, there is no edict whatsoever against having Trump on this network.”

Kurtz added that he has invited Trump to come on his show, saying, “I have reached out myself with an invitation some weeks ago and people close to the former president confirmed he has not said yes to any Fox show or been turned down after asking to be on a Fox show, just for the record.”

Death of a legend

Basketball great and social activist Bill Russell died Sunday. He was 88.

On the court, Russell is among the greatest players to ever live, and some make a strong case that he is the most impactful player of all time. He won 11 championships in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics in the late 1950s and 1960s and was a five-time league most valuable player. He also is considered, perhaps, the best defensive player to ever play. In 1966 while still playing, Russell became the first Black coach in NBA history. He went on to lead Boston to two NBA titles as a player-coach.

His impact off the court might have been greater as he was a leading figure on civil rights. As The New York Times’ Richard Goldstein wrote, “He took part in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was seated in the front row of the crowd to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. He went to Mississippi after the civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered and worked with Evers’s brother, Charles, to open an integrated basketball camp in Jackson. He was among a group of prominent Black athletes who supported Muhammad Ali when Ali refused induction into the armed forces during the Vietnam War.”

In The Washington Post, Louie Estrada wrote, “Amid the celebration of his prowess as a player, Mr. Russell also struggled with the festering problems of prejudice and segregation. Born in the Jim Crow South, he was often described as private, introspective, prickly and principled, a man who searched for ways, as he once wrote in a book introduction, for his children to grow up ‘as we could not … equal … and understanding.’”

For more, be sure to check out John Powers’ story in the Boston Globe and this appreciation from the Associated Press’ Tim Reynolds. There are certain to be more tributes and appreciations in the coming days from, in particular, Boston sports columnists, and I’ll try to pass them along this week.

Media tidbits

(Photo courtesy of NBC News)

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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