CNN’s John King maps out the upcoming election.
Few people know the political landscape in the United States quite like John King. Come campaign and election time, the CNN host of Inside Politics can most often be found manning his “Magic Map” to break the electorate down to the finest detail. If you were to zoom in on King’s own geographic roots, you’d arrive to the top floor of a triple decker in Dorchester, Massachusetts where he grew up. For the last ten years, King has taken refuge on Nantucket where he spends a couple weeks each summer. During the first week of June, as the country was reeling from the killing of George Floyd amid the coronavirus pandemic, N Magazine spoke to John King to get his thoughts on the upcoming election, the role of cable news, and the future of politics during the most uncertain of times in modern American history.
N MAGAZINE: What are the key lessons Joe Biden should take away from Hillary Clinton in running against Trump?
KING: One of the lessons that Joe Biden should take away from Hillary Clinton is to take nobody for granted. Hillary Clinton did not spend enough time in Detroit, Michigan; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; the African American community; or the Democratic base community around the country. Because she thought “these voters don’t like Trump, therefore I’m good.” That doesn’t mean she didn’t campaign hard—she did—but she didn’t spend enough time in some places where she should have. We saw in Wayne County, Michigan; Milwaukee County, Wisconsin; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that she won the African American vote overwhelmingly by percentages, but the turnout wasn’t where it needed to be. So she narrowly lost these states. She wins the popular vote, but Donald Trump is still the President of the United States. So the lesson has to be: take nothing for granted, take nobody for granted, especially in these volatile times. Times were volatile then, and look where we are now.
KING: It’s very hard to see him turning other “big blue things.” If you go back to the 2016 map, it was Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin that made him the President of the United States. Plus Ohio, which is a more Republican state. As we enter the summer, Ohio is actually competitive. That’s a warning sign to Donald Trump. He has plenty of time and plenty of money to try and address it, but there are signs of weakness for Trump everywhere. If he loses a Michigan and/ or a Wisconsin, where would Donald Trump get [those votes]? That’s really hard to find on a map because those were traditional blue states. What other blue states could he possibly turn to get that kind of math? Donald Trump is not going to flip Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, or California. So he is wedded very much to his 2016 map. Now he can afford to lose a state or two and still win again, but he drew to an inside straight flush in 2016. He threaded the needle just the way he had to, and their campaign deserves credit for that. He has very little margin for error this time.
N MAGAZINE: Do you think the electoral college should be abolished?
KING: I have thought about this argument a lot because I lived through Bush/Gore and I lived through 2016. In both cases you had a Republican become president, so this argument mostly comes from left-of-center people and progressives. And I get the argument: If you get the most votes, you’re supposed to win. However, there is a reason for the electoral college. Would anybody care about North Dakota or Idaho or Nebraska without it? They would get totally ignored in presidential elections. Everybody would go to Texas and California. You would find a strategy to run it up in New York, Texas, California. So I see both sides. When I get conflicted like this my general default is that the founders were pretty damn smart. I tend to default to the guys in wigs. But is there a hybrid between the electoral college and the popular vote? Could there be a two- or three-step process? I’m not smart enough to figure it out, but if we could ever have conversations in America again and could put a bunch of smart people in a room, maybe they could find a new way that honors both the popular vote and the design of the electoral college. Until then, I don’t see it changing and we’re stuck with it.
N MAGAZINE: Looking at Biden, what are his greatest weaknesses as a candidate?
KING: He’s a longtime politician and a longtime creature of Washington, D.C. Now experience can be an asset. But when people don’t trust Washington and don’t trust politicians, experience can also work against you and be a disadvantage. So he needs to convince people that his experience should not disqualify him. I think this is particularly challenging with younger people, particularly with younger people of color as the country is going through this racial reckoning. Joe Biden has some substantial, decades-long positive relationships with the African American community. He was also chairman of the judiciary committee when they passed the crime bill that a lot of younger African Americans think was part of the problem…This election to me is not a question of experience between Trump and Biden. It’s going to be a question of whether some people stay home because they think Biden is more of the same. Donald Trump is not going to win over a lot of African American voters or Latino voters or younger voters—but if they stay home, that subtraction from Biden can serve as addition for Trump.
N MAGAZINE: We’ve seen a number of big name defectors from Trump’s camp in recent weeks. If that trend continues, will Trump’s base begin to erode or will that always remain unshakable ground?
KING: Most of his base is unshakeable ground. There’s no question that there’s erosion as we enter the summer, with blue-collar workers punished by the coronavirus recession and with Evangelical Christians. That’s now, but when you have several months and almost unlimited resources to deal with your problems, seeing them is not a bad thing right now. He has time to fix these things. Most of his base is rock solid, but he cannot afford to lose much.
N MAGAZINE: Can Trump win with his base alone?
KING: No, he can’t. His base gets him close. He did reasonably well in the suburbs in 2016, but he has lost them since. The president needs to make up ground in the suburbs. If he doesn’t, he will not get reelected. He doesn’t have to get it all back, but he needs to get most of it back. If you’re thinking nationally, look at his approval rating throughout his presidency. It goes from 38-39 percent to 45-46 percent, with one or two blips above that. But he has generally operated between a 42 and 45 line since day one of his presidency—and that’s his base. You can’t win with 40 percent of the vote. Trump bends the rules and has defied the laws of gravity of politics for most of the time that he’s been in the national spotlight as a politician, but I do not think he can win with his base alone as of today.
N MAGAZINE: We’re all aware of Trump’s shortcomings, but what can we credit him for doing well as president?
KING: He’s kept his party loyal. He’s proven that he can keep Republicans disciplined by and large. We’re beginning to see some potential cracks in that, but his ability to keep people in line has allowed him to do the things that he wants to do. You can agree or disagree with what he’s doing, but the fact is he has done that. This town needed to be disrupted. Donald Trump is the great disrupter. I think you can make a pretty good argument that the way he disrupted it with the exception of the criminal justice reform bill—has not resulted in any big bipartisan achievements of the Trump presidency and that’s a shame. Donald Trump did not start polarization or Washington dysfunction and bipartisanship—but it seems like he’s put everything on steroids, including the pre-existing problem as it comes to politics. The President has changed the face and the course of the federal judiciary in a way we will see for twenty-five years or more. His critics don’t like it, but this is a giant legacy achievement far beyond the scope of what his recent predecessors were able to do.
N MAGAZINE: Trump’s election caught most people by surprise. What lessons did CNN learn from covering the last election that will be implemented this time around?
KING: There are some urban legends or myths about 2016 where people think that the polling was wrong. The polling wasn’t wrong. The polling in the end got tighter in both the national polls and state polls. Donald Trump’s momentum in those states continued. The late national polls said that Hillary Clinton was going to win the election. She did win in the national polls— she won in the popular vote. So those polls weren’t wrong. If we learned anything from 2016 it’s to use national polls as a general benchmark of momentum—do not use them to say who is winning the election. That’s not how we pick a president. We have to spend more time state by state. We need to spend less time on polls and more time with people. For all the big data in the world, politics is still about people. As a reporter, I can sit here and read every poll, every piece of data, look at every ad, but the most valuable thing covering politics is to get your ass in the car and go into small-town America, suburban America and listen. Not talk—listen.
KING: I hope so. I hope that both the coronavirus and the situation we’re in with the George Floyd killing should be examples of that. I am an old AP wire reporter. That’s my training. I’m an old, get-all-sides-of-the-story, just-get-the-facts kind of guy. I’m not perfect, but that’s my approach. I know what other networks do in prime time and that’s their business mod- el and they have every right to the First Amendment. I’m not criticizing them; it’s just not for me. CNN is not perfect and I’m not claiming perfection for CNN, but if you look at the coronavirus coverage and you look at the coverage now of the reckoning in the wake of the George Floyd killing, I do think you are starting to see more conversation. I think it’s really important to just listen. To invite diverse guests on television, let them tell their stories, and just listen. Will this be a tipping point? I don’t know.
N MAGAZINE: Based on what the country looks like today, what are going to be some of the key systematic issues you see coming into play with the election?
KING: There are going to be enormous preparations for mail-in balloting, what some people call absentee balloting. Come November, it’s a reasonable expectation that some people will still not want to go out and get in a line to vote. They want to vote from their home. The President of the United States thinks that’s an invitation for fraud. The President of the United States is wrong on that point. Mail-in voting has been done for a long time in a lot of places. The people there will tell you that it increases participation and it has very, very, very low instances of fraud. The president is going to rail against that until the last minute, but I do think you’re going to see almost every state take steps to increase mail-in voting.
N MAGAZINE: Where do we find ourselves as a country today?
KING: We are in the middle of constant change, which can be incredibly frustrating because it’s exhausting. Whether it’s the global economy, the polarization of our politics, the advances of technology—we’ re at a time where it’s hard to find a North Star. And because our politics have become small, there’s not a lot of leaders out there who are pointing to a North Star. There’s so much change going on that people are understandably fascinated and understandably frightened all at the same moment. And then you throw a pandemic in the middle of it. So we’re living in the age of the great unknown. But we’re also living in an age of discovery.
This interview has been edited and condensed due to space limitations.