MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki has been covering midterm elections since before he could drive. He was 15 years old when he went on public access television in his hometown of Groton, Massachusetts, to talk about the 1994 midterms on his segment “Political Corner.” That year happened to be an explosive one for politics—Newt Gingrich led the Republicans to control of the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years—and Kornacki says the reverberations are still being felt today.
“The 94 elections are…in a lot of ways, the origin story of politics as we know it today,” Kornacki told me last week. “Ninety-four is the dawning of the age of truly nationalized politics, and that's the world we've been living in ever since.”
Kornacki’s new podcast The Revolution with Steve Kornacki, which reexamines the ‘94 midterms, premieres today, just as the NBC News and MSNBC national political correspondent gears up for what will likely be the most-watched midterm election of all time.
Kornacki took a break from studying election maps and Big Board run-throughs last week to talk to us about the aftermath of 2020, how the 2022 midterms are unlike any he’s ever seen, and which races he’s watching most closely. (The following has been edited for length and clarity.)
Esquire: Can you start off by talking a bit about why now for the podcast and how you see ’94 relating to 2022?
Kornacki: Tip O'Neill [speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987] is famous for saying all politics is local. And it was absolutely true in his day. You would look around the Congress in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, and you would see liberal Republicans from the Northeast, the conservative Democrats from the South, etc. The parties didn't have the kind of clear geographic and demographic and ideological coherence that they now do. Ninety-four was really a turning point where it was a truly nationalized midterm election. It was historic, and it was shocking.
Esquire: How do the midterms feel different this year, though—specifically in the wake of 2020, allegations of voter fraud, the insurrection, and conspiracy theories?
Kornacki: Yeah, it's different. This year feels different—and so was 2018. If I had a time machine and went back 20 years and said, You're gonna have 115 million people vote in the 2018 midterms, and you're potentially going to have between 120 and 130 million people vote in the 2022 midterms, nobody would have believed it. But when I talk about this age of nationalized politics, this is a big part of it. People who ignored [politics] 20 years ago, it's now a significant part of their lives. In my personal life, I know people who probably back in college could tell you who the president was and that was about it. Now they know who's running in, you know, Georgia. The thing that sticks out the most to me, though, is just the raw numbers of people participating in these elections now. It's amazingly high.
Esquire: In terms of what we've seen since 2020, does that change how you plan to cover these midterms and how you will explain the returns to viewers?
Kornacki: I view the challenge the same as it was in 2020 and 2018, and that is just simply that voting and election returns have become more complicated, because there's been a dramatic expansion in the ways people can vote. The availability of early voting and the availability of voting by mail has resulted, in some cases, in very long and protracted [periods for results]. I think, to the casual observer, there are some very confusing patterns. Watching the results come in, there can be some wild, dramatic swings. The challenge for me is just understanding in each state, in each county, the mechanical processes of how they report the votes and in what order so that I can narrate for viewers when they're seeing these seemingly dramatic swings in the vote returns. And that's something that, 10 years ago, really wasn't a part of Election Night. Ten years ago, the vast majority of votes were just kept in-person at the polls. Most Election Nights, you knew within a few hours how everything had sifted out. Now there's a lot more potential for these things to be drawn out over a couple of days and for different batches of votes to come in at different times and dramatically swing things. I need to be ready to communicate that on the fly to viewers.
Esquire: Yeah, and then there are also these changes to the process that are happening in real time, like hand counts in Nevada. Are you constantly studying these changes and getting ready for how you're going to explain them?
Kornacki: That's exactly it: trying to be aware of what the process looks like in every state, every county. And sometimes within the county, it differs by city. Honestly, I have logs from 2020 of every vote update we received from every state. And so I'm spending a lot of time going through those logs and trying to understand, OK, this is what happened at this time. Why did this happen? I’m trying to understand the rhythm of the night.
Esquire: Do you think legal challenges are going to be a big part of the coverage for these midterms?
Kornacki: It could be. That could happen in the days and weeks after the election. I've got my mind on the possibility of automatic recounts—in many states, if they're close enough, you get recounts. The other thing is, Georgia could do a run-off again for the Senate race, and we could be in a scenario where control of the Senate comes down to Georgia and a runoff in December. That's not at all impossible.
Esquire: After 2020, you were the face of the Big Board and election numbers. And there were so many conspiracy theories swirling around about the election. I’m curious if people were coming up to you, either in your personal life or on the street, asking you about, for example, the voting process or the tabulation process?
Kornacki: Not too many people were coming up to me in the street in 2020, because they were all quarantined. But what you're describing is what I felt then and feel now is the biggest challenge on the air.
I try to think of it from the standpoint of a voter or viewer—whether it's a Democrat or Republican—who has a sort of general good faith, who votes and participates in civic life. The way votes are counted now in some states, and the way that election bureaucracy works in some states, I think, creates needless confusion for voters of good faith from both parties. Part of my role is trying to think of that viewer and trying to make sure I can explain as best I can what is happening at any given moment. Because in some of these states it can be very complex, and it wasn't complex a decade ago. It's a democracy we all get to participate in, but I do think it can be a bit much to insist that every voter understand the ins and outs, and the detailed mechanics of the election vote-counting process drawn out over days and weeks.
Esquire: Can you talk about the challenge of covering actual voting interference and restrictions after bad-faith complaints about voter fraud? I know you're the numbers person, but how do you provide that kind of context to the numbers?
Kornacki: From my standpoint, it's just straight ahead. I keep covering the numbers, the results, and I explain the minute-by-minute of what you're seeing and why you're seeing it. On Election Night—or election week, if that happens—I'm not aware of a lot of the other stuff I become more aware of after the election. So to me, I’m just focused on being as thorough, accurate, and understandable as I can on-air.
Esquire: Let’s talk about polls. Are you more skeptical about them after 2020 and 2016? Have you changed how you incorporate them into your coverage?
Kornacki: Yeah, there's good reason to be skeptical. There are long-term issues with polling response rate—people not picking up the phone. We still show them. The key for us is to acknowledge the misses we've seen in recent elections and to explain, Hey, if we have a similar miss this time, here's what it could mean.
The big polling misses have not been uniform or even. It hasn’t all happened the same way across the country. In Georgia, for instance, polling has not been bad—it's actually been pretty good in the last couple of years. But polling in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa has generally been way off. There's been a more specific issue with the polling, in terms of getting a certain type of voter that is a very big part of the demographic makeup of those states—white voters without college degrees—and there's all sorts of theories and debates about why pollsters have missed them…When you miss them in those states, it can really throw your numbers off.
Esquire: There's been a lot of talk about Pennsylvania and Georgia in the lead-up to these midterms. But are there any other states that you're looking at or particular races that you think might be a surprise on Election Night?
Kornacki: I didn't think New York would be suspenseful, and now I am keeping an eye on Election Night to see if there's something developing there. The Michigan governor's race is one that over the summer didn't seem like it was going to be competitive, and there's now some polling suggesting it may be. So Michigan's kind of on the radar now.
Esquire: We're now in the final countdown to the midterms and early votes are starting to come in. Can you lay out what your next week and a half is going to be like? Are you in the zone?
Kornacki: It's kind of like knowing the final exam is coming up. I'm drawing a lot of maps and looking through a lot of spreadsheets, and we're doing some election tests with the board. We basically run simulations—that's a big part of it. This is usually the part of the election season when I look at the calendar and say, Geez, I wish Election Day were a month from now so I'd have a month to prepare. I know that that makes me different from just about everybody out there who's sick to death of it, but I could go for another month just for the prep.
You Might Also Like