Presidential Election Coverage: Sheelah Kolhatkar
September 15, 2012 —
Sheelah Kolhatkar is a features editor and national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek, where she writes features and investigative stories about Wall Street and national politics. She has been a contributor to Time Magazine, New York Magazine and The Atlantic, and regularly appears on TV news programs as a commentator.
After spending several years as a risk arbitrage analyst at two hedge funds in New York City, Kolhatkar’s first presidential campaign assignment as a journalist was the coverage of then-Senator Hillary Clinton at the 2004 Democratic National Convention for the New York Observer. At this year’s Republican National Convention, Kolhatkar gained unique insight into Republican fundraising strategies when she was invited to a private fundraiser hosted by veteran campaign strategist Karl Rove.
IWMF: What aspect of the 2012 presidential election do you find most interesting?
Kolhatkar: The part I find most remarkable is the role that money is playing in this year’s election. Because of a series of court decisions and regulatory rule changes, we’ve seen a huge increase in spending by outside groups, like Super PACs and 501(c)(4), so-called “social welfare” organizations, which are funneling millions of dollars into campaign advertising. It seems that most of that money is going to running ads against Democrats, as the Republican groups have raised much more than the Democratic-leaning ones. Some of the numbers are quite astonishing. By one estimate, these outside groups have spent $500 million so far in this election cycle – and that doesn’t include the many hundreds of millions of dollars the campaigns themselves have raised and are spending. There are some people who think that outside groups could end up spending a billion dollars over the whole cycle. It says a lot about the way that Washington works and why it’s as dysfunctional as it is.
IWMF: Some believe that televised presidential debates do little in changing the outcome of presidential elections – while others are convinced that debates do more to sway voters than all the ads money can buy. What do you think?
Kolhatkar: I think the debates are important because there aren’t that many opportunities to hear the candidates speak in a substantive way without any filtering and spinning. As for determining the outcome of the election – at this point, the campaigns are focusing on undecided voters. A lot of research has been done on these people by outside groups and by the campaigns.
In general, undecided voters are believed to be people who may have voted for President Obama last time and may be predisposed to liking him, but are not necessarily happy with the way the economy is going. I think those are exactly the kinds of people who may be watching the debates with great interest and might actually be persuaded one way or the other.
IWMF: Looking at the secretly taped Mitt Romney video that went viral last week, how big of a role does modern technology play in this election, as it seems to enable supporters and opponents alike to publicly share every word uttered by the presidential candidates?
Kolhatkar: Technology has become hugely important. Not only because everyone has the ability to record something, and instantly disseminate it using their smart phones but also because it’s so easy for statements that candidates make to become viral and get attention really quickly through social networks and YouTube. I think that this has led to a real closing off of political candidates. They have become much more careful about saying something that could be used against them. So there are pros and cons to modern technology: access to candidates has become a bit more restricted, while there is a lot more dissemination of information and there are many more sources of information – which is good.
IWMF: Issues that are of particular interest to women, such as the various aspects of women’s reproductive health, are playing an increasing role in this year’s election campaigns. Is this controversy a step forward because it turns the spotlight on women’s issues, or is it a step backward because some of the debated opinions are perceived as reactionary?
Kolhatkar: You could argue that both of statements are true. Frankly, I’m surprised that there isn’t more debate about women’s issues and that it isn’t more substantive – given the impact of women voters on the outcome of the election, since they make up 50% of the population. Some of the conversations seem to be rehashing issues that women thought were resolved a long time ago. On the other hand, more conversation about these issues is generally a good thing.
IWMF: Until this year, only one woman has ever moderated a televised presidential debate – and that was 20 years ago. In your opinion, why do women have such a hard time breaking this glass ceiling?
Kolhatkar: I was a little shocked to learn that there had previously only been one female debate moderator. At least we do have one this year and hopefully that’s a sign of more to come. Women have made huge inroads in journalism. But the fact is that most of the decision-makers at major news organizations are still overwhelmingly male and there seem to be fewer women involved in covering subjects that are considered to be more “serious” like politics, foreign policy and war.
I think it’s hard to isolate the precise reasons; it’s a mix of factors. If I were to give advice to a woman starting out in journalism, I would urge her to resist the pressure to fall into the more typical female subjects and to try and be really ambitious and push into the areas of journalism that don’t yet see a full representation of women.