Steve Kornacki‘s interest in politics was cemented in the late 1980s/early ’90s, back when George H.W. Bush was president.
“There was a school project in 6th grade, back in middle school in Massachusetts,” Kornacki told TVNewser. “There was a governor’s race going on, and we had a mock election in our class. I played one of the candidates, and the whole experience captured my interest. Politics is something I’ve really followed ever since then.”
26 years later Kornacki put his interests in “geography, statistics, demographics, and maps,” to good use during campaign 2016 especially on election night.
“Hillary Clinton was getting the numbers as we expected [in South Florida]. The exit polls looked spot on, and she was up by around +100,000 votes at one point. A few minutes later, more precincts come in and suddenly that +100,000 vote lead goes down to +4,000, which caught my attention,” said Kornacki. “That was a trigger moment. I started looking at North Carolina and how Trump suddenly took the lead there, and then I see Virginia looking far closer than we thought it would be. Alarm bells began to go off in my head. I thought she would end up being in more trouble in the Rust Belt states and Wisconsin, which is what happened. I had been planning to talk about all of these senate races throughout the night, but sort of neglected to do so because of the craziness of what was happening on the presidential side.
Kornacki has learned to pivot several times in his career. From covering rough and tumble New Jersey politics, to writing for Salon, Kornacki began appearing on The Rachel Maddow Show in 2010. That turned that into a co-hosting gig on the network’s daytime show The Cycle. In 2013 Kornacki began a 2-year stint hosting the weekend morning show Up. He now hosts the network’s 4 p.m. ET hour while working on a book about politics in the 1990s.
TVNewser: We’re obviously at the very beginning of a new administration, but it seems like a Groundhog Day-like cycle is developing here: President says something provocative and/or false; media expresses outrage, reporters probe the press secretary about it; rinse and repeat.
Kornacki: This is becoming an extension of Trump’s campaign. Media folks are still expressing shock or surprise about his style or technique. We shouldn’t be surprised anymore. This is how he operates. A major lesson I think he has taken from the campaign is that this style works. I imagine at a human level there is an incredible sense of validation, a burst of self-confidence that comes from pulling off something everyone was saying couldn’t be done, and I think that probably includes people around him. I have to imagine because he heard that message being delivered to him in a thousand different ways throughout the campaign, and then won anyway, means that he won’t change.
I think there’s a collective risk on the part of the media in almost going too far in trying to correct or counter or rebut everything that is coming out. It’s a tough spot for the media to be in.
I hate using the term ‘elites’ because I don’t even really know what that means, but we have never had in modern times such a clear divide between elites and a populist movement. Even many Republican elites, including think-tank voices, beltway strategists and pundits, were anti-Trump. The media needs to be a little more self-reflective about how much of the conversation in this country we have actually been capturing in our coverage because Trump has obviously exposed a pretty big blind spot.
TVNewser: You covered New Jersey politics early in your career. Talk about the Chris Christie-Donald Trump relationship.
Kornacki: It comes down to Jared Kushner. The strong impression I get is that as long as Jared Kushner has Donald Trump’s ear, Chris Christie is not going to get a big prize from this administration. I covered Christie indicting [Jared’s father] Charles Kushner, and I remember the reaction from Kushner’s circle. This is a family that has a lot of ties and very influential friends throughout New Jersey. Their belief has always been that Chris Christie went out of his way to publicly humiliate Charles Kushner in order to get headlines for himself to further his own political career. It started out as a campaign finance case with straw donors, but that wasn’t going to make the front page of the New York Post. What would make the front page was if he could bring prostitutes into it, and secret video tapes and blackmail. Christie had to invoke this 100 year-old statute in order to bring this other aspect into it. That turned it into a big time New York tabloid story. And what I also know about the Kushner family is that they don’t forget.
TVNewser: You are known for your love of game shows, including that recurring segment on Up. Would you like to host or produce a game show in the future?
Kornacki: My big wish these past two years is that the game show segment would have taken off a little bit more and become its own thing. I loved doing that, and I appreciate you bringing it up. I loved the idea of combining current events and politics with putting pundits to the test a little bit. I liked that angle and I thought people might like that too. I grew up watching those 1980s game shows that would be on in the afternoons. While it was fun, I also tried to treat it as a serious thing, and I wanted it to be a real competition. I had an incredible amount of fun with that, and frankly I always hoped that we could turn it into a prime time special or make it into a weekly program or something.