Primary Instincts

Primary Instincts

KTVU political editor Randy Shandobil predicts unpredictability.

When I asked longtime Emmy award–winning KTVU political editor Randy Shandobil to make some predictions as to the winners in next month’s California primary elections, he was a little hesitant—and with good reason. As Shandobil points out, four years ago the keepers of “the conventional wisdom” had already handed firebrand Vermont governor Howard Dean the Democratic nomination and a key to the White House. One cold January night in Des Moines, that all came literally screeching to a halt. “Yeaararh!!!” While it’s doubtful that any of today’s polished front- runners will have a “Dean scream” meltdown, Shandobil says the political environment today is highly volatile and can turn on a dime. Shandobil wouldn’t provide a tip-sheet on next month’s races (except to say that New Mexico governor Bill Richardson was a shoe-in for the Democratic VP slot because he’s Latino and hasn’t offended anybody). But he did say that primary voters (as opposed to general election voters) tend to really look at the candidate’s platform, not just the cut of their jib. Over a cup of tea leaves, Shandobil and I talked some election smack.

Paul Kilduff: Is this the most important election ever what with no incumbents and Iraq? Do you get a sense that that’s how a lot of people feel?

Randy Shandobil: I think a lot of people do feel that way, but I think a lot of people felt that way in 2004. It certainly is a very important election. There’s a lot at stake not only in Iraq, but in the whole Middle East and a lot of things have changed in the Bush years that many people think should change back . . . some people don’t think should change back. But yes it’s extremely important. Since there’s no incumbent or Vice President running, it’s more unique and more wide open and more interesting. I don’t think that changes the importance any. If Dick Cheney were running it would still be as important an election as it is, it would just change the political dynamics. Perhaps people are more involved and are interested in it because there’s more new faces involved. There’s less certainty. Usually when an incumbent Vice President is running that party’s nomination is pretty much settled. That’s obviously not the case here.

PK: Can one candidate effectively address health care, Social Security reform, the mortgage collapse and Iraq? Do they each have position papers and plans for all those things?

RS: Well they all think so. Historically people have complained that there weren’t enough debates. I’m sure this time people are complaining that there are too many. Most debates have not been watched because they seem to be on twice a month, three times a month, for each party. I think more so than in previous years, the candidates have been forthcoming with details. It’s just that there are so many candidates in each party running at this point that it’s hard for people—including me—to weigh in and sift through those details. I think there’s an improvement in the process, it’s just that ironically because there are so many debates and because there are so many candidates, I don’t think it’s penetrating as much as it has in the past.

PK: But it seems like when candidates get specific, they don’t do well. Senator Joe Biden, for example, is the only one I’m aware of who advocates dividing Iraq up into three separate states. Does being specific turn off voters?

RS: If you’re vague, you theoretically can please everybody. I don’t think that’s the problem with Biden. If you think about the candidates who are the front-runners, they were the front-runners pretty much before they announced. It’s name ID to some extent and it’s excitement. From the very beginning on the Democratic side people knew that Hillary Clinton would be a force to reckon with, that Barack Obama was creating all kinds of excitement and buzz across the nation and that John Edwards was a very articulate person who did well in the previous run and would also be a factor this time. And the rap on Biden: certainly he is intelligent, certainly he does come forth with specific answers. One, he ran before 20 years ago and had this unfortunate issue with plagiarism which he’s tried to put behind him and two, I think there’s a certain way that he comes across—if you watch his subcommittees and committees that he chairs—he runs on a lot. He continues to talk and sometimes it seems like he’s talking about himself rather than talking about the issue. Now that’s not to say that he’s really that way, but I think there’s something a bit off-putting about him to voters in states where he’s not known.

PK: Kind of a blowhard in the same vein as our own beloved Pete Stark?

RS: I don’t know if he’s a Pete Stark blowhard because Pete Stark often says things that he regrets or at least the senior party members wish he would regret. Joseph Biden, I don’t know that he’s necessarily a blowhard because he usually has substance to back up what he’s saying. It’s just that he goes on and on and on and sometimes I think to the casual viewer, the casual voter dropping in on the debate, they just might get the feeling that boy, this guy thinks a lot of himself. When he talks about Iraq, he says, “Well the last time I was there and I visited this many time. . . .” And that all may be true, but I just think he reminds people of his credentials a bit too much.

PK: Sounds like what you’re saying is that the leaders—Clinton, Obama, Edwards—are all very polished. They’re all very charismatic. Far more than Joe Biden. Does that play into my contention that at the end of the day it’s more a popularity contest than anything else? You’ve got to really love these people to sit up in the nose-bleed seats at a convention with a straw hat screaming your head off. That’s like being fan of a team. If you can’t get worked up that way, can you really be involved in the process?

RS: Well, they certainly want to get you involved. As for the popularity contest aspect of it, yes that’s undeniably true. But I would say it’s less true in the nomination process than it is the general election. It does seem to me to some extent voters in individual parties in primaries make decisions based upon positions and how they truly feel about what kind of leader the person would be, more so than voters do in a general election. This is a television world. Looks, personality, how you feel about someone—that does come into play but I think it really comes into play in a general election. For example I don’t think one could argue that John Kerry was the most likeable, charismatic Democrat running last time yet he emerged as the nominee. Now on the other hand… you can go all the way back to 1960 and almost without exception the more likeable candidate is the candidate that wins the general election. Who would you want to hang out at a barbecue with? Who would you want to share a beer with? Let’s look backward for a moment. George W. Bush or John Kerry? I know what a lot of people in the Bay Area think about George W. Bush’s politics, but who would you want to hang out with at a party? Who would you want to talk sports with?

PK: Who would you want to go to a strip club with?

RS: I’ll leave that to you. George W. Bush or Al Gore? Then you go back before that Bill Clinton or Bob Dole? Clinton or the first George Bush? Clinton was the more warm, approachable guy. Bush the first seemed probably a bit more everyday and likeable than Michael Dukakis. Certainly Ronald Reagan won in part because he was likeable. In fact, going all the way back to 1960, the only true exception I can think of would be Hubert Humphrey . . . Those old enough to remember could argue that he was probably a more likeable guy than Richard Nixon.

PK: And certainly Jimmy Carter had a lot more charisma than Gerald Ford.

RS: Oh well that was kind of a draw. Hubert Humphrey was probably more likeable than Richard Nixon but that was 1968 and everything was crazy and Humphrey had the unfortunate timing of running in a year when there were riots outside the convention in Chicago where he was nominated. He had some baggage going into the general election that wasn’t necessarily all his doing.

PK: Is Hillary going to be the Democratic nominee?

RS: If you were to ask me today is Hillary Clinton the most likely person to emerge with the nomination in the Democratic Party? Yes. Is she the almost sure thing that many Democrats and analysts think she is? I don’t think so. Not because of anything that has to do with her so much as it has to do with history on the Democratic side, which is that things always change. Democrats as a group tend to be more open to change and tend to challenge things even to some extent, challenge the polls, whereas I think Republicans by definition are almost more comfortable with the status quo, I think that on the Democratic side an air of inevitability can work against you and I think looking back four years, the Howard Dean factor—I recall a week or two before the Iowa caucus, I remember I was doing a story on California Deaniacs. Remember them?

PK: Yes. And let’s not forget my personal favorites, the Deanie Babies.

RS: There was a bunch of young Howard Dean supporters, college students, young people, who were gathering in the East Bay to get on an Amtrak train for Iowa to campaign for Howard Dean in Iowa. And I recall at the time thinking, boy that’s bad news for Dean. I don’t know how people in Iowa are going to react to some young people coming from California to Iowa to tell them what to do. I think people in Iowa want to decide things for themselves especially because they’re so invested in the process for so much longer than we here in California . . . and I think when they see a bunch of young people from one candidate or another coming in, or a bunch of supporters for someone else coming in from another part of the state, or the media giving the stamp of inevitability to one candidate or another, there’s certainly a chance in Iowa that people will revolt and say, “No you’re not deciding for me.” I was at an Obama rally in San Francisco. And they were gathering young people to prepare to go to Iowa and I was thinking to myself, boy that might be a mistake. I don’t know that if as we approach Iowa, if Obama does indeed close the gap and have some momentum, I don’t know that he’d want to bring in young people from outside into Iowa. I just don’t know that Iowa voters are going to say, “Boy, I’m undecided and it sure helps me decide [because] there are these students from California here wearing Obama shirts.” I think that if I’m in Iowa, that’s insulting.

PK: I remember Deanie Babies tromping around in the Iowa snow four years ago. Where are they now? Playing foosball at a social networking start-up someplace? One can only imagine.

RS: Don’t get me wrong. It’s impressive that Howard Dean had a devoted following. And it’s impressive that Barack Obama’s connecting with young people here. And it would be appropriate and perhaps strategically wise for those young people to campaign and get other young people involved here. I just don’t know that it’s wise to bring them into another state, that’s all I’m saying.

PK: The 800-pound gorilla as far as Hillary goes is Bill. Is he an asset or a liability?

RS: Bill Clinton certainly can be an asset. And as we all know, Bill Clinton certainly can be a liability. And I wouldn’t want to be the one to guess which he would end up being in this case. Let’s put it this way. Bill Clinton could dramatically affect the election—more so the general election than the primaries. There’s just a danger. This is uncharted territory for a previous President to come out and campaign for a spouse. For some people that’s going to work, for other people that’s going to turn them off.

PK: What if he promises to only pick out tasteful china.

RS: Boy, it would be interesting to see what would happen. What would they call him? The First Spouse? The First Man? The First Gent? I don’t even know what the term would be.

PK: Is it fair to criticize Mitt Romney because he’s a Mormon? Robert Redford’s a Mormon too, but no one ever mentions that because he’s not running for office. So in other words, if you do throw your hat in the political ring are all aspects of your personal life fair game?

RS: Well, in terms of religion I would say if you’re religiosity dominates your life to some extent I think it is valid to ask to what extent will you bring that into the White House.

PK: Jimmy Carter was “born again” but I don’t remember there being a lot criticism of that.

RS: I think there was a lot of discussion about that. I don’t know if there was criticism of it. And in fact if you remember that famous Playboy interview where he said he had lust in his heart I think that was essentially an interview about him being “born again” and about that issue—Don’t you have sin? So I do think Jimmy Carter being “born again” was an issue and I do think it was an issue for some voters and my recollection is that he addressed it to the extent that people were comfortable with it.

PK: What about Hillary’s supposed fake laugh?

RS: I’ve heard people criticize her laugh. I’ve listened to speeches where she’s spoken in the south where she has a different accent than she does in other parts of the country. I recall there was a photo of her at the Mets/Yankees World Series and Rudy Giuliani was in Yankee Stadium wearing a Yankee cap and Hillary Clinton was in the seats wearing one of those caps that had half Mets, half Yankees. Things like that tell you about someone I suppose. Is her laugh fake? I don’t know her well enough to know if her laugh is fake. I know that some people say they think it is and that some people say her accent changes depending on where she speaks. But you know, if it’s true, is that a fair criticism? When you’re hanging out with little kids do you change the way you speak? And are you changing the way you’re speaking because you’re condescending? Because you want them to like you? Or because you’re trying to have them understand you and connect with them. It rubs some people wrong and other people might say well she’s trying to connect with people. She’s just trying to be one of us. Bill Clinton changed the way he spoke in front of different audiences and he was praised for it—perhaps he was just more masterful.

PK: Did Anne Coulter get a pass for essentially calling John Edwards a “faggot?”

RS: Is it appropriate for someone on a news network to say things like that? Well, I don’t think so. Was she given slack because she’s on a certain network or because she’s a woman? No I don’t think so. She’s a commentator. She’s not a candidate. She doesn’t hold office.

PK: Whoever they nominate, do the Democrats have it wrapped up in ’08?

RS: I do think there is a danger right now as we speak in mid-November of the Democratic party being a little bit over-confident. The big issue next year will almost certainly once again be the war. And starting in late August through September, October, and now two-thirds of the way through November, the causality rates in Iraq are dropping. Now the Democrat candidates are still all for the most part saying that if in office they would pull the troops as soon as they could. And they say that despite the improvement on the ground in terms of security, the Iraqi parliament isn’t making the needed changes. Isn’t meeting the benchmarks. And I think most people would agree that’s true. The Parliament isn’t making needed changes and isn’t meeting the benchmarks. But, if the violence continues to drop I suppose there is a chance that things in the Parliament, that they’d feel comfortable enough and bold enough to try to do something. And if things change in Iraq how does that affect the election? I don’t think it’s an open and shut case. The conventional wisdom just a couple of years ago here in California was that Arnold Schwarzenegger was done and he’d embarrassed himself in the special election and had no chance. His poll numbers were dismal. And he certainly came back. The conventional wisdom after Governor Davis won reelection was that the recall was a crazy long-shot idea cooked up by some crackpots. Conventional wisdom back after the first Persian Gulf War was that George Bush I was so popular no one should even bother challenging him and big name Democrats dropped out because they were all but punting the election, the re-election to George Bush I. Mario Cuomo dropped out assuming he had no chance and he left an opening for Bill Clinton. Right now everyone is assuming that it’s a slam dunk for Democrats next year. That it’s their election to lose and as things stand now that seems to be the case. I’m just saying I don’t buy that it’s necessarily the case. Things could change in Iraq. It could be temporary. It could be a blip. But if things on the ground continue to improve at some point one would think that perhaps the politics here in the United States would have to change then too.


Suggestions? E-mail Paul Kilduff at
The Kilduff File Archive


Age: 56  |  Astrological sign: You really run that stuff? Okay. Leo. But call me a reluctant Leo

Birthplace: Los Angeles

First real job:
 Teaching filmmaking at Boise State.

Favorite pizza topping:
Cheese and garlic

Mideast peace plan: 
To be wise enough to know that I have no idea how to tell people in other parts of the world what to do. My Mideast plan: one is needed.

Faces of the East Bay