BOB GARFIELD: Ever since last November's election, the media have been on a soul-searching tour of America's Trump-supporting heartland. Their stated goal is to better understand Trump voters, but the actual coverage tends to skew towards a different question: Do you regret it, yet? Exhibit A, the coverage of recent special elections in Georgia and Kansas, which the media dubbed –
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: In a race widely considered to be a referendum on President Trump –
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Pouring money and attention into Kansas made it a referendum on Donald Trump.
BOB GARFIELD: In both elections, the Republicans prevailed. And now the media are at it again, with the special election being held in Montana to fill the state’s lone congressional seat vacated by Republican Ryan Zinke when Trump named him secretary of the interior.
RYAN ZINKE: This is a very red state but the fact that we're even having these conversations in places like Montana and Georgia, with the number of people and the amount of support and the percentage of the state for Democrats –
BOB GARFIELD: Mm-hmm!
RYAN ZINKE: - is definitely a referendum on our president.
BOB GARFIELD: But according to BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Peterson, this Trump-centric approach may be hindering, not helping, our understanding of the electorate.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: I think that people look at the results of someplace like Montana and see that Trump one by 20 points and they say, that’s a done deal, when a lot of the people who voted for Trump also voted for their Democratic governor.
BOB GARFIELD: Peterson spent a week driving through Montana and talking to voters. She found not a referendum on Trump but something much more interesting.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: On one side, you have this guy, Rob Quist, who is an actual singing cowboy.
ROB QUIST, SINGING CAMPAIGN SONG:
When life seems cold and damp
In every way I’m going to defend you.
You can count on me…
[SINGING UP & UNDER]
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: A very classic Montanan who is also coming out as pretty progressive – Bernie Sanders has endorsed him – sort of thing. On the other side, you have a guy named Greg Gianforte, who just lost the governor's race to a Democrat Steve Bullock, and he is a billionaire from Bozeman. Bozeman is kind of known as “Boze Angeles.” It’s like a place where a lot of money has come into, both in terms of tech and people having second homes, and he is being framed as someone who's not from Montana, even though he’s lived there for 20 years.
BOB GARFIELD: Carpetbagger.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: If you were to divine only from what the political commercials say, what would you think this race was about?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: I would think this race is about guns.
NARRATOR: And Quist doesn’t support our gun rights. He said –
ROB QUIST: I fully support Second Amendment rights.
NARRATOR: But he got caught pushing gun control.
[QUIST CAMPAIGN AD]
ROB QUIST: Long before Greg Gianforte showed up here from New Jersey, this old rifle and I were here, in Montana, just like my father before me.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Increasingly, it's about healthcare.
[“NO WONDER” AD CLIP]
ROB QUIST: Did you know, in Congress, there are nearly 300 millionaires? No wonder their so-called health reform was just another tax break for the rich.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: And in Montana, there’s just so much at stake because Medicaid expansion has really helped a lot of people receive rural healthcare, which is a big deal there.
BOB GARFIELD: The issue of land rights and grazing rights.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Absolutely.
ROB QUIST: Greg Gianforte blocked access to the East Gallatin. Fences, intimidating signs, it’s against the law and it’s against our values.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: And I would think it’s about who is and who isn't a real Montanan.
NARRATOR: Rob Quist may be entertaining but on the issues he’s out of tune with Montana.
ROB QUIST: I won’t stand by while a millionaire from New Jersey tries to attack my Montana values.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, not conforming with local values is a threadbare notion that political parties like to trot out whenever possible –
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Mm-hmm –
BOB GARFIELD: - [LAUGHS] but among those who have made what you think are blunt and ill-conceived assumptions is the Republican National Committee, which you believe also doesn't quite get Montana. How so?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: There’s this piece of opposition research about Quist that emerged in a couple of different right-leaning publications, and what it was is that Quist had played at what they called a nudist resort. And there’s a [LAUGHS] different attitude toward nakedness in Montana and northern Idaho, even Oregon. Because there are natural hot springs all over the state, people hike in and, you know, don’t wear a bathing suit. And so, the national press picked up on this piece of research and were like, oh my gosh, let’s make a huge deal about the fact that Quist did this and this isn’t Montana values.
MAN: Today, the RNC blasted an email titled, Not Safe for Work, writing, “Rob Quist is a featured attraction at a nudist resort.” Yes, that’s Quist with his daughter on the home page.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: When really, a Montanan would take more offense at someone telling them what Montana values are than someone playing at a nude resort.
BOB GARFIELD: No outsider’s gonna tell us what to do or what not to do.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yeah, and I think that's part of why the sort of more conservative values that oftentimes make their way into other races just don't play here. There's not a lot of discussion of abortion, there’s not a ton of discussion of either candidate's religion, even though Gianforte is a pretty fundamentalist Christian. And so, Montanans are clinging to, especially the ones who are a little bit older, they’re clinging to this idea - you can't predict what we vote. We don't vote straight down ticket lines. And they’re not just undecided voters. They’re people who are looking for a reason to vote across ticket in order to maintain checks and balances.
BOB GARFIELD: Can, can you tell me how Montanans are experiencing this race?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yeah, I think Montanans are not used to being in the national spotlight in quite this way and have a mixture of [LAUGHS] amusement and rejection to this status. They are resistant to the idea that somehow what happens in their state should speak to larger national trends.
But also, you know, there’s just a wariness towards reporters, in general, from national organizations, and a lot of times there's just a way that Montana is covered that turns it into either like a backwards place or a place where tourists go.
BOB GARFIELD: So you head for Montana, first stop, Billings.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: And you say, oh yeah, I'm from BuzzFeed, an internet news site in New York City.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: So the way that I get away with reporting there is I say right away that I’m from northern Idaho, and then I like say some bad things about New York.
And I, I think that’s usually very helpful, to, to let them know, you know, I'm from a place that people get wrong too, so I have some stake in getting this place right.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about some of your more interesting encounters.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: So Anaconda used to be a booming copper town and now it's kind of hollowed out but slowly recovering. Come out on the street and there's a guy wearing an American flag shirt and a biker vest and, you know, a big old beard, and I’m like, huh, wonder who he likes. [LAUGHS] I walk up to him and I ask him, you know, what are your thoughts and he says, I'm from Anaconda, which means I hate anyone from Bozeman and I especially hate anyone from Bozeman who’s a billionaire and telling me what to do. He’s a - an old-school union guy who used to fit pipes for the copper mine. And then after I talk to him for a long time, I turn around and there’s a taxidermy shop. I go into this taxidermy shop and it’s – you know, it is out of this world, every kind of animal. And then this guy tells me about, okay, he voted for Trump, he voted for the Democratic Governor Bullock, but he just can't trust Quist because he's a business owner and there's this talk that Quist didn’t pay a subcontractor.
[CONGRESSIONAL LEADERSHIP FUND CLIP]:
PHIL: He stiffed a contractor who did work at his home.
JODEE: How is that for Montana values?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: And so, I just had this really interesting, you know, one-two punch of different types of voters who are in some ways so Montana but also belie, you know, our stereotypes of what voters look like.
BOB GARFIELD: Which gets to the larger question here, how do you approach these every now and then stories without resorting to clichés and fundamentally misreading the local politics?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: One thing that I think most news organizations discount is looking at, okay, who do we have who’s from the Mountain West? It doesn't necessarily need to be from Montana and it doesn't have to necessarily be a political reporter. I'm a culture reporter. But politics has infused every single one of our desks. I am currently rallying to be in the Mountain West for the time leading up to midterms because I think there are so many really fascinating stories to be told from that position. Even if I don't move there, like those will be the sorts of stories that I'm committed to telling.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, do you want some advice from an outsider?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yeah, what’s that?
BOB GARFIELD: If you can get that gig, make sure that they pay you car expenses for the mile.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: [LAUGHS] Yes, yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Anne, thank you so much.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
[BANJO MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Anne Helen Peterson is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed, and she just spent a whole mess of time coverin’ politics.
[MISSION MOUNTAIN WOOD BAND SINGING “SWEET MARIA”]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.