George Stephanopoulos is one of those rare cases to have successfully made the elusive leap from politics to journalism. The elder son of a Greek Orthodox priest, with close ties to Greece and the diaspora, Stephanopoulos is the chief anchor and political correspondent on ABC News. “Good Morning America,” hosted by Stephanopoulos, has an average daily viewership of 4 million.
I first met Stephanopoulos in 1988 when he worked for the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign, which I covered as a correspondent. He belonged to a small group of Greek Americans that had their own code of communication when traveling with the presidential candidate, often trading jokes and other comments in Greek.
Stephanopoulos later became Bill Clinton’s right-hand man and White House communications director, before shifting to the media in 1996. Since then, we have established a quadrennial custom of me interviewing him on the American presidential election.
Stephanopoulos may come from the Democratic Party, but he is extremely reserved in his assessments and predictions. He knows Donald Trump personally and had cautioned about the strong momentum of his candidacy in early 2016. This time, however, he believes that Joe Biden is the more likely winner given that opinion polls have not really changed significantly for months. Stephanopoulos notes, however, that he and his colleagues are being especially cautious this time around after failing to predict the outcome of the previous election. Finally, he says that if Trump suffers a defeat, he will have to face a “significant legal predicament.”
Ιs this a strange selection? Is it a unique election?
We’ve never seen anything like it. There’s no question about it. To have an election like this in the middle of a pandemic, I guess it happened back in the early 1900s, but never in modern times have we seen anything like this. It’s been a crazy year for the entire world, but so turbulent here in the United States, beginning with the impeachment of the incoming president, then the pandemic hits, then the economic collapse and then the improbable – even though he started out as the front-runner, it was like Joe Biden was left for dead after Iowa and New Hampshire and then he comes back and turns it all around with one win in South Carolina. But one of the strangest things is that through it all, the actual race has been unbelievably stable. If you go back to the polls in January, before the president was impeached, before Joe Biden was the official nominee, Joe Biden had about a 7- to 9-point lead in the polls over Donald Trump. Now, two weeks from Election Day, Joe Biden has about a 7- to 9-point lead over Donald Trump despite everything that’s happened in this crazy election.
One more point on how unusual it is, one of the things we’re seeing is a staggering number of people voting early here in the United States. We still have two weeks until the final votes are cast on November 3, but already more than 30 million [that number since rose to around 50 million] Americans have voted, which is well over 20% of the entire electorate in 2016. It’s unbelievable.
Is this going to be a one-issue election? Is the coronavirus pandemic going to be the main issue?
Everything comes under the umbrella of Covid. Just before I got on this phone call with you, President Trump went on a press call with journalists where he went off saying “people are tired of Covid,” “people are tired of idiots like Dr. Fauci whom I’d fire if there wouldn’t be a backlash.” It’s certainly coloring everything about this election, from the way that the candidates campaign, from the way that people are voting, to the fact that Americans don’t believe that President Trump has done a good job in handling the crisis, which is one of the main factors driving his low ratings right now. So, I think it is a one-issue election in some ways, at least till now, and the president has two more weeks to try and turn this around.
But at least until now, it’s also a referendum on Donald Trump, rather than what all incumbents try to do to by making it a choice between two candidates. I mean, whenever an incumbent tries to win – like George H.W. Bush in 1988 over Michael Dukakis – what they try to do is frame the challenger. In that case, Michael Dukakis was an unacceptable choice. And so far, the Trump campaign simply has not been able to do that to Joe Biden. He’s proven to be an elusive target.
I remember that back in 2016, Hillary Clinton was ahead of Donald Trump at this point. Is there any way that 2020 could be a replay of 2016, that somehow you guys have missed the story?
We ask ourselves that question literally every minute of every day. Because everyone was shocked back in 2016. Here’s why I think it’s different. First of all, Biden’s national lead is about three times what Hillary’s was at this point in the race, 9 points to about 3. Number two, Hillary Clinton was much less well-liked than Joe Biden is. A telling point is if you look back four years ago and you looked at those voters who say they don’t like either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, they went by a large margin to Donald Trump. Today if you look at voters and say they don’t really like Joe Biden, or Donald Trump, they go by a huge margin to Joe Biden. So, I think that’s the second difference right now.
The third obvious huge difference is that in some ways, four years ago, Donald Trump was the outside challenger and Hillary Clinton was like the incumbent; she was trying to get a third term for the Democrats. Now it’s Donald Trump who has to defend a record of four years in office; he’s the incumbent, he’s not the challenger. So that’s another difference.
Another big difference is that the intervening event in the final two weeks of the election four years ago was James Comey. First coming out and saying he would reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton two weeks out, and then two days before the election saying he had closed it. Every analysis I’ve seen – and I believe it from my own close observation at the time – tells me that that was the difference between winning and losing for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Now that said, Donald Trump has a remarkable hold over his voters, his white working-class voters. I don’t think it’s enough to guarantee re-election, but he’s got a remarkable hold over about 40% of the electorate. Can something happen in the final two weeks that lets him break it open, up into the 46, 47, 48% that he’s going to need? It’s possible.
Do you see any “October surprises” coming up?
Never say never, because we have a few days left. In some ways you could say this has been a year of October surprises. I mean, who would have thought the president of the United States was going to get the virus he was supposed to be fighting, four weeks before the election? But especially with the number of people voting every day, the likelihood of any late surprise is lessened a great deal. And that’s one more difference from four years ago. There are really not that many undecided voters right now, and you don’t have a Libertarian candidate and a Green Party candidate to suck up votes.
A lot of people are worried of violence if the election is close. Are you?
Sure. We’re keeping an eye on it. Absolutely. Emotions are running high in America right now, there’s no question about that. The president is stoking it too, saying “the only way I can lose this election is if it’s rigged.” And in our polarized environment, with our polarized media, a lot of his supporters are going to believe that and they’re going to hear it as a call to take action. So, it’s something we’re all keeping an eye on.
You’ve known Joe Biden for a very long time. What kind of president would he be?
I actually interviewed for a job with Joe Biden right after the Dukakis campaign in 1988, to be his legislative director. So, yeah, I’ve known him for an awful long time. I think he’d be a stabilizing force. That’s the pitch he’s clearly making to the American people right now, that he’ll calm things down, and you can really see that in the town hall meeting that I held with him. Trump was on NBC with Savannah Guthrie and they made such a striking contrast in demeanor, in experience, in temperament. I think what he’s going to try to do is obviously advance a Democratic agenda but also, sort of culturally, take the temperature down in the United States and make a real determined effort to try to heal what has become a deeply divided society.
If you had to place a bet now, do you think there might be a comfortable victory for Biden, a landslide, or what?
Oh gosh, that’s where I’m still snake bit from four years ago. I’d freely admit that two weeks out four years ago, I would not have predicted that Donald Trump would have won. What I’ll go back to is the Nate Silver FiveThirtyEight forecast really. The lead statistical analyst of elections in the United States says that Biden has about an 88% chance of winning, so Trump has 12% yet that’s not nothing. But within that, he now says that the chance of a Biden landslide is now approaching; it’s above 35%, approaching 40%. So, I think that there’s a greater chance now of a clear comfortable victory than anything we saw back in 2016, and right now at least appears to be growing every day for Joe Biden.