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Political Reporter David Weigel Is Happy to Stay in the Cheap Hotel next to Chili’s

Ahead of the midterm elections, GQ caught up with the roving political reporter about leaving the Washington Post for the startup Semafor, the counties he’ll be tracking on election night, and learning to avoid gas station pizza while on the trail.

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Photograph courtesy of Dave Weigel: Collage: Gabe Conte

The political reporter David Weigel spends a lot of time on the road. As he put it to GQ last week, “If I hear about something interesting, I want to go see it myself.” In practice, this means big Trump rallies, but also deeply-grassroots events in parking lots and school gyms. For Weigel, there’s simply no substitute for the on-the-ground atmosphere and insight into what’s on the mind of actual voters. (To take one recent example, for Republicans, that was the supposed threat of fentanyl Halloween candy, not the attack on Paul Pelosi.)

This approach requires a frenetic schedule of flights, random hotels, and meals eaten in rental cars. Appropriately enough, when GQ caught up with him last week, he was fresh off a red-eye itinerary from Phoenix to Ypsilanti, Michigan (and simultaneously taping a conference call while being interviewed).

We wanted to know how he’s learned to stay healthy and sane out on the road. (It starts with avoiding processed food.) We also wanted to hear about his new job at the news startup Semafor, which he took shortly after serving a month-long suspension the Washington Post for retweeting a sexist joke (in an affair also saw his most-visible internal critic fired.) And most of all, we wanted to know which early returns he’s going to be scrutinizing on Election Day.

You changed jobs right before the midterm elections, which is obviously important for someone in your line of work. What has that been like? You’re just jumping right into it.

I guess there were two real changes. One was practical: this is boring, but I had some emails and phone numbers that I left on my old Outlook account. There were couple contacts I had to re-make. The other one is that I’m often talking to voters and the Washington Post was—people had heard of it. People have not heard of a thing that is brand new. So it takes, I don’t know, 15 more seconds to explain where I work.

So I just kind of plunged in to start covering everything I was doing before. There was like a week where I wasn’t on the trail, then I got right back out.

Semafor is attempting to create a new kind of news article, the “Semaform” [with dedicated sections for the reporter’s analysis and any competing points of view]. When I think about the way you write and cover these topics, having “David’s view” feels like a natural fit in a way might not be for a lot of political reporters.

I think so. I mean, that was really a huge attraction joining the site. I did have freedom with the Trailer newsletter to say, you know, “Here’s what I think is going on.” But I would hold back. I would really worry about using language in the body of a story that seemed opinionated, and this became harder over time.

The example I always use is that when I’m reporting in South Texas, and I’m talking to Latino Democrats, they refer to people who have crossed the border illegally as “illegal.” If I write “illegal” in the story, I take that out! The language is “undocumented immigrants.” And so I noticed there was this gap between the way, not just Republicans and reporters talk, but the way reporters and some voters talk.

While we’re talking about newsroom language politics: You were suspended from the Washington Post for a month retweeting a dumb joke—which I saw a lot of eye rolls about on my own timeline. What context did that have for this new role?

Well, I came back after suspension! And I was doing the same work. The only real difference is that the Semafor social media policy is much looser than the Post or other big news organizations. But as you point out, I didn’t write anything or say anything. I just kind of hit the retweet button on something I laughed at. The impression at Semafor is that if you laugh at something that you shouldn’t and you un-retweet it, that’s probably the end of the story.

I think what happened is that, when I was suspended, people started to talk to me again about, Hey, would you be interested in trying something new? And I wasn’t really interested in trying anything in established media. I mean, I really love the Washington Post.

I’ve known [Semafor cofounder] Ben Smith for 15 years—he had tried to hire me at least once before, at Buzzfeed for sure. And the real impact [of the suspension] was just that it reminded people, Oh, maybe I should talk to Dave. Because I’ve been very fortunate. I worked at the Post for seven years and occasionally people would say, I like what you’re doing there but do you want to work with us? But when I’m in a newsroom, I get very invested in everything about the newsroom succeeding. So I was only going to leave from something that’s a new challenge I’ve never, ever done before, which this is.

So how are you approaching things now on the campaign trail? I follow you on Twitter and I can never keep track of where you are.

For example: I was in Arizona until 11:15 yesterday. I got on a plane in Phoenix and I landed in Detroit at 6:15 am Eastern time. I drove to Ypsilanti and filed a story [about] Arizona. So a red-eye and 2,500 words.

And you’ve been doing this for years and years at this point.

I’ve been covering politics for 16 years—freelancing for a little bit longer, probably close to 20 years. The sort of reporting where I would go on the trail started in 2007. Where I had the ability to go anywhere that I thought that something interesting was happening? That started in 2014, when I went to Bloomberg. That was a big newsroom with resources. I was at Slate before that. Slate was more, If you go out, rent a car, don’t go crazy. Bloomberg and the Washington Post are places where you could change a flight at the last minute, or you can be on a charter with a presidential candidate. So I really stepped it up, and at Semafor that’s just continued.

But I’m a pretty frugal traveler. I stay in the suburban hotel near the Chilis that has free parking. I rent the midsize car. I look for cheap flights. I always try to live pretty frugally, but I got to where if I hear about something interesting, I want to go see it myself.

Story-wise, what do you think you get out of this approach?

Everything, really. I feel that I have a sense of what is going on in the world. I talk to people in politics frequently, and then I check in with the party committees; I check in with campaigns. And you don’t need to be physically somewhere to cover something in a lot of cases. But there are big things that you need to see in person. For example, I show up at a canvass: Are there a lot of people at it? I show up in a campaign office: Is it empty? I talk to a candidate: Do they know what they’re talking about? There are lots of local events that are not being streamed or reported or anything where people might go off the script they use on TV.

Then there’s just atmospheric stuff. I’ll give you an example: I was in Arizona. From afar I could look at a chart and say: OK, here’s the spending in Arizona. I could look at the ads that are running. But what I learned is that Arizona has a very heavy commuter culture, and there are signs all along the road. There’s Saving Arizona PAC, which is the Blake Masters super-PAC, which had relentless negative signs along the road: “Joe Biden plus Mark Kelly equals inflation.” “Mark Kelly voted to hire 87,000 more IRS agents.” Bumper stickers, but signs. And then I turn on the TV and there’s relentless negativity on the TV about that.

I also get the other atmosphere. I see what I’m paying for gas. I go to a restaurant and see they’ve still got a sign that says “we’re dealing with supply shortages,’ or there’s stuff crossed out on the menu. And that’s even before you get like, talking to voters. I mean, I could figure out pretty quickly, for example, that the Paul Pelosi attack was not being seen by Republicans as a big deal.

Minimum offense to somebody who’s just on TV talking, but I don’t think you get that if you’re just in a green room on TV. I’ve got, at this point in doing this long enough, some confidence in my own instincts. But really, I just don’t think you can cover this without seeing in-person stuff changing—with the background to not be like Oh, there’s a big crowd for this candidate, I bet he’ll win. You don’t be naive, but you can pick up a lot of stuff that is just not perceptible if you’re not there.

I’m curious what you’ve learned about keeping your body and brain functioning with this grueling schedule.

I’ve made most of the mistakes over previous campaigns. I would get less healthy during campaigns, and this is probably the best cycle I’ve had in terms of having good habits and sticking to them. Generally, I don’t eat processed food. I don’t drink—I have not since 2020. In early January 2020, I quit drinking soda. I cut out a lot of unhealthy things: I try to have the non-fried thing, the fish instead of the red meat.

The thing on the trail is, though: do you have time to work out? Can you carve some out? I’m bad at that. But I find that I have now gotten very good at not eating something terrible at the end of the day. My one indulgence is if I’m getting a horrible sore throat I will have some sort of ice cream, which is just psychosomatic. I just try to have some food that I can eat during the day and be aware of what is in it and how many calories are in it because I will be stressed out and sitting in a car half the day.

My weakness is coffee. Because I don’t drink soda, I drink, let’s say, 36 to 42 ounces of coffee a day in different forms. The only sugar I’ll get is that I try to do local coffee places instead of Starbucks, and sometimes I’ll say Ah sure, give me the special one. Maybe I’ll have one nice latte and then a bunch of small coffees.

In the morning I have an app on my iPhone that will time workouts—I will at least do stretching and sit ups. There are days when if my schedule’s pretty clear I can use a hotel gym, but I know people who are much better. Like, they will go on the trail and will carve out a part of the day where they go for an hour-long run. I’m terrible at finding the time to do that. I’m like, I’m here. I’m on deadline. At this moment when I’m jogging should I be doing something else? And I’ve never broken that habit.

I used to be much worse. If you talked to me six years ago, probably it would be like, Oh, yeah I fill a 52 ounce gas station cup with Coke Zero and I get a gas station pizza. I don’t do that any more.

I feel a little sheepish asking this, given how you’ve made watching “crucial Waukesha County” an ironic thing on Twitter. But what are you going to be tracking on election night to see where this is all headed?

Waukesha is actually not a bad idea to watch this time! But it closes at nine o’clock. That’s one thing Semafor will have: We’ll be highlighting particular areas of the country where we will see trends pretty quickly. It’s kind of a mix of both suburban counties that have been trending relentlessly Democratic in the last six years and rural counties that have been trending relentlessly Republican. There’s not really any place where I’m looking for Democrats to improve over 2020. So the rest are places that Democrats kind of rely on, where they always turn out. I’m thinking here of the Bronx, basically: If the Bronx comes in at low turnout, what does that mean?

I’ll be starting the night looking at Rockingham County, New Hampshire, which Biden won. It’s got the Seacoast but also some Republican suburbs. Then Indiana comes in and I want to check out Lake County, which is Gary, Indiana and some other stuff. It’s basically a super-Democratic area, but Republicans nominated a Black female veteran who has run a strong campaign where they have never run a campaign before but where they think Democratic enthusiasm will be low. I’m going to be watching that early.

You mentioned Twitter before. One thing I like about Twitter is just that the conversation about elections is a hundred times smarter than the TV conversation, with the exception of Steve Kornacki and John King, where they have a wall of screens. But I do the same thing they do without a wall, which is: I don’t really start to judge anything until we’ve got a hundred percent of a county reporting. I pull up how that went in 2016, here’s how that went in ‘20. Here’s the Democratic margin or Republican margin. Maybe Democrats historically get an 800-vote margin here, Republicans get a 1,200 vote margin here. if they’re not hitting those marks, then you know how it’s going to end.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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