MSNBC host and political correspondent Steve Kornacki, 36, was born and raised in Groton and graduated from Boston University. He began his journalism career in New Jersey, writing about politics online and co-hosting a weekly cable show, News 12 New Jersey. Formerly the politics editor for Salon, he covered Congress for the newspaper Roll Call and was a co-host of the MSNBC ensemble show The Cycle. He also hosted Up with Steve Kornacki and is now MSNBC’s political analyst for the 2016 presidential race. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe, and his first book, focusing on politics in the 1990s, is due out in 2017.
Steve Kornacki: I love elections. I love the numbers, the maps, the theatrics, the personalities and, when you put it all together, what it says about our country and who we are as a people.
Your least favorite thing about politics? I covered Congress for a year, about 10 years ago. It’s a vitally important institution, and covering it is a vitally important thing, but to be honest, I was bored miserably doing it.
Do you discuss politics at dinner parties? Y’know what? Yeah. I hate the idea of being that guy, and I’d like to think I have other interesting things to offer conversationally. But most of the time, it isn’t even me bringing it up. Other people are curious about it. And I’ve probably used it as a crutch at times for lack of anything better to say.
Is there a historical election you wish you could cover? Yes, and it’s perfect for your magazine, too. The first election I followed in any meaningful way was the Massachusetts governor’s race in 1990, between Bill Weld and John Silber. Someone called it “The Brahmin versus the Brawler.” In sixth grade, I got assigned to play John Silber in a mock election, and that’s what ignited my interest in politics. Silber called Weld a “back-stabbing sonofabitch” and “an orange-headed WASP.” At age 12, I was saying these things onstage in front of my class, occasionally getting lectured by my teacher. But I won the election.
Will you admit to having a political stance, or do you really try to stay removed? I guess the older you get, the more cynical you get, but the way I look at politics now in this country is so deeply and totally polarized. The dividing lines are sometimes about philosophy or policy, but so many of the dividing lines are cultural, demographic, geographic, socio-economic…it feels like this country’s divided into two tribes: a red one and a blue one. I view my role in covering that as not taking sides. It’s more trying to understand the psyche of each tribe at any given moment and interpret how they’re interpreting the world around them. That’s the approach I try to take.
So is politics entertainment? What do they say? D.C. is Hollywood for ugly people? I think that’s not too bad.
Politician—dead or alive—whom you most admire? Paul Tsongas. I grew up near Lowell, and when he ran for president, that was the first time I really followed a presidential race. Here was a guy who made it to the national stage but never lost touch with Lowell, Massachusetts. He did so much for that city and cared so deeply about it. His motivation was so genuine. Whatever you thought of his politics, the kind of character qualities that we say we want in our leaders—he embodied them more than anyone I’ve seen.
If I’d said to you a year ago that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would be viable presidential candidates, what would you have said? Lay off the sauce.
Think Kanye West will ever run for president with Kim Kardashian as his running mate? [Laughs.] Now that the Donald Trump thing is real, can we ever say, “So-and-so will never run”? That was the whole thing—he’s a celebrity, he’ll never go through with it. We went through all those phases: Well, he’s running, but he’s not really running…and now we’re saying, “OK, it’s real.” So the Trump thing has made me stop making pronouncements like that.
Do you think high office can be bought in this country? The funny thing about this election is that Trump and [Ted] Cruz are one and two on the Republican side right now, by far, and they have spent the least, by far.
But Trump’s so good at being a carnival barker, he doesn’t need to buy air time. Exactly. The term that political consultants use is “earned media.” Donald Trump is better at getting the media to cover him without paying for it than anyone we’ve ever seen in politics. It’s fair to criticize the media, but ultimately, the fact remains that Trump is good at getting coverage, and that’s a skill that separates him from other politicians.
What do you think of the role that big money plays in politics? I think it is much more important and significant in the races we don’t pay as much attention to. When you start talking about state legislative races, where casual voters aren’t really plugged into the campaign, may not even know the candidates, those are the kind of races where a financial advantage that lets you put an ad on TV while your opponent can’t, it gets your name out there. It matters a lot more than a presidential race, where ultimately everybody really is following it.
Would you say the average American was a well-informed free thinker or a duped zombie? [Laughs.] I think most Americans may not have deep knowledge about politics, but that doesn’t make them uninformed. In this day and age, it could be a very wise decision to just sort of tune out politics and decide that it’s not that relevant to your daily life. I can understand a person saying that.
Iowa or New Hampshire? Well, to me, it’s always New Hampshire. Having grown up in Massachusetts, I’m just much more familiar with it. I have a sense of the geography and the culture. I know the Monadnock region. It kinda all makes sense to me. I know more about Iowa than I do about any other state in that area by virtue of the caucus, but I still feel like an outsider. New Hampshire kinda feels like my backyard.
DESCRIBE MASSACHUSETTS’ POLITICAL PROFILE IN THREE WORDS. On the whole? Democratic, not liberal.
Strangest thing you ever witnessed in D.C.? Hmmm. I was there the night the feds raided a congressional office. There’s this underground maze, and I navigated it and got right to the office, and the FBI promptly escorted me out of the building. But I got to walk in on an FBI raid, so that was kinda fun.
The electoral college: Is it bogus? Yeah. I really believed when the 2000 election happened that we’d see the end of the electoral college, and I was really surprised that there was never any change after that.
Favorite candid moment with a candidate? I don’t know if it’s a candid moment, and I’ve told this story 15,000 times, but last year at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, I had an encounter with Trump that was telling. I assume he has no idea who I am, and I’m sure he doesn’t watch my show, but I tell the person I’m with that when he walks into view, take a picture so it looks like we’re in a picture together. So I’m standing there, and the picture is taken, and I feel this tap on my shoulder. I turn around, and it’s Trump. And he leans in and says, “I see you’re really stepping up the fashion game tonight, Steve,” and I kinda gulped air and said something idiotic like, “Not too bad yourself,” and he laughs as if what I said was actually funny or clever. And he leans in and says, “Listen, I want you to have a good time tonight,” pats me on the shoulder and walks away. And I imagine that he had that same interaction with several hundred other people that night, and that he studies every single media person he’s going to be in a room with, and he probably charmed all of them that night and they did exactly what I did, posting the photo on social media and saying how surprisingly charming Donald Trump is. I guess that’s how a media creature is created.
If you get invited to the next inaugural ball, who are you going to bring? Well, I don’t like wearing a tuxedo, so I probably won’t go.
Your given name is Stephan. Do you ever insist people pronounce it the French way? [Laughs.] I’ve run away from that my entire life. In elementary school, on the first day of school, they’d be reading the class list, and they invariably said, “Stephanie.” Of course, when you’re 8 years old, that’s going to get everyone laughing and making jokes, so I learned pretty early to go by Steve. I really wish my parents had gone with “-en.” It’s a lesson for parents: If you’re thinking about a cute spelling, think again.
If you were running for president, what would your campaign slogan be? Please don’t vet me too intensely?
So will we ever see you running for office? The last time I ran for office, I was thrown out as my high school class president, and I still haven’t gotten over it, so probably not.
Location: Brooklyn; Grooming: Katie Wedlund; Styling: Gemma Slack