Stuart Rothenberg's big break came while he was wearing
It was early on a Friday morning in 1990 and Washington had been paralyzed by
several inches of snow. Rothenberg '70, who publishes a political newsletter,
was on the floor at home playing with his kids when the telephone rang. It was
a staff member from the office of John McGlaughlin, the host of The
McGlaughlin Group and another show of political analysis, One on
One. The man asked Rothenberg how long he would need to get down to the
studio to tape a segment of One on One.
"Apparently the guy they planned to have on the show was held up at the
airport and couldn't make it in," Rothenberg recalled. "I hung up the phone and
rushed into my bedroom to get dressed. I was in such a hurry, I put my foot
right through my trousers and had to switch to a different suit."
On the way to the studio, says Rothenberg, he prepped himself mentally for the
interview. "I was thinking, `just react, have an opinion, don't leave dead
air.' I didn't have time to be nervous."
These days major network news shows call regularly asking him to appear, and
he hasn't ruined a pair of trousers in a long time. He has been on Meet the
Press and Today and CNN's Inside Politics; he's a favorite
source on NPR's Morning Edition; his election forecasts have appeared in
every major newspaper in the country; that was Rothenberg sitting
alongside Bruce Morton and Frank Sesno in the CNN studios during live
coverage of the mid-term elections on November 3. "Articulate,"
"authoritative," "plugged in" is how network executives and political insiders
describe Rothenberg, who, at 50, has become something of a star. He is an
overnight success 20 years in the making.
Prior to his being "discovered" on One on One, Rothenberg had been
toiling in obscurity, grinding out his Rothenberg Political Report from
a small, disheveled Capitol Hill office a short walk from Washington's Union
Station. His job, essentially one that he invented, is to inform the Washington
establishment about which Congressional candidates are likely to win and which
are likely to lose. It is information that helps fuel the election cycle
engine, and clearly, people want it.
The Rothenberg Political Report, a compilation of statistics,
projections and analysis that boils down dozens of political races into an
eight- to 10-page newsletter, has only a few hundred subscribers. But the
number of readers is less important than who those readers are--political
reporters, party operatives and interest group representatives looking for an
edge. With the Report to guide them, the press can determine who is
worth coverage and who isn't; political action committees can identify
candidates worthy of funding support; special interest groups know where and
with whom to devote their energies. In a town full of powerful people,
Rothenberg establishes who is hot and who is not.
Not that he would admit it. Rothenberg is spectacularly unimpressed
with his own achievements and influence. "Who has ever heard of me? Nobody," he
said. "Outside of Washington and a few political junkies, people are much too
busy to sit around watching me on C-Span at eight o'clock in the morning."
Talk to anybody close to the political scene in Washington and they will tell
you that Rothenberg is a key figure in election cycles, a guru whose
predictions and analysis can have a profound effect on the ability of a
candidate to generate support or sustain momentum.
Dan Sallick, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign
Committee, is one of the party insiders whom Rothenberg regularly calls upon
for information and to arrange meetings with candidates. He says a good word
from Rothenberg can be a prelude to victory. "Getting good marks from Stu means
your campaign is moving in the right direction," Sallick said. "If he says
something positive about your candidacy, people in Washington listen. He is the
gatekeeper for the Washington community in terms of how they view races."
What that means for the candidates is visibility and optimism, both key
components of a successful campaign. "If a candidate shows up in the
Rothenberg Political Report positively, the next day you will get five
phone calls from national newspapers and from television stations trying to
find out more about the race," Sallick said. "Our political division will get
calls from PACs (political action committees) asking us for bios of the
candidate [as a prelude for financial support]. And the converse is true. If
you move off of Stu's list you see funding and media interest begin to
evaporate pretty quickly."
Rothenberg compares himself to an industry analyst for large stock brokerage
firms, except that his industry is the election process. "Basically, I'm making
buy and sell recommendations on candidates," he said.
While most journalists are chasing national trends, Rothenberg is under the
radar, probing, looking for clues. His research is legendary. He and his
assistant, John Kohut, interview every credible House, Senate and gubernatorial
candidate--hundreds in each cycle--and his enormous network of contacts offers
him up-to-the-minute polling numbers and public sentiment. His forecasts also
are based on an encyclopedic knowledge of voting districts. "He's like a
database," said Neal Lavon, host of Voice of America's weekend talk show,
Encounter. "You can ask him about any district in the country and he can
tell you everything about it."
His reputation for fairness and scrupulous honesty endow Rothenberg's analysis
with credibility that no amount of public relations spin can match--or
overcome. "He comes from Republican politics, but I think Democrats have as
high a regard for his analysis as anybody," Sallick said.
In a city unaccustomed to hearing the plain truth, where officials are
conditioned to sanitize every statement, Rothenberg is refreshingly frank. And
he isn't afraid of a declarative statement. "The presidential race is over,"
Rothenberg pronounced in a column in 1996, eight weeks before election day. He
wasn't attempting to sway voter opinion or to influence the election's outcome,
he says, he was "merely stating the obvious." "I find the idea that I'm that
influential ridiculous," he said. "I was just saying what everybody knew but
for whatever reason didn't want to say."
Although Rothenberg is circumspect about the importance of his role, his power
is undeniable. Last spring he interviewed a young, inexperienced Democratic
congressional candidate from the state of Washington, Laura Ruderman. She had
potential, he thought, but wasn't ready for prime time. He wrote--politely but
pointedly--that she should consider running for a local or state office before
attempting to land a spot in the U.S. House of Representatives. Two days after
his column appeared, Ruderman dropped out of the House race and announced she
was running for state legislature.
Call it The Rothenberg Effect. "It doesn't always help our candidates, but
he's usually right," Sallick said.
* * * *
Rothenberg expected to be a teacher when he left Colby for the University of
Connecticut, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1976. He was hired as a sabbatical
replacement to teach government at Bucknell University, but the market for
academics was oversaturated, says Rothenberg, whose wife, Elaine Rusinko,
teaches Russian at the college level. He recognized that his teaching career
would be stunted by lack of opportunity, he says, so he sent around
résumés and was hired by an obscure conservative think tank, the
Free Congress Foundation. He edited the foundation's political newsletter until
1989, when he purchased the newsletter and went off on his own. In the early
'90s he began writing a column for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill
Although he had a small following and was known within the Washington
community, he says, television exposure gave him the visibility and cachet to
expand his career into other media. It didn't hurt that his emergence as an
expert coincided with the proliferation of 24-hour news programming, led by
CNN. Punditry became a cottage industry.
CNN hired Rothenberg in the early '90s and in 1998 signed him to an exclusive
contract that called for 26 appearances during the year. "Stu wasn't hired
because he's a blow-dried TV type," said CNN political director Tom Hannon. "He
is knowledgeable, articulate and authoritative."
At a recent taping of a segment for CNN'sNews Source,
Rothenberg sat comfortably on a swivel chair while the producer lobbed
questions off camera. "Give me an interesting race from each time zone," the
producer said. And with no more direction than that, Rothenberg took off on a
three-minute monologue complete with colorful analogies and anecdotes about the
candidates, their chances for victory and implications for their party. He did
so not with the stern countenance of some other commentators but with an
expression that suggested mischief. His mouth always seemed one small twist
from a grin and his eyes danced as he searched for the best, most playful
characterization of a particular race. The New York senate race between Charles
Schumer and Alfonse D'Amato, one of the nastiest of the campaign, Rothenberg
described as "kind of like a WWF mud wrestling match." A few days after the CNN
taping, he was live on NBC's Meet the Press, where he elicited laughs by
saying he would go out on a limb "with my pinky finger" to call a few toss-up
"He's glib; he's usually ready with a one-liner," said Lavon. "Stu's never at
a loss for words."
"Some of this is entertainment," Rothenberg concedes. "When I do the TV stuff
there's that line there--you can know a lot but if you don't present it in a
clear, sort of interesting way, they won't ask you back."
Because of its reliance on rapid-fire, off-the-cuff statements, television
offers a less precise--and less credible--form of political analysis than
newspapers and magazines can provide, he says. "Being on Nightline gives
me the credentials to expand my audience," he said, "but that analysis isn't
nearly as good as what I can give in a column I've written. Writing is more
thoughtful. It's hard to get nuance on the air."
He deflects any attempt to characterize his media presence as glamorous. "I
just try not to squeak," he said, laughing, referring to his wife's admonition
that he not get too worked up on the air. "My voice tends to rise when I get
"I was never a particularly outgoing person in high school or college. I'm not
the guy people would have said will be on television someday. In most settings
I still tend to blend into the woodwork, but when the light goes on on the
television camera or for a speech, I know what I have to do," he said.
He is a political analyst, not a pundit, Rothenberg will tell you. "I draw a
distinction between what I do and what the point-of-view spin doctors do," he
said. "What you have in this town are many people who want to push their
agenda. I want to tell the truth without the b.s."
Although his commentary may be heard by millions, Rothenberg says he isn't
really talking to Mr. and Mrs. America. "My constituency is not the country,"
he said. "My constituency is the Washington community; the political insiders
on Capitol Hill."
"Let's face it, politics for most people comes right after mowing their lawn
[in importance]," Rothenberg said. "I work in this strange world where people
eat, sleep and breathe politics. But beyond Washing-ton, nobody really cares.
Most people are not interested in who is going to win the third district
congressional race in Kansas."
A self-described cynic, he loves poking fun at politics and politicians,
particularly those who might charitably be described as blowhards. "I can be
sarcastic," he said. Then, after a pause, "It probably isn't my best
He's no different now from when he was in college, says Colby friend Ken Viens
'73, who calls Rothenberg "a no b.s. kind of guy." Viens recalls that
Rothenberg always had an ability to "cut to the heart of the matter" during a
discussion. "He wasn't afraid to have an opinion," he said.
"You knew where Stuey stood in a heartbeat," Viens said. "He could capture the
essence of what somebody else said in about ten words."
As likely to be found at Big John's, a popular college hangout in the '60s
and early '70s, as in the library, Rothenberg was a committed student
without being overly earnest, says Viens. "He was a role model for me in some
respects," Viens said. "He was a guy who could get a lot done and still have
time to play cards or kibbitz with his friends."
Rothenberg has taken that regular guy personality with him into his
professional life. "I have to talk to him just about every day. If he didn't
have the sense of humor and a certain humility, my job would be a lot tougher,"
said Sallick of the DCCC. "When I look back on these last two years, working
with Stu was one of the bright spots," he said.
These days, in addition to the regular gigs on TV--"my kids are totally bored
with it now," Rothenberg said--he also gives dozens of speeches each year. He
enjoys it but admits that the travel can be a drag on his family life. "This
week," he said, looking at a desk calendar, "I fly to Phoenix for a breakfast
speech on Thursday, then back home for my son's play that night, then I fly to
Atlanta the next day to do the CNN stuff. It can be pretty hectic."
And just when you think he's going to get serious, the phone rings and he's
bantering with a freelance journalist in Minnesota who has information
on the amazing campaign of Jesse "The Body" Ventura. Ventura, who is running for governor, is eating into the leads (and will eventually defeat)
two traditional candidates; that is to say, candidates who are not head-shaven,
300-pound former professional wrestlers who want to legalize prostitution.
"Have the people of Minnesota gone mad?" Rothenberg says into the phone.
He is grinning from ear to ear.
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