John Dickerson Face the Nation
Courtesy of CBS News

“Face the Nation” anchor John Dickerson is known among the Washington press corps for his clear-eyed analysis of the political scene and for being a student of presidential history. Dickerson, who is also political director for CBS News, will put those skills to good use on Saturday when he moderates CBS News’ Republican debate in Greenville, S.C., but before that contest, he headed to New Hampshire to report on Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary.

Variety caught up with Dickerson in a Manchester coffee shop to talk, over a latte and a strawberry-banana smoothie, about the Trump factor, why Marco Rubio came into New Hampshire “like the doomed guy in a horror film” and why politics has been such big business for TV this presidential cycle.

What’s the most intriguing political story coming out of New Hampshire this year?

The best story in New Hampshire has been the moderate Republicans. The electability Republicans. The three governors (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich) and Marco Rubio who are trying to be the alternative to Trump and Ted Cruz. The feeling is, let whatever’s going to happen in Iowa happen but here’s where the race really becomes the competition.

How has the dynamic shifted in New Hampshire in the week since the Iowa caucuses?

Coming out of Iowa, Rubio was positioned in third. The question was did those other guys want to take him down, because if they did so, it would be sort of a murder-suicide, where they hurt him, hurt themselves and then Trump and Cruz were allowed to continue on. That was the story coming in and that’s what has played out. Chris Christie has gone after Marco Rubio like he’s the doomed guy in a horror film and Christie is reaching for any possible weapon to hurt him. He’s grabbing the tennis racket and the screwdriver. He’s going after him with everything. It appears to be hurting Rubio. It put him in a position in the (Feb. 6 on ABC) debate that caused him to fumble all over the place and exacerbate the weaknesses that Christie was trying to hit on. But I’m not sure it’s elevating Christie.

That’s a classic story — it was the same in 2004 in Iowa where Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt went after each other and John Kerry rose. So it’s a classic story but it has this new valence, which is you’ve got arguably three of the most electable governors, sitting or former, with good records who could run in the general (election). And all of them are in single digits in New Hampshire trying to stay alive.

What’s the story on the Democratic side?

What happens in the Democratic race in New Hampshire is a little less interesting because Bernie Sanders is so far ahead. South Carolina is the place where the Democratic story gets more interesting. {South Carolina holds its Republican primary on Feb. 20 and its Democratic primary on Feb. 27.}

Why have the early debates done so well on TV? What are you hoping for in South Carolina on Saturday?

There’s a fundamental question about what these parties stand for at the heart of the debates. You have interesting personalities and huge issues. In the Democratic and Republican parties there’s a question of whether the people in charge are really listening to the country. There’s a chasm between people and elected officials.

Some of the debates (so far) have been really good. The Democratic debates have surfaced real questions in the party about what it means to be a progressive, what the role of money in government is, what the role of government interference in the economy is. The Republican debates have had some of that. It’s not only the Donald Trump factor. They are surfacing some pretty important questions.

Do campaigns pay attention to social media on a granular level? Do they care what everyday people are saying about them on Facebook?

Oh yes. If you’re the coach of the little league or you’re the dad who arranges the ski trip for the church every weekend, you have a network of people who trust you because they trust you with their kids. So if you’re talking about a candidate you have an inroad into those voters that is much more powerful than somebody coming to the door or a piece of mail. So those people who have a social media following who are active who are just below the activist-citizen journalist level are super-important to campaigns.

Has Bernie Sanders’ staying power surprised you?

It surprises me. He’s a 74-year-old Democratic socialist. You can see where he would have appeal, but it would have its limitations. You knew he would have support within the party because he’s authentic and he believes in what he believes, and there’s a portion of the party that’s been starving for that. Hillary Clinton has some real issues, but she is still well liked within the party so you wouldn’t think she’d have so much softness.

Do you see parallels between Trump and Sanders?

What Trump and Sanders are tapping into is a deeply disaffected electorate. The middle class has seen wages stagnate while prices rise. We’ve talked about that squeeze for a long time. So it’s not surprising that this would elevate candidates but that it’s been this durable, in Trump’s case, is surprising. That he would be the beneficiary of it, is a surprise even though there are threads of it we saw coming.

Are Republican leaders becoming more comfortable with prospect of Trump being the party’s nominee?

They’re more comfortable from where they were at the beginning which was basically zero. When you’ve got people like Bob Dole and sitting governors saying “better Trump than Cruz,” that’s the first stage of acceptance.

Do you think anyone will have a strong enough showing in the New Hampshire to be a strong No. 2 to Trump? Will we see a winnowing of the field after the vote?

It’s the tragedy of too many alternatives. There are fewer crossover voters footers from those four candidates to Trump. In other words, if Kasich dropped out his voters would be more likely to go to Christie/Bush/Rubio than go to Trump or Cruz. So whenever three of them drop out there will be one alternative that aggregates those votes and will rise against Trump and Cruz. The problem is it may come so late in the process that the person who is finally anointed as the alternative is too wounded or doesn’t have enough delegates or doesn’t have the money, and the bandwagon has rolled on.

Do you enjoy covering the primary season process? You recently launched the “Face the Nation: 2016 Campaign Diary” podcast that offers updates several times a week in between your Sunday broadcasts.

Yes. The primaries are a little bit different for me this year so I’m getting used to it. I need to be in Washington, D.C. every Saturday and Sunday (for “Face the Nation”). I love watching how (primaries) play out and the unpredictability of it. Those of us who cover it are wrong a lot — which is good. It means some things are happening. It means we’re not telling people what to do, people are doing it on their own. It’s great when things don’t turn out the way you thought they would — then you’ve got a story.

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