Political Science Now

APSA Interview: Chris Larimer on Making Your Message Online and On-Air

Chris Larimer is an associate professor of political science and graduate coordinator of the Master of Public Policy program at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the co-author of books on public policy theory and public administration theory, and most recently is the author of the book, “Gubernatorial Stability in Iowa.” His research generally focuses on political behavior and state politics. Dr. Larimer is a past president of the Iowa Association of Political Scientists and a regular guest on Iowa Public Radio and KWWL television news.

This interview has been slightly edited and condensed.

You are heavily involved in local media in Iowa. How and why did you get started?
In 2010, our university relations office approached me about providing more commentary or releasing my name as someone who can comment on voting behavior and elections. Some of my research at that time, which had just come out, had received a little bit of attention. Research I did with Donald Green and Alan Gerber on social pressure and voting [published in 2008] got a little attention, so our university relations office put my name out there. I started doing things for Iowa Public Radio. They have a daily show called “River to River,” and Wednesday is “Politics Day,” so they have academics from the state speaking during the hour. I started doing that, and then the local television station was looking for a political analyst, and [the university] put my name in. I started with just doing short segments where they’d ask for short comments on events and it grew from there. In 2012, on primary and general election night, I started being on set, live on air providing real-time analysis.

How do you prepare for a television appearance?
It takes a lot of practice. You start with talking a lot to yourself in the mirror. You often don’t get a lot of lead time, because [members of the media] are reacting to new events. They’ll call you up and ask if you can talk about what just happened. I finally figured out that best thing for me was to find two to three talking points and just stick to those, rather than try to explain everything. Keep it as simple as possible, and know that you have the expertise in the area and draw confidence from that. It’s exciting to talk about the research that’s out there. So stick to those points and try to bring in research in a way that’s easy to understand.

Having simple talking points is big for me. I look at the Monkey Cage as sort of the gold standard of taking political science research and applying it to the real world in a way that is easy to understand. That’s what I try to do on television. It doesn’t always work out, but that’s what I try to do. You’ll be more nervous for television and you may feel like you need to explain everything you know in a very short amount of time. That’s not helpful.

If you watch yourself afterwards—and it’s painful to do, for sure—you can see whether you’re trying to do too much in too little time. I don’t do it anymore, but I definitely recommend that when you get started you should watch and see how you do.

You provide commentary for the web, television, and radio. Do you approach the mediums differently?
Actually, no. On the blog, I try to link pieces of research to the news with the same idea of limited talking points. I try to keep it to 300 words at the most. If you go on and on and on, you lose the reader or the audience on radio or TV. It’s important to stick within the data. You can get in trouble if you say things you don’t have direct evidence to support. Stick with the data and keep it simple.

How do you address the unexpected or tough questions on television and radio?
It’s tough when you’re live on-air, especially when there’s an outcome you’re not expecting—things don’t always pan out the way you expect in elections. All you can do is provide more context.

If the question is outside your area, just be honest. Explain “this is outside my area, these are the main factors here, but it’s hard for me to comment on that.” I do that frequently on the radio. It’s an hour long show and part of the show is call-ins from listeners. You get questions like that, and the best thing you can do is not speculate. For TV and radio, you should try and anticipate as many questions as you can. The night before the radio show, [the producers] will send you a list of stories they want to talk about. So I get out the legal pad and come up with some main points there.

I made the mistake the first time I did an election night live analysis, and I knew I was going to be there all night, having two or three folders full of information thinking I would fit it all in. Now I don’t try to overwhelm myself or the audience.

What motivates you to do this work?
Part of it is service to the community. I’m at a public university, so this is my way to provide public service and to lend the skills that I have, which is expertise in political science.  I can provide context for those in the community who are looking for a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the political world. More personally, I grew up in Iowa, so I’ve always been fascinated by Iowa politics. So, this is fun for me to be involved in the process and to talk to Iowans about what’s going on. I’ve grown up with this and watched it, and it’s exciting to be a little part of that.

My university has been very supportive. It helps raise the profile of the university. It helps raise the profile of the department, so I think that’s very useful.

Do you have any other advice for members just starting to engage with the media?
I’ve done a lot for local and national media and the approach is generally the same. If a reporter calls you for comment, just tell them you’re working on something and ask if you can call back in a few minutes. It’ll help you organize your thoughts before you respond. More and more, reporters are reaching out via email so I can better organize my thoughts and really look at what I’ve written on the screen.

I feel much more comfortable with interviews than I did a couple years ago. There’s still some nervousness, of course, when you’re doing it. But now, I just try to have a good conversation and have fun with it.