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11/30/2015 07:14 pm ET Updated Dec 04, 2015

Coverage Of Marco Rubio's 'Zipper Problem' Signals Shift In Campaign Journalism

BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins reports on some unconfirmed rumors and behind-the-scenes maneuvering of a race in progress.
JOSHUA LOTT via Getty Images

NEW YORK -- There’s no concrete evidence Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has a secret family, took romantic trips with a Tallahassee operative, or committed any act of infidelity.

But BuzzFeed gave oxygen Monday to stories about Rubio’s “zipper problem” by publishing an excerpt from senior political writer McKay Coppins’ new book out Tuesday, The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party’s Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House. While such unsubstantiated claims have bounced around Florida political circles for years, they were amplified nationally, soon after the excerpt was published, via Mike Allen’s Politico Playbook and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Coppins told The Huffington Post he wasn’t motivated to simply publish rumors, but cited the news value in reporting how they were disseminated and investigated. He reported that Rubio operatives spent thousands of dollars investigating the claims in 2012, as the senator considered a national run, and how allies of two Florida rivals -- former Gov. Charlie Crist, in 2010, and more recently Republican challenger former Gov. Jeb Bush -- allegedly helped circulate them. 

"My general belief is that’s news," he said. "As long as its handled carefully and sensitively its important and its worth doing."

Still, the decision to include Rubio's "zipper" rumors reflects how nearly all political maneuvering these days, whether in an attempt to spread rumors or squash them, is fair game for the press -- even if the rumors, alone, wouldn't meet the bar for publication.

The Miami Herald's 1987 report on infidelity allegations involving former Sen. Gary Hart is considered a turning point in covering the private lives of politicians, and yet the paper only published its front page story after physically confronting the candidate outside a Washington D.C. townhouse. In 2007, journalists didn't aggressively cover the National Enquirer's reports about former Sen. John Edwards' infidelity until he was long out of the race. 

But Coppins' book clues readers into the chatter going on among political operatives during an ongoing campaign, even though substance -- and source or sources of the infidelity rumors -- is never confirmed. For instance, Coppins wrote that Rubio staffers believed Bush allies Ann Herberger and Ana Navarro were involved in the whisper campaign, though both women denied spreading any rumors and the author didn't present any hard evidence implicating them.

In The Wilderness, Coppins reveals other (less salacious) details about the 2016 candidates' motivations and campaign machinations that should satisfy political junkies. He reports on how aides to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) tried getting him to sound more Christian on the campaign trail and describes tensions with father Ron Paul, who initially pledged not to run again for president in 2012. Coppins takes readers inside Miami's famed Biltmore Hotel, where Florida politicos were forced to choose between Bush, the mentor, and Rubio, the protégé. 

He also reports that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) never believed shutting down the government would lead to defunding Obamacare, but went ahead with the strategy to bolster his anti-establishment, conservative bona fides.

Coppins said he doesn't consider his book to be a standard campaign chronicle and wants the "shelf life to be longer than the Iowa caucus." He acknowledged The Wilderness “seems like a campaign book dropped into the middle of a campaign"--especially given the subtitle -- but believes "it goes deeper than that because I think the Republican Party is at a historic crossroads." 

Though the author tackles several long-running tensions in the party -- such as between the interventionist versus non-interventionist wings, the Tea Party versus the establishment -- its hard to read the book outside the context of current polls and the immediate political news cycle, one that features major players who have little, or no role, in the book. 

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Typically, books on presidential campaigns drop long after ballots are cast. For instance, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Game Change and Double Down were published 15 months and a year after the 2008 and 2012 elections were over, respectively. The author of an election post-mortem has the benefit of hindsight and can leave the also-rans and never-rans on the cutting room floor.

Coppins spends considerable time in the book on Rubio, Cruz, Bush and Paul, as well as one contender who has already dropped out (Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal) and another who never got in the race (House Speaker Paul Ryan). 

However, Donald Trump, who has led the polls and dominated media coverage for the past five months, gets scant attention in the book. (Trump plays the biggest role in a chapter that describes the aftermath of Coppins' February 2014 article about the real estate developer’s decades-long “con” of pretending to run for office). Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has hovered near the top of the Republican pack for months, isn't mentioned once.

Of course, neither Trump nor Carson were considered contenders following the 2012 election or even in the couple of years to follow. Coppins charts the book's genesis back to a Boston ballroom on election night 2012, as President Barack Obama handily beat Mitt Romney, to the disbelief of Republicans trapped in a conservative media bubble. Coppins recalled how one shocked Romney aide pondered whether the party could win another national election if they couldn't beat a presumably weak incumbent like Obama.

Coppins said that while some Republicans considered Obama’s 2008 win a fluke -- the result of a historic, charismatic candidate hypnotizing the electorate with talk of hope and change -- the 2012 election was a reality check. Many in the Republican establishment looked inward and began sizing up how demographic changes and generational views on social issues, such as same-sex marriage, needed to be taken into consideration in hopes of broadening the party's appeal. 

In the three years that followed Romney's defeat, Coppins conducted over 300 interviews to find out how the “rising generation of conservative stars" would try to save the party. And he had to make choices given the ballooning Republican field, which swelled this past summer to 17 candidates. Coppins couldn't go deep on every possible contender, he said, or else he'd have been forced to write "an insane 10,000-page book." He said there "was a degree of guesswork that went into deciding" which Republicans to devote his energies to. 

Coppins said he considers Ryan and Jindal to be "emblematic" characters in looking at the future of the Republican party, even if neither will be the next president. He wrote about how Ryan tried reinventing himself as poverty crusader after the 2012 election, further distancing himself from Romney's "47 percent" remarks. Meanwhile, he wrote how Jindal, a former Rhodes Scholar and policy wonk, began to increasingly turn to the party's right-wing and dive into the culture wars. 

Coppins said he considers how candidates deal with the "fringe," represented on sites like Breitbart and some conservative pressure groups, as saying "a lot about their readiness to be president and basically their character as leaders.” In recent years, he said, Republican figures keep running into “this kind of far-right, weaponized establishment that has sprung up in the Tea Party era [and] that keeps thwarting their attempts to lead the party out of the wilderness.”

No candidate has embraced, even fueled, this segment of the party more than Trump.

 

Coppins reported in the book that Trump has made donations to conservative organizations, to presumably get speaking roles at events, and that some Breitbart staffers believe the real estate developer may have a financial stake in the conservative site, which has enthusiastically boosted his candidacy. 

He wrote a chapter on Trump's courting of the right -- “Into the Fever Swamps” -- before he entered the race, but believes it holds up in light of the business mogul not only running, but leading the field. 

“Instead of just, ‘Oh, poor Donald Trump going to this far right corner of the party where he’s never to be heard from again,’ it turns out he’s helped weaponize that fringe and turn it into what was already becoming a major force in the party,” Coppins said.

Coppins faced retaliation on Breitbart following his 2014 piece on Trump's "fake campaign," which he followed from New Hampshire down to Mar-a-Lago, the billionaire's palatial Palm Beach estate. The author revealed in the book that Trump sent a $10,000 bill to BuzzFeed charging the site for Coppins' flight aboard the businessman's private jet. Coppins wouldn’t comment as to whether BuzzFeed paid Trump for the flight, except to say "it was resolved."

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