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Presidential Candidates Focus on Hotly Contested Swing States

October 8, 2008 at 6:25 PM EST
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As the presidential race marches into its final weeks, the campaigns are employing a shifting set of strategies to appeal to voters in battleground states. Local political reporters discuss the campaign ground games in their states.
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JIM LEHRER: And now to journalists in three of the battleground states.

Adam Smith is the political editor of the St. Petersburg Times in Florida.

Darrel Rowland is public affairs editor and head of polling for the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio.

And Mackenzie Carpenter is a political reporter for the Pittsburgh Post Dispatch in Pennsylvania.

Adam Smith, based on polls and other measurements, where does the presidential race stand right now in Florida?

ADAM SMITH, St. Petersburg Times: Right now, it’s looking like a dead heat, maybe Obama up a couple of points. It’s neck and neck.

JIM LEHRER: Mackenzie Carpenter, what’s the state of play in Pennsylvania?

MACKENZIE CARPENTER, Pittsburgh Post Dispatch: Well, Obama has taken a big lead. A couple of recent polls show him in double-digit leads, although in southwestern Pennsylvania, where I am, that lead disappears and McCain is doing very well.

JIM LEHRER: Darrel Rowland in Ohio, what’s the race look like?

DARREL ROWLAND, Columbus Dispatch: Jim, our poll was out Sunday, and that showed Senator Obama with a 7-point lead, which was a turnaround from a 1-point deficit before the conventions.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Adam, in Florida, is it moving? Is there a trend or is it just — is it static?

ADAM SMITH: Well, the trend has clearly been, as it is elsewhere, toward Obama since the convention, and that’s been a big shift. Throughout this year, he had never — when you averaged the polls together — been better than a tie, and now he’s up maybe 3 or 4 points.

JIM LEHRER: Does the economy have a lot to do with this?

ADAM SMITH: The economy has everything to do with it. Since the economic crisis really erupted, that’s when his poll numbers really moved.

JIM LEHRER: Mackenzie, same in Pennsylvania, the economy?

MACKENZIE CARPENTER: Absolutely. The economy is critical, but, Jim, I wanted to make one point.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MACKENZIE CARPENTER: And that is, in southwestern Pennsylvania, you have a lot of Reagan Democrats, some of whom have said they will not vote for a black man. And I’m working on a story right now about the role of race in our region; I think that’s going to play a big role.

JIM LEHRER: Well, can you quantify that? I mean, in terms of…

MACKENZIE CARPENTER: No one can quantify it, but I was interviewing Senator Bob Casey today, and he said any politician who doesn’t think race is going to be an issue in Pennsylvania, certainly, is stupid. That was his word.

It could be 1 percent. It could be 5 percent. Whatever it is, it’s going to eat into the lead that Obama seems to be having right now, which is why he’s spending so much time in the eastern part of the state, which is heavily populated, Philadelphia and the collar counties, trying to boost his support there as much as possible.

Race does play a role in states

Adam Smith
St. Petersburg Times
Many times you'll talk to sort of swing voters who will say something that sounds quite racial, and they've got concerns about voting for a black man, and yet they'll still say, "But you know what? We need a change, and so I'm leaning toward Obama."

JIM LEHRER: Darrel, what's the -- are you picking up any of this in Ohio, the race thing?

DARREL ROWLAND: No question. Of course, you just come across the river into Ohio from southwestern Pennsylvania.

We had reporters scattered throughout the state. And I was kind of shocked when one of my colleagues came back from southeastern Ohio and just reported that folks would come up to her, gave her name, "Put my name in the paper. Here's how you spell it. And, oh, by the way, I cannot vote for Senator Obama because he's black."

Again, how much is that in Ohio? That's unknown.

Interestingly enough, in two days, he's going to be -- he's traveling through the heart of that area, so that will be an interesting campaign swing for him, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Adam, how do you read that issue in Florida?

ADAM SMITH: Yes, I think it's something of an issue. I'm often struck by how many times you'll talk to sort of swing voters who will say something that sounds quite racial, and they've got concerns about voting for a black man, and yet they'll still say, "But you know what? We need a change, and so I'm leaning toward Obama."

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Now, let's go -- you're getting a lot of traffic from the candidates, are you not, in Florida, Adam?

ADAM SMITH: It's pretty relentless. We had Sarah Palin for a couple of days and then Biden. It's every few days somebody is here.

JIM LEHRER: What about advertising, a lot of that?

ADAM SMITH: Tons of advertising, particularly in my neck of the woods, Tampa Bay. That's the biggest battleground within Florida, and it's nonstop on TV, especially Obama.

JIM LEHRER: Are you getting any of these attack ads? Or what kind of ads are they throwing?

ADAM SMITH: Obama is overwhelmingly leading in TV advertising in Tampa Bay and in Florida overall. And, you know, there was a study out today. About a third of his are negative. McCain has got fewer ads up so far in Florida, and most of his are negative.

JIM LEHRER: Mackenzie, what's the traffic like among the candidates in Pennsylvania?

MACKENZIE CARPENTER: Well, I'll be following Sarah Palin this weekend. They were in Lehigh County, McCain-Palin today. Senator Obama and Biden will be in Philadelphia this weekend.

Yes, we're very busy here. The ads are relentless, just like Adam was saying down in Florida. McCain is being outspent by Obama 3-to-1 here, but McCain is also spending more in Pennsylvania on ads than anywhere else in the country right now.

JIM LEHRER: What kind of ads?

MACKENZIE CARPENTER: Negative, sure. It's sort of 50 percent-50 percent. I don't watch a lot of TV, but while I was waiting to be on here, I was watching CNN, and there was another one, character, a lot of gloomy pictures of Obama, "He's not ready to lead," looking very grim, that sort of thing.

Economy remains salient issue

Darrel Rowland
The Columbus Dispatch
Food lines are growing. People who used to volunteer and serve in those food lines are now in the line getting food themselves. It's pretty bad here, so people are talking about the economy as issues one, two, and three, at least.

JIM LEHRER: Darrel, in Ohio, beyond the economy, what issues are you seeing or hearing from the candidates when they come? You've got a lot of traffic there, too, of course, but also on the ads. What are they talking about?

DARREL ROWLAND: Yes, no question. And it was referred to earlier -- there was a new study by the University of Wisconsin out today and showed that Ohio is the number-one state in the nation, in terms of the Obama and McCain ad traffic.

Beyond the economy, Jim, are we talking about anything beyond the economy these days? I don't think so in Ohio.

This is fall. This is Ohio State Buckeye football time. But, you know, there's a lot of people still saying, "Thank God for Michigan, because, without Michigan, we'd be number 50 instead of just number 49 in a lot of economic measures."

Our unemployment is at a 16-year high. Our Medicaid rolls are the highest in history. Our food stamp rolls are the highest in history. The WIC enrollment is at highest in history.

Food lines are growing. People who used to volunteer and serve in those food lines are now in the line getting food themselves. It's pretty bad here, so people are talking about the economy as issues one, two, and three, at least.

JIM LEHRER: No Iraq, no foreign policy?

DARREL ROWLAND: You see that there, and, frankly, that frustrates some of the Republicans, because they know very well that, if this campaign's on the economy, that is on Barack Obama's home turf.

So there's almost like this reminder that they want to get across, "Hey, you know, we are still at war. Terrorists are out there. There are people who want to kill us," because that's John McCain's home turf.

They want to turn the discussion, perhaps as Senator McCain mentioned, turn the page and let's talk about some of those other things.

Health care, of course, is also a concern. But, once again, that's more of an issue for Senator Obama, despite Senator McCain's attempts to make it one of his own.

JIM LEHRER: Adam, in Florida, is there a second behind the economy of any substance, of any...

ADAM SMITH: Well, I would see his economic misery and probably raise it here in Florida. We're, month after month, one or two, in terms of foreclosures, in terms of job losses. So, you know, economy is overwhelmingly number one. Way down the line are Iraq and health care.

JIM LEHRER: What about Iraq and foreign policy, Mackenzie, in Pennsylvania? Is that a big thing to talk about?

MACKENZIE CARPENTER: Not in west -- not so much in the western part of the state. I mean, certainly, we have boys here serving, boys and girls serving in Iraq.

No, it's the economy. And, again, in August alone, our unemployment rate jumped from 5.4 percent to 5.8 percent. Foreclosures have gone up by 60 percent from a year ago. This is -- just like in Ohio and Florida, it's the economy.

Huge overall interest in election

Mackenzie Carpenter
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
All I can tell you is that the voter registration edge for the Democrats has gone from 600,000, I believe, in 2000, to 1.2 million as of today.

JIM LEHRER: All right, now, all three of your states are called battleground states, and that's no accident, because there's a lot going on down there.

Adam, starting with you, what's the level of voter interest in this election, compared with elections you've covered before? Give us some measuring stick.

ADAM SMITH: Oh, I don't know if I can quantify it exactly. The polls show it's through the roof and it's been extended. You know, there are a good number of voters that started to pay attention more recently, but it's been striking how many people were paying close attention even months ago.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Mackenzie, in Pennsylvania, the same?

MACKENZIE CARPENTER: Well, all I can tell you is that the voter registration edge for the Democrats has gone from 600,000, I believe, in 2000, to 1.2 million as of today.

JIM LEHRER: And is that attributed to Barack Obama or just general interest?

MACKENZIE CARPENTER: I think both, but mostly Barack Obama. I mean, again, they don't break it down in terms of why people are registering.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MACKENZIE CARPENTER: But a lot of those folks are young people, and they tend to go for Barack Obama.

JIM LEHRER: What's the level of interest in Ohio, Darrel?

DARREL ROWLAND: Jim, it's just incredible. And you can get this anecdotally or you can get it numerically.

Our voter registration period closed last week. We now have 8.2 million registered voters. That's an all-time high. That's 94 percent of the voting population, number of eligible voters who are signed up to vote.

We also have, for the first time in Ohio, early voting in a presidential election where you don't need an excuse. Anybody can cast a ballot right now.

So thousands of votes are being cast. And, in fact, just this past Sunday here in Columbus, which is the largest city, there was a line of about an hour-and-a-half-long of people waiting to vote. It's kind of weird, people waiting in line to vote early, so they don't have to wait in line on Election Day.

Unprecedented interest in debates

Darrel Rowland
The Columbus Dispatch
They really wanted McCain to be much more aggressive, especially going in. They really wanted some of this red meat. They liked some of the message that Governor Palin is espousing on the campaign trail.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. What about the interest in the debate last night, Darrel? What was that -- could you measure that?

DARREL ROWLAND: I think so. And that gets more anecdotal, of course. I haven't seen ratings, certainly nothing Ohio specific.

I was at a debate-watching party for Senator McCain. One of my colleagues was paired with me, was at one for Senator Obama. His was actually at a movie theater, about 300 seats, and they talked about -- that was filled, both for this last debate -- there's actually even more interest in the vice presidential debate.

There were people, you know, sitting and laying in the aisles. It's probably a good thing the fire marshal wasn't there. But they were just out the door to watch a presidential debate.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Mackenzie, what about the debate interest in Pennsylvania?

MACKENZIE CARPENTER: Well, we had a big debate party here for Obama supporters at the Schenley ice skating rink, and that was a huge event. And there are also very, very feisty McCain supporters with lots of parties that we wrote about. So, on both sides, there's been a lot of interest.

JIM LEHRER: And, Adam, on the debate, did you -- has your newspaper done any reaction stories to last night's debate?

ADAM SMITH: We have not done any reaction stories to that debate. We have an ongoing focus group of undecided voters that will be coming in shortly. That focus group, incidentally, has been striking in how much it moved toward Obama, particularly because of -- as a reaction to Sarah Palin.

JIM LEHRER: What about reaction in Pennsylvania, Mackenzie? Have you all done any reporting on that?

MACKENZIE CARPENTER: Yes, we are certainly going to be writing analysis pieces over next few days, but I have a confession to make. I was in the newspaper today, so I don't really know what the voters were thinking.

JIM LEHRER: OK, that's fine. Confession is good for the journalistic soul.

Darrel, how about you? What have you -- you all been doing any reporting since last night?

DARREL ROWLAND: Absolutely. As I mentioned, we were actually at debate-watching parties.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

DARREL ROWLAND: We were getting that firsthand reaction. I was at a house in a western Columbus suburb. A lot of Republicans sort of crammed into the family room watching the big screen.

They really wanted McCain to be much more aggressive, especially going in. They really wanted some of this red meat. They liked some of the message that Governor Palin is espousing on the campaign trail.

And, frankly, I think maybe there's a little bit of disappointment that they didn't get it last night. I don't know if it was the town hall format or Senator McCain's choice, but there was just a little bit of frustration and, of course, you know, time is growing short.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Well, I must say, Darrel, Mackenzie, and Adam, it sounds to me like the three of you at least are having a really good time during this election year.

DARREL ROWLAND: It's always a mixed blessing. You know, we love it if you're into politics, but it's a lot of hours, too.

JIM LEHRER: A lot of hours, Mackenzie and Adam, as well, right?

MACKENZIE CARPENTER: I'll be working all weekend, thank you.

JIM LEHRER: OK. All right, thank you all three very much.