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What’s Driving the Country’s Most Coveted Voters?

July 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
The presidential campaign is targeting swing states, including Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia and Florida. Gwen Ifill interviews Anna Sale of WNYC's "It's a Free Country," who is traveling through the battleground states. They discuss who these voters are and the issues that drive them.
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GWEN IFILL: The presidential campaign is narrowly targeted this year to a handful of battleground states: Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia and Florida. Some also add Wisconsin to that mix, states where it is impossible to turn on the television without seeing a political ad.

Anna Sale of WNYC Public Radio’s “It’s a Free Country” website set out to talk to the voters along the way. On this swing, she began in Colorado, before heading off to Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio.

She joins us now from Des Moines.

Anna, welcome.

ANNA SALE, WNYC: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Now, define for us what — in your hip pocket, how do you define a swing state?

The Mitt Romney attacks on Obama and President Obama attacks on Romney both seem to be landing, but not with a sense of, 'oh, finally someone's giving me a solution.'Anna Sale, WNYC

ANNA SALE: Well, first, swing states are states where polls are close and also that have swung back and forth over the last several presidential cycles.

It’s also the states where we’re seeing the presidential campaigns focus all of their visits and their efforts. So we wanted to go to these states not in the shadow of these campaign rallies, but to talk to voters this summer as they’re going about their daily business, as they’re at shopping centers and fairs and at work, and see what they’re talking about outside the shadow of the campaign.

GWEN IFILL: No, two of these states are very much alike. So, how do you decide to prioritize? How do you decide where to go?

ANNA SALE: Well, we decided to go to Colorado because it’s such an interesting state, because it really — the Obama campaign’s Western strategy sort of hinges on winning Colorado.

He’s led in the polls there, but that lead over Mitt Romney is shrinking. So, we wanted to go there and see what was going on. The Western strategy is the idea that if the Obama campaign can win Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Iowa, then they could be insulated against losing like Ohio and Florida.

Arriving in Colorado, I was surprised to see the lack of enthusiasm for President Obama. He’s had this consistent lead in the polls, but very muted enthusiasm for people who say they plan on voting for him again. And I even met several Obama supporters who said they voted for him four years ago, but they’re so dissatisfied. It’s not that they are considering voting for Mitt Romney. It’s that they’re weighing whether they want to go to the polls at all.

GWEN IFILL: Yes. So people are thinking about staying home.

I’m always very curious when you talk to these voters who they exactly are. We talk about swing voters and independent voters and undecided voters. And they’re not necessarily the same thing, are they?

ANNA SALE: No, no.

And in Colorado, we decided to focus on suburban counties and Hispanic voters. Suburban counties, there are three in Colorado that have swung back and forth over the last couple of election cycles, Larimer County, where Fort Collins is, and then two counties outside of Denver, Jefferson county and Arapahoe County.

So, talking to voters there, I found what you would think of as the independent voter, voters who voted for George W. Bush during the 2000s, voted for Obama in 2008, some high-income voters who didn’t like what Obama was saying about the $250,000 limit on extending the Bush tax cuts. And that’s where I found voters who were really saying I think I might go for Mitt Romney this year after voting for Obama four years ago.

And then the reason we wanted to talk to Hispanic voters is because what’s interesting and happening in the polls in Colorado is, as Mitt Romney is gaining among independents, you see Obama widening his lead among Latino voters. So, this was after the executive order last month about limiting deportations for some young people.

So I wanted to go see if that has sort of ignited some enthusiasm among Hispanic voters, and was really surprised to see not at all. I found voters who voted for the first time in 2008, really excited to be a part of history, and just have been absolutely deflated and unexcited about what Obama has done.

And when you talk to Hispanic voters in Colorado, immigration is not the first thing that comes up, at least in my conversations. It was the economy. And on that, they’re just as disappointed as what you hear from other voters.

GWEN IFILL: You’re in Iowa tonight, a place that we pay a lot of attention to early in the campaign year, and generally don’t ever come back to until four years later.

Are you — do you find voters are saying the same types of things, or are there different issues driving the voters in Iowa?

ANNA SALE: Well, I was in county called Adams County this morning. It’s a rural county, a farming county. And it went for George W. Bush four years ago and went for Obama — or — excuse me — George W. Bush in 2004 and Obama four years ago.

And people were talking about the drought. They were talking about being afraid about this year’s crop. And what’s interesting is it stands against what has been a relatively prosperous couple of years for the farming community. So, this is relatively low unemployment in this rural county, but one farmer told me despite that this is a county that has been in terminal decline. He said it.

So they’re looking for plans from both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. But what I found talking to voters there, not a lot of movement among who they voted four years ago, not a lot of change, the voters who supported McCain planning to vote for Mitt Romney, the voters who supported Obama four years ago planning to stick with him, but need some nudging to be excited.

GWEN IFILL: But in these three years since then, the economy has taken such a dive that it’s become kind of a cliche that the economy is the number one issue. How do you break that down when you look at these voters? Is there a demographic way of breaking down how people react to the stress of the economy?

ANNA SALE: Well, that’s what is interesting in a state like Iowa that has about 5 percent unemployment. Jobs and the economy is still the first thing that people bring up.

And it’s more a sense of, I think, anxiety about the direction of the country, wanting to know where we’re going, so not so much I’m worried about my job or my kids’ jobs, because the unemployment rate here is much better than it is in other parts of the country, but a real sense of just wanting to know more from the candidates where we’re going.

And neither candidate really seems to be providing that, because there’s a lot of negative campaigning. And all of my conversations, the conclusion is everybody’s feeling a little bit negative.

GWEN IFILL: Is there anything that’s resonating with these voters either in the television ads they see or the visits that the candidates make to these states? Is there anything that anybody is saying that is making them at this early stage — it’s still only July — say, aha, that is what I want someone to say to me?

ANNA SALE: Not so much that’s what I want someone to say to me, but definitely those negative attacks from both sides of the aisles are coming through.

I talked to voters who even those who support Mitt Romney say, I know that he’s rich, I don’t know that he can understand what happens at my dinner table when we talk about our household budget. And then there are Obama supporters who are higher-income in those Denver suburbs, like I was talking about, some sort of reservations, not liking the Obama campaign’s message about prosperity and economic success.

And so those sorts of — the Mitt Romney attacks on Obama and President Obama’s attacks on Romney both seem to be landing, and — but not a sense of, oh, finally someone’s giving me a solution. Voters seem to be hungering for that, but not getting it at this stage in the campaign.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and enjoy your travels, Anna, talking to voters, a very good idea, if we say so ourselves.

Thanks a lot.

ANNA SALE: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: We have posted Anna’s latest blog for itsafreecountry.org online, along with a map of where she’s headed to next.

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