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Voters in Four States Go to Polls in Crucial ‘Mini Tuesday’

March 4, 2008 at 6:05 PM EDT
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In what has been dubbed 'Mini Tuesday,' voters in Ohio, Texas, Vermont, and Rhode Island will head to the polls today to choose between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in those states' Democratic primaries. Several journalists weigh in on today's primaries.
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JIM LEHRER: And, yes, March 4 finally arrived. A look at the prospects for all concerned now, with Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, and Hotline editor-in-chief Amy Walter, and Chris Cillizza of WashingtonPost.com.

The two big states of the day, of course, are Ohio and Texas. Judy, set the Democratic stage in Ohio for us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Jim, if this has been an election where issues haven’t mattered as much as people thought they might — this has been an election where people have talked about personalities and character and other things — but in Ohio, the issue of the economy and jobs does matter to these voters.

I spent four days there last week. And what you find is that not only are voters saying they want to know what these candidates are going to do about the economy, they want to know, are we going to be able to hold onto our jobs?

And so coming in, Hillary Clinton who had a big lead in polls, was already talking about why she was better on the economy, how she was going to produce jobs in Ohio. Barack Obama came back with the same thing.

That then morphed into a discussion about the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. And we heard a lot about that. We heard a lot about how Hillary’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, was the administration that created NAFTA.

And then we heard the discussion about Obama having an economic adviser who met with the Canadians and hinted that maybe he wasn’t so serious.

The bottom line, Jim, is that right now in Ohio going in, Hillary Clinton had some advantage, but Barack Obama has been fighting back. And it is anybody’s guess at this point as to where it is.

We’ve been talking — I’ve been talking to both campaigns today, and they’re both looking at turnout and they both are optimistic.

JIM LEHRER: Chris, do you share that, that both sides are optimistic and maybe each has a reason to be optimistic?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, The Washington Post: I think everyone is optimistic, Jim, until they have a reason not to be, frankly.

And when you don’t have polls closed yet, I think both sides want to make sure that they get as many of their voters — remember, these campaigns have been targeting voters for months on end, if not years, frankly — make sure they get those people to the polls. I think that’s the main task.

Just to pick up on one quick thing that Judy mentioned about the economy, preliminary exit polling, 90 percent or more of Ohio Democratic voters, people voting in that Ohio Democratic primary, said the state of the economy is either poor or not so good. In Texas, that number was above 80 percent.

So a lot of economic unrest in both of these places. We’ll see which candidate capitalizes, but that is a change-oriented electorate, people not liking the direction, at least on the economy, that the country is headed.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Amy, is there any indication as to how that falls on either side? I mean, does this 90 percent concern about the economy, does that help Clinton or does that help Obama, or do we even know at this point?

AMY WALTER, The National Journal: Well, the assumption would be that those would be the sort of folks that Hillary Clinton has done very well with traditionally. So these would be people who are making less than $50,000 a year, people she’s done much better with, those kinds of voters. People who may not have a college education, again, those are the types of voters that she does better with than Barack Obama.

I don’t know where independents are coming in. We’ve been talking so much in these last few elections about the impact of these suburban voters, these swing voters that have been going more for Barack Obama. He’s doing much better among people who feel better about their personal financial standing.

At the same time, the way Ohio is going in general, I think there’s just a sense of a malaise in that state, much like we saw in a place like Michigan, but it may not give us as much insight into the types of voters that are coming out and who they’re going to vote for.

JIM LEHRER: Chris, is there any early exit poll information about how many independents voted in Ohio compared with Democrats? Is there any breakdown at all to help us on that?

CHRIS CILLIZZA: Jim, I wish there was, but there isn’t yet. Basically, the information that we currently have is really about the shape of the electorate, the things driving them, the economy, obviously.

And then, again not surprising — and this has been the case in almost every primary and caucus — change, people want change. The key attribute in selecting a candidate: a candidate able to bring about change.

So more than 40 percent in each Ohio and Texas saying that change is their key attribute. That’s what we know for the moment.

Measuring voter turnout in Texas

JIM LEHRER: OK, Gwen, set the table in Texas.

GWEN IFILL: Well, you know as well as I do, Jim, Texas is a very big place. And in this case, it's just split up in a million geographic ways.

You look at the big cities, Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas, and that's where Barack Obama is traditionally thought to be strong, huge black populations, urban voters.

And then you look in south Texas, where I was last week, along the Rio Grande border, and that's where there's a 90 percent Latino presence in cities like Brownsville. And that's where Hillary Clinton has had as her firewall.  But there's this generational split, too.

So the question is, then, who of these people have turned out? So far we've seen remarkable numbers, four times the number of early voters in this campaign, as of last Friday, than in 2000. More than voted in the entire Democratic primary had voted early voting just last Friday. So already there's some sort of energy going on.

The question is: Who does this energy benefit? There are these not very complicated, but a more complicated than other states rules about how the voting goes.

There are two parts to the process. They vote until the polls close at 8:00 or 9:00 in Texas tonight, and then they come back at 9:15, theoretically, and vote in caucuses.

In the past, caucuses have just been a couple of party insiders getting together and, who knows, doing whatever they do in Texas when they vote late at night, and then that was it. This time, everybody is talking about coming back. No one knows how they're going to be able to manage this. The campaigns are trying to get people to come back.

And then once that is done, because the Democrats have this proportional system for awarding delegates, you have to decide who gets the most delegates. In this case, it's based on past turnout.

And because George W. Bush is from Texas, Latinos, who are thought to be Hillary Clinton's strength, had voted Republican in the past. So this time they're expected, even if she does well with Latinos, that number might be diluted somewhat.

So just as Chris was saying, it's completely up in the air in Texas. And it's all about who shows up and then what happens once they do.

Popular vote vs. delegate count

JIM LEHRER: And, Amy, what would you add to the air about Texas?

AMY WALTER: Well, this comes down to the question, are we going to be talking about delegate counts or are we going to be talking about the popular vote? Because it is very clear that, if Hillary Clinton does win the popular vote in Texas, she could still lose the delegate count.

JIM LEHRER: That's before the caucuses or anything.

AMY WALTER: Before the caucuses, because, as Gwen pointed out, the proportion, the kinds of people who are going to show up for the caucuses, as we've seen nationally, really benefits Barack Obama, as well as the proportional system that we're talking about in terms of the other delegates that get selected ultimately.

But what is interesting just in looking at some of the early stuff that's coming out of the exits that we've seen is the fact that Hispanic turnout was very high, much higher than it was in 2004, almost a third of the electorate. That looks very similar to what California turned out, where Hillary Clinton obviously did very well, and that African-American turnout not as high. It's about 20 percent, sort of traditional turnout, so not bumping up those numbers.

But Gwen brings up a good point, which is these early voters, have they been factored into this? The big thing we've been hearing about in Texas for some time now is, what about crossover voters, not just independents, but Republicans?

Remember, there are a lot of Republicans who feel like the nomination's sort of sewed up. They don't necessarily need to go out and vote for John McCain. There's been a lot of talk in recent days. Even Rush Limbaugh got into it, saying, "Hey, go out there and vote for Hillary Clinton, Republicans, so we can keep the Democrats fighting and keep this going on for some time."

So we don't know. So much of that early voting, when we've seen those numbers, are coming from Republican counties, turning out and picking up Democratic ballots. So I just have a feeling it's...

JIM LEHRER: And who knows who they're voting -- we don't know who they're voting for.

AMY WALTER: Right. We assume that this is -- we assume early on that those are the Barack Obama-type voters, that these are moderate, sort of suburban voters, the same kind of votes he's been getting in places like Virginia, for example. And we don't know, of course, when these get factored in, what the ultimate turnout looks like.

Weighing potential outcomes

JIM LEHRER: OK, Chris, starting with you and then we'll go to all four of you, this is make-or-break, this is fill-in-every-cliche-there-is about how important Ohio and Texas are in this.

Explain some scenarios. Let's say, begin with the main -- the possible scenario that Obama or Clinton wins both Ohio and Texas. Go.

CHRIS CILLIZZA: Well, OK. The simplest scenario is the one you just outlined, Jim, which is, if Barack Obama wins Ohio and Texas, all indications point to this race being over.

Those two states are states where the Clintons have enjoyed a long relationship. Polling showed her comfortably ahead. As Amy mentioned earlier, demographically those states should help her, rural voters, lower-middle-class voters, and, in Texas, Latino voters. If they lose those two states, it's hard to see her going on.

If she wins those two states, on the other hand, I think we begin preparing for the next, next Super Tuesday, which is going to be April 22nd.

JIM LEHRER: The next most critical night of the whole campaign, right.

CHRIS CILLIZZA: Exactly, April 22nd in Pennsylvania, where the Clinton campaign feels pretty good. So, you know, there's a wide range in between those two scenarios.

But, you know, I think those are the only ones that provide us definitive conclusions about what happens. If one candidate wins one, one candidate wins the other, we're in a maelstrom of spin that I've think we've not encountered before.

JIM LEHRER: Spin and mess, Judy?

JUDY WOODRUFF: It is a mess, Jim. And you're already -- both campaigns are saying, "Well, if this happens, then this is going to happen, and if and if and if."

I just a few minutes ago got off the phone with a senior adviser in the Obama campaign who said that Hillary Clinton, whatever happens, he said, is going to be on a search-and-destroy mission to go and fight for every delegate, every vote.

They're not expecting -- the Obama people don't expect her to stop. And, frankly, her own people don't expect her to stop.

You do, though, Jim, hear from Democrats who are saying, if there is not a definitively perceived win on her part tonight -- and definitive...

JIM LEHRER: Yes, whatever that means, huh?

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... meaning giving her a real boost, then she's going to come under increasing pressure to move out.

Impact of super delegates

JIM LEHRER: Gwen, what would you like to add to that?

GWEN IFILL: I would like to add nothing. No, I would like to add this whole question of definitions. Who gets to decide what "winning" is?

Hillary Clinton's folks are usually -- at least in this last week -- have been pretty good about setting what the parameters are of defining what winning and loss is. However, there are some numbers which we can apply, no matter how they choose to define it, and that's the delegate count, which up until recently the Clinton people have said that's what they were going by.

And the delegate count has us at -- even if let's just take a wild guess and say Barack Obama wins Vermont tonight. But let's take a guess. And I've seen estimates that show, even if she won tonight and all the way through the next two weeks, she would still be lagging in the delegate count, which means super-delegates, once again, would have to theoretically go against the vote in order to deliver it to her.

JIM LEHRER: And it's your turn, Amy.

AMY WALTER: OK. To add one more piece to this -- I don't know if I can -- but the interesting thing is the pressure right now on super-delegates to -- if this is a split decision, do they want to pick somebody -- because they are very nervous about John McCain getting a free ride, that there's more in-fighting.

We've seen, obviously, the rancor increase between the two campaigns. Are we going to see real damage to the ultimate nominee?

But let's talk about the voters, because they're the people that matter. Democratic voters, actually, they want to see this go on. They do feel like if Hillary Clinton wins one of these states...

JIM LEHRER: Get more states involved.

AMY WALTER: ... yes, that she should continue the campaign, she shouldn't get pushed out. So this is, again, where you're going to have the base versus the bigwigs, the elites in the party. That's not where Democrats want to be.

JIM LEHRER: Well, I've heard and hung on your every word, all four of you. Thank you very much.