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Week of 10.3.08

Transcript: New Voters in the New West

BRANCACCIO: In the last two election cycles, all eyes were on Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. But this time around... there are some new players - a handful of small southwestern states that could decide the presidency. Our team has spent a lot of time in New Mexico. We've looked at both the McCain and Obama campaigns in the state, and we've investigated a key question: which party can turn out enough new voters to win?
Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer Brenda Breslauer have our report.

HINOJOSA: These student pirates are in search of fortune on the stormy seas of this election. They're taking their "vote boat" out on campus to try to hook in the treasure of this campaign season....new voters.

While it all looks light and fun, stakes are high here. This is New Mexico, the battleground of battleground states. Michelle Obama has been here three times this year, Barack five.

MICHELLE OBAMA: And New Mexico is a battleground state. This state is critical.

HINOJOSA: And John McCain has come here three times, once with running mate Sarah Palin

MCCAIN: We must win New Mexico...

HINOJOSA: Both sides are fighting hard for these voters. But with only five electoral votes, why such a focus on a southwestern state?

HINOJOSA: Governor, why has New Mexico become such a critical state? It wasn't always that way. So what's changed?

RICHARDSON: Well, New Mexico's very independent. Every four years, it goes by one percent to one party, then to another party, generally Republican. But it's become so important, because presidential elections, at least the last three, have been so close. So as goes New Mexico, as goes small states like Colorado and Nevada and New Mexico combined, that's the presidency.

HINOJOSA: Democratic Governor Bill Richardson, who had been a presidential contender himself this year, says the results in New Mexico are as close as you can get. In fact, in the summer political movie swing vote, starring Kevin Costner, the entire election comes down to one voter....here ....in New Mexico.

The truth is almost as dramatic.

Al Gore won New Mexico by a hair in 2000 ... only 366 votes.
The closest race in the nation.

KERRY: Hello New Mexico, how are you?!

HINOJOSA: So in 2004, the pressure was on Governor Richardson to deliver the state for John Kerry. While the counting was still going on, Kerry was interviewed by an Albuquerque news station and caught off guard. Listen closely.
LOCAL NEWS REPORTER: Kerry is caught on camera talking to an aide...."your new Mexico interview is ready."
KERRY: Bill Richardson better deliver...

HINOJOSA: But in the end, it didn't happen. In the final count, the state went red for George W. Bush by fewer than 6000 votes.

RICHARDSON: I still have arrows for not delivering it four years ago. We lost it by one percent. Senator Kerry is still mad at me.

HINOJOSA: This election Richardson's pushing a new strategy. The key to winning, he says, is what he calls the "New West."

RICHARDSON: You look at the calculations. John Kerry had he won New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, he'd be president today, even if he'd lost Ohio.

HINOJOSA: That's because these three states together have 19 electoral votes, enough to have swung the election in 2004.

HINOJOSA: Why is the State of New Mexico always so close?

RICHARDSON: Because New Mexico's a western state. It's an independent state. Even the Latinos are very independent. You have pockets of conservatism, pockets of liberalism, Latinos, environmentalism. It's really a microcosm of America.

HINOJOSA: So while half the voters here are registered Democrats, and only a third are Republican, the state swings back and forth from blue to red because large numbers of pro-war, pro-gun, pro-life democrats often cross party lines. So this year, the Democrats are countering by trying to turn out new voters.

MESSENGER: New voters are definitely key to his candidacy. I mean people who have never participated in the process coming out for the first time.

HINOJOSA: We caught up with Brent Messenger, Obama's field director for New Mexico, as the campaign launched a final voter registration drive: the 30-30 project.

MESSENGER: We intend to register 30 thousand voters in 30 days And it's getting teams of people together, volunteers across the state, to go out and register their neighbors. That's really the key to our entire campaign , neighbors talking to neighbors. Everywhere in New Mexico, everywhere in the United States.

HINOJOSA: And they're canvassing in Latino communities across the state....nearly forty percent of New Mexico's registered voters are Hispanic, the largest percentage of any state.

And they're also looking for new voters on college campuses. Like here at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

SIEBERT: I think that it's gonna be the young people who swing the state.

HINOJOSA: Kelly Seibert, a senior, runs a registration table here for the College Democrats, four hours a day, four days a week.

SIEBERT: Our elections in New Mexico are won by a few thousand votes. If students vote, we can definitely make a difference.

HINOJOSA: In fact, with more than 20,000 students at this campus alone, there could be enough student votes to make a real dent in the outcome.

The day we're here one of the people the College Democrats ends up registering is a Republican.

ELIJAH: You only got Obama stickers?

SIEBERT: Yeah, we're college Democrats...

ELIJAH: I'm sorry...

ELIJAH: I'm a hardcore Republican. I'm pro-life. And—I don't know, Democrats are kind of crazy being pro-choice. But—that's pretty much my big deal. And Obama, you know, you don't got no experience, man.

SIEBERT: Well, we just registered a Republican to vote. He said he was voting for McCain. So—I mean, it's a little bit disconcerting just because to me it feels like students really shouldn't be voting Republican (LAUGHTER) But I just think it's important to get young people involved no matter what.

HINOJOSA: Young people make up nearly twenty percent of the American electorate. And youth turnout went through the roof in the primaries... Doubling, tripling and even quadrupling in some states compared to the year 2000.

So when Michelle Obama comes to New Mexico to rally women voters, a big part of her message is geared toward young people.

MICHELLE OBAMA: And these new voters that no one is even counting, these young voters, first time voters.... (applause) are gonna make the difference.

RZENDZIAN: I don't think Obama has the youth vote locked down. A lot of the people I talk to who are my age say, "Of course I'm voting for John McCain! I mean, of course!" So, they're not even questioning. They're not undecided. They're, "You, go Senator McCain." So, it's very exciting.

HINOJOSA: Kelly Rzendzian, a senior, founded students for McCain at the University of New Mexico and is the state chair of "Youth for McCain".

RZENDZIAN: I believe so strongly in the issues that John McCain stands for. And I wanna fight and work night and day to make sure that he's our next president.

HINOJOSA: On the day Michelle Obama is in town, Rzendzian plans what's known as a push back event....a rally for McCain at this local college hangout... to bring out his supporters.... Just five minutes away from where Michelle Obama is speaking on campus.

RZENDZIAN: Ok guys, this is what we are going to do. You're gonna grab a sign.. we're gonna stand...uh most of us are going to stand on this corner...but if you wanna go...

OLDER LADIES: "Obama!, Obama!, Obama!....."

GROUP: "Go McCain!, McCain!, McCain!..."

RZENDZIAN: "Alright go grab a sign and go stand outside, jump around, have fun....lets go outside now!"

HINOJOSA: Kelly keeps a smile on her face, even when Obama supporters try to steal the spotlight.

RZENDZIAN: No one can say that this election isn't heated, that's for sure. But it's good that people, especially people our age, are excited about no matter which candidate it is, it's good that they're excited, so. It's good!

HINOJOSA: Katryn Fraher, one of the student leaders behind the pirate get out the vote campaign, agrees.

FRAHER: I think not only will you be seeing them getting out to the polls, but I think they're gonna be making a lot of noise.

HINOJOSA: We follow Fraher, a volunteer for the non-profit, non-partisan, public interest research group, as she registers voters.

SARGERT: This is my first time voting. And I feel like an official adult right now.

HINOJOSA: Sophomore Alycia Sargert is so excited she's promised to get her sorority sisters involved.

HINOJOSA: Katryn also registers Krista Garcia, a freshman who plans to sign up for the military.

GARCIA: There's some things about Obama that I like. And there's some things about McCain that I like. And—but Obama's got Oprah. That's intense.

HINOJOSA: But some students are just cynical, like Adrian Garcia.

GARCIA: Politicians, all they do is lie. Have of 'em are crooked. You can see all the embezzlement things that you hear on T.V. and stuff.

HINOJOSA: Garcia says he is in no rush to register.

GARCIA: Only person that votes in my family is my grandmother. My mom she has a lot to say on politics. She hates 'em all. I'll tell you the truth. 'Cause none of 'em do what they're gonna say. That's what I mean.

HINOJOSA: Jeff Lucero, a senior, says he's voting democrat because of how the economy has affected his father.

LUCERO: Ten years ago he was doing great. I mean, he had stock options. We were able to buy a new car. And now my dad, he's constantly worried about layoffs. It sucks to see my dad go through that.

HINOJOSA: A lot is riding on voters like Lucero. That's because if young people turn out like they did in the primaries, their vote could be decisive.
The McCain campaign says it's going for the youth vote too. And there certainly is a lot of excitement and fanfare when John McCain and Sarah Palin roll into town just two days after Michelle Obama's visit.

HINOJOSA: They came here to New Mexico days after the Republican Convention.

MCCAIN: Thank you all, it's great to back in my neighboring state of New Mexico!

HINOJOSA: McCain plays up his southwestern roots.

MCCAIN: I also understand western issues, I understand Native American issues, I understand federal lands, I understand our issues, I'm a western senator.

HINOJOSA: But for a lot of the young people we talked to, McCain's message doesn't resonate.

SIEBERT: People are tired of seeing 60 and 70 year-old men—in charge of our country, because they don't know anything about our lives any more. Like, McCain doesn't have an e-mail address, which I think is a little bit crazy. Because that's how we communicate now.

HINOJOSA: But Kelly Rzendzian says that's no way to judge a president.

RZENDZIAN: I absolutely think that the internet is the future. I use the internet constantly. I'm always on the internet. But I don't think that the president needs to be able to do a Google search.

And, you know, I think once he's president, he'll have someone that can do Google searches for him or add him on Facebook or whatever it is that needs to be done. And he can go in the room with the Cabinet and make those decisions.

HINOJOSA: So far the democrats have had more success than Republicans in registering new voters in New Mexico: a twelve to one advantage since 2006. But how many of those will actually vote Democrat? Consider the Hispanic vote, many are conservative and cross party lines on issues like national security, gun ownership, and abortion. Governor Richardson has a strategy to counter that.

RICHARDSON: What needs to happen on the ground is massive, massive organization, massive turnout in the Latino areas, the Hispanic areas, the Democratic base.

HINOJOSA: So when you call Senator Obama and you say, "Look, we need you here in New Mexico, you need to come," and he's saying, "I gotta be in so many places"?

RICHARDSON: We'll I say to him, in order for you to win, we've got to organize we've got the Latinos to see you. They are our natural constituency. But we've got to move them to our side.

HINOJOSA: That's what the Obama campaign says it's trying to do by blanketing New Mexico with field offices. 39 across the state compared with six for Senator Kerry four years ago and ten for the McCain campaign today.

MESSENGER: We're in the places in this state where there has never been a presidential campaign. We have an office in every major town. We're not giving up an inch of this state.

HINOJOSA: To see this first-hand, we drive five hours south of Albuquerque, just north of the Mexican border, to a place called the south valley. The community is 84% Hispanic, a mix of people who have been here for generations and newer immigrants. There's no newspaper here and no official town. But even in this neglected community, in the lone strip mall, the Obama campaign has opened an office.

MONTOYA: People respect him in the valley because he opened up an office here. That's never been done. Ever. Ever. Nobody's ever opened up a political office here.

HINOJOSA: Victor Montoya is a volunteer for the Obama campaign.

MONTOYA: In 2004, George Bush won by 5,000 votes in the entire state of New Mexico. The South Valley has 7,000 unregistered voters. All we gotta do is register those voters, get 'em to vote, Barack Obama wins the state of New Mexico. Simple equation.

HINOJOSA: But it's not quite that simple. While more than sixty percent of the voters here are registered democrats, many in the older generation are socially conservative. That represents a challenge for Victor, even in his own family. Fred Saab is Victor's seventy-one-year-old uncle.

So—who are you—who are you supporting for President?

SAAB: Well, he's supporting Obama. I'm supporting McCain. So, we have a conflict here. Anyway—anyway we—we—we tolerate each other.

HINOJOSA: Together victor and his uncle run a tiny family grocery store in their garage. It's the kind of place where diapers sell for 25 cents apiece because the shoppers are too poor to buy an entire pack...and you can also ...register to vote here.

SAAB: This is the sign that I put up to promote McCain. It's bigger than his signs. And it—it—it summarizes much of what I think. And I'm happy to have it there, and I want people to be to—to take notice.

HINOJOSA: So what attracted Victor's uncle Fred to McCain?

SAAB: First of all, because he backs up the Iraq War. And second, he's conservative. I'm not a conservative, but he has many conservative ideas which I like. I'm a Democrat.

OFF CAMERA QUESTION: So you're a Democrat but you're voting for McCain?

FRED: Yes.

MONTOYA: I'm on the other side of the spectrum. I think—that the conservatives are leading the country in the wrong—direction. And—the exact opposite of what he said. The ex—exact opposite of what he says.

HINOJOSA: 31 -year- old Montoya moved back home here four years ago to try to make a difference in his community.

MONTOYA: I've seen too many young people get killed. I've seen too many pe—young people become drug addicts because they're not encouraged. No one's asking them to become part of the process. And when people are—are thrown into the fire, well, you know, that's all they know.

HINOJOSA: Montoya is canvassing for the Obama campaign on the streets where he grew up. On this day his cousin and another volunteer come with him.

MONTOYA: Hey, que tal, we're volunteers for the Barack Obama campaign. We're seeing if you're gonna support Barack Obama in November?

HINOJOSA: Being from around here, gives Montoya some street cred.

MONTOYA: When you see somebody like us, who are Hispanics canvassing in communities who—where we're from, it's gonna encourage them to open the door a little bit more. They're not going be as afraid.

HINOJOSA: Montoya lives in a rough area of the south valley...a community confronting drugs and gang violence.

The night after we filmed in this neighborhood, there were three gang related shootings in people's homes. Montoya says it's a challenge just to get people to open their doors.

MONTOYA: Hello? The door's open. Hello? Anybody home?
This is how people live.

And the reason we drive like this is just—everybody has dogs. You never know when somebody's gonna go after you. So it's—it's a tough town. But I'd rather have people from the community doing it. Because we can handle stuff like that a little easier than—than other people from out of town.

HINOJOSA: But even for locals, this is no easy job.

MONTOYA: Oh, he's telling us to leave.

OFF CAMERA QUESTION: What just happened there?

MONTOYA: Ah, he just told us to leave.

HINOJOSA: And then there are the voters who have already made up their minds.

MONTOYA: We're just campaigning—campaigning for—Barack Obama and—

WORKER: You must be kidding me boy, sh__. I wouldn't vote for that guy if he was the last thing in the world. I'd rather go with the old man.
He's been in the military, he knows what he's doing. This other guy don't know nothin'. He's got the experience. That's what you need, a man with—has experience behind him.

HINOJOSA: The setbacks don't discourage Montoya who is so inspired by Obama's candidacy, he wants to run for mayor.

MONTOYA: We need to be part of the system. We need to be able to bridge community organizing and politics, just like Barack Obama has. He's really giving me the courage to do this.

HINOJOSA: Arturo Uribe, a well-known community activist in the area, is much more skeptical about Obama's influence here.

URIBE: It's risky for Obama's campaign to assume that we're gonna vote Democrat just because we're registered democrats. There's a whole race issue, a whole religious issue, a whole bunch of different variables...

HINOJOSA: Uribe, who also registers voters, says he's seen first-hand the challenges for the Obama campaign.

URIBE: I mean I've sat there and had everybody say, "I ain't voting for that black man", I hate to say that I have elders in my community that are racist. But that's a fact.

HINOJOSA: Some neighbors have expressed concern, Uribe told us, that a black president would mean blacks would become the preferred minority.

URIBE: When you think of the last presidents all being white men. Well, we understand that, you know, blacks and Mexicans ain't gonna get paid attention to. But when you have a black president, they don't know. They've never had to deal with that. you know—maybe—maybe the blacks are gonna take the jobs from us if there's a black president.

HINOJOSA: And there are other challenges in getting out the vote here. Victor Montoya has had to contend with the smears and rumors that never seem to go away.

MONTOYA: They think that he's a terrorist. They think that—that it's Osama bin Laden, because his name sounds Muslim. So, that's one of the big—thing that we're trying to tell people. He's not Muslim. He's not a terrorist. He's from the United States. He's half white and he's half black.

HINOJOSA: The best way to combat the negative information, according to Governor Richardson, is for Barack Obama to show up.

RICHARDSON: Candidates in New Mexico that just use TV and internet and blogs, and don't show themselves, always do badly. But if a candidate gets out there, especially in the Latino communicate, in the plazas, in the barrios, in the neighborhoods, does well.

HINOJOSA: Uribe agrees that his community wants to know their votes matter.

URIBE: The first candidate that goes in there, drinks a 40 ounce Coors, and has some chile rellenos and says, "I will represent you," that's who I'll probably vote for..

HINOJOSA: Voter registration in New Mexico ends on Tuesday. As the weeks wind down, the key will be to turn out the voters. Arturo Uribe's come up with an innovative way to get his neighbors to the polls November 4th....limousines.

URIBE: It was cheaper to get the limousine than it is to get a 15 passenger van. And when you ask somebody to go and vote and come and vote and get in a limousine, they get in the limousine.

HINOJOSA: Right up to voting day, ground warriors in both camp will be battling for the New Mexico vote ....in the rural south....

MONTOYA COUSIN: We're missing out on some good football right here, to be helping Obama. I hope he appreciates is.

MONTOYA:Yeah, I hope President Obama realizes how important this is for us, that we're out here—

HINOJOSA: And in the cities.

RZENDZIAN: We wanna try and let people know, hey, young people do support John McCain. We're all over it! We love him, and we're going to be out here in the hot sun jumping up and down for him.

BRANCACCIO: In the weeks ahead , we'll be looking at other states which could go either way. The Adventure in Democracy continues online. We invite you to lift up the hood on the election and take a close look at the what you might call the "spin factor" for all those TV and web ads. And...you can find out which candidate your neighbors are contributing to. Also: the latest polls and blogs. Find the Democracy Toolkit on our homepage. Pbs.org is the place to start.

And that's it for now. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.