GWEN IFILL: Could this be the closest campaign in a generation or do the candidates know something we don’t? We explore, tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) Hello, Virginia.
MITT ROMNEY [REPUBLICAN NOMINEE FOR PRESIDENT]: (From tape.) I’m glad to be here in Columbus, Ohio.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) How are you doing, Tampa?
MR. ROMNEY: That’s a Nevada welcome.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Hello, Colorado.
MS. IFILL: It’s getting close, getting nervous yet. It’s now officially $1 billion campaign and the candidates are all in.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) I’ve been going for about 38 hours straight. Even though my voice is getting kind of hoarse, I’ve still got a spring in my step because – because our cause is right.
MR. ROMNEY: (From tape.) I’m not just optimistic about winning. I’m more optimistic about the future for America.
MS. IFILL: So what do we know about how the campaign is trending and who’s already voted, about how these candidates would handle foreign policy?
MR. ROMNEY: (From tape.) But you look at the record, you look at the record of the last four years and say is Iran closer to a bomb? Yes. Is the Middle East in tumult? Yes. Is – is al-Qaida on the run on its heels? No.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) You’ve said that first we should not have a timeline in Afghanistan. Then you said we should. Now, you say maybe or it depends.
MS. IFILL: And what do we know about the ground game it will take for either one to win? Covering the campaign’s closing weeks, Molly Ball of The Atlantic, Gloria Borger of CNN, Susan Davis of USA Today, and James Kitfield of National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill” produced in association with National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. It’s about 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, two Fridays before the election, and according to the app on my iPhone, we have 10 days, 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 16 seconds left before the polls close. And according to everyone of what seems like 1,000 surveys taken this week, this thing is a true dead heat. So what are the candidates up to? They are releasing new ads every day.
NARRATOR: (From tape.) It’s said that character is what we do when we think no one is looking. Mitt Romney thought no one was looking when he attacked 47 percent of Americans. His company shipped jobs overseas. His plan cuts millionaires’ taxes, but raises yours.
NARRATOR: (From tape.) Higher deficits, chronic unemployment, a president who admits he can’t work with Congress.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) You can’t change Washington from the inside.
NARRATOR: (From tape.) But he says he’s only had four years. That’s all Mitt Romney needed. He turned Massachusetts, cut unemployment, turned the deficit he inherited into a rainy day fund.
MS. IFILL: And they are crisscrossing the nation attracting huge crowds in one or the other of about eight key battleground states in search of a breakout message.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) There’s no more serious issue in the presidential campaign as – than who can you trust. Trust matters. Who’s going to look out for you? And here’s the thing. Nevada, you know me by now. You know I say what I mean and I mean what I say.
MR. ROMNEY: (From tape.) This is not the time to double down on trickle down government policies that have failed us. It’s time for new bold changes that measure up to the moment and that can bring America’s families the certainty that the future will be better than the past.
MS. IFILL: And that’s just what you can see. The campaign is coming down to science. Numbers crunching, door knocking, message crafting science. And that extends to politics at every level, including a critical group of tight Senate races. At this point, does anyone really know what’s going to decide all of this, Gloria?
GLORIA BORGER: No. (Laughter.) I think – look, it’s coming down to a smaller and smaller group of undecided voters. If you talk to Republicans, the Karl Rove theory is that this late in the race undecided voters will go to the challenger. If you talk to people working for President Obama, they say that is not the case. And if you talk to other people, they will say they might just stay home and decide not to vote.
And I think what you saw on those clips that you were showing was the candidates making their closing arguments, because in the end, after all of the negative ads, which I think at this point probably cancel each other out, I think it’s just a lot of noise out there right now. It comes down to a matter of trust, who do you trust, who’s character do you really believe in, and overall, whose optimism do you kind of buy into?
MS. IFILL: But we have heard today, Molly, we heard Mitt Romney with a slightly tweaked message, talking about change, the hopey-changey thing, which seems to me used to be the province of President Obama.
MOLLY BALL: I think this is a very clever turn by him and I’m kind of surprised he didn’t start hitting this theme a lot earlier because the Obama brand with hope and change was so strong, like you just said, the way – the way Sarah Palin said it, that hopey-changey thing, it really reminds people that this was what he promised and Romney’s whole theme is that what he promised hasn’t come true.
MS. IFILL: When I covered Bill Clinton, he campaigned on change and defeated an incumbent, so maybe that’s just what you do because as an incumbent, you can’t run on change because you’re the guy in the job, right?
MS. BORGER: No, but what you run on is I delivered and that’s what we’re hearing from the president. I promised to end the wars. I’m going to end the wars. I promised that the economy would start heading in the right direction, and look, the economy is heading in the right direction. I promised that I will get you health care and I passed health care reform. So he’s got to run to a certain degree on that.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about where the candidates are actually going, because that will tell you a lot about what this means and what is real, because there are some head fakes this week. We’re going to compete – we’re not going to compete in North Carolina. We are going to compete in Minnesota, but today, the president gave a series of interviews to local TV stations and who he talked to tells you a lot about what you need to know. Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, Florida, every last one of them, battleground states. And Romney has been campaigning in Iowa, in Virginia this weekend, if the storm doesn’t knock him off, in Florida, in Wisconsin. So these are – this is what it’s all boiled down to very much so, Molly.
MS. BALL: Absolutely. These key states – and you see them both doing this marathon style campaigning now – this frenzy of like three different states a day, going from stop to stop on the plane. You’ve got to imagine they’re just exhausted, but it is – it’s a very narrow group of states. They’re really not venturing outside of it. I don’t think anyone thinks that new states are really going to come on to the board at this late stage in the game. Like you say, there was a little bit of chatter today about Minnesota, both of the campaigns putting a little bit of money into some media markets in Minnesota and the speculation is, well, is this just about actually the ads that we did into Wisconsin, or what is it, but you don’t see any candidates actually going to Minnesota.
MS. IFILL: Let’s do a little three-dimensional chess, too, because this is not just about the presidential campaign, and, James, it’s not just about the issues about leadership and trust. It’s also this week been about a very narrow – more narrow specific. Let’s talk about the Senate races for instance. That map looks very different when you look at where the Senate competition is.
SUSAN DAVIS: Yes, a lot of the Senate battleground is happening outside of the traditional battleground states. I think the best example of that is probably Massachusetts. You’ve a battleground Senate race there, Scott Brown historically won the Ted Kennedy seat is up against Elizabeth Warren. It’s a tight race and I think if it wasn’t for a presidential year, Scott Brown would probably be favored in the state, but I think Elizabeth Warren’s probably going to win in the end, at least the momentum and the polling is starting to go in her favor. And that’s all because of Barack Obama. At the same time, we do – there is a little bit of overlap. So the presidential battleground, the Senate battleground, states like Nevada, there’s a good example, where –
MS. IFILL: You say Nevada –
MS. DAVIS: Nevada. You’re absolutely right. I’m going to get angry letters now. In Nevada, where I think that the Senate race is going to track probably very similar along the lines of the presidential race. And with Obama doing well in Nevada, it’s also good news for Shelley Berkley, who’s the Democrat that’s running there as well.
MS. IFILL: How about Montana, say?
MS. DAVIS: Montana’s a good example. We’re not seeing the opposite. There isn’t a lot of Romney coattail effect in a lot of these states. A lot of them are either competitive or leaning towards Democrats because of Obama. In Montana, it’s one good example. I think it’s one place where Romney’s going to win. It’s a very tight race for the Senate. I think that race could be – it would not shock me if that race was decided by less than 1,000 votes. That’s how tight Montana Senate –
MS. BORGER: There aren’t that many people there.
MS. BALL: Yes, that’s like 5 percent.
MS. DAVIS: And – and in that case, Denny Rehberg, who’s challenging the incumbent Jon Tester, he’s in a good place to be a week out from the election.
MS. IFILL: Indiana this week, Gloria, that’s also – that wasn’t such a tight race and all of a sudden it is again, because of –
MS. BORGER: Well, of course, and it’s one of those because of remarks made by Mourdock, who –
MS. IFILL: Richard Mourdock–
MS. BORGER: Richard Mourdock, who spoke about rape again and it sort of echoed Todd Akin –
MS. IFILL: Even though it was very different from what Todd Akin said.
MS. BORGER: It was very different because he’s opposed any exceptions for abortion. Now, that is a different position from Mitt Romney’s position, we should say. But what happens in this kind of a situation when you’ve had the issue of contraception be an issue in the campaign and women are – you want to talk about being up for grabs – women voters are the crucial voters in every swing state. So if you’re the Romney campaign, something like that happens. Romney just cut an ad –
JAMES KITFIELD: Just cut an ad for him the day before.
MS. BORGER: The day before, right. So you worry about that. Now, I talked to somebody, a senior adviser in the Romney campaign after the Mourdock thing happened, and I said, so does this make you nervous? He said, look, we tested this after Todd Akin and what we believe people believe is that just because somebody says a dumb think doesn’t – they don’t necessarily blame your candidate for it. But I’m not so sure that it doesn’t – there isn’t some sort of osmosis at some point where, you just say, well, it’s just a Republican saying this. We’ve heard this a few times now and whether that doesn’t –
MS. BALL: Well, what the Obama campaign believes is that any excuse to bring this up –
MS. BORGER: Of course.
MS. BALL: – sways women toward them, right? And I’ve talked to so many undecided women voters in a lot of these states, where they do feel sort of tugged in two directions. Maybe they are leaning toward Romney when they think about the economy. And then, when you can get them thinking about women’s health again, the Obama campaign definitely thinks you can just get them thinking about these social issues, particularly abortion again, then they lean back toward Obama, because that’s the direction they lean on that issue.
MS. IFILL: I’ve had the same kinds of conversations with women voters.
MS. BALL: So if they can just make these women voters have that issue at the top of their minds, instead of the economy at the top of their minds, that’s what’s going to sway them.
MS. IFILL: Here’s an issue that’s not at the top of anyone’s mind, even though it was the subject to the final foreign policy – the final debate, which was this week actually – feels already like it was months ago – but at the end of that debate, you came away – it was clear that both of them had a strategy going in, James, and had very little to do with talking about what the U.S. would do, what the U.S. foreign policy would be for the next four years.
MR. KITFIELD: Right, there was a sort of expected clash of worldviews. Romney’s been pushing this idea of American exceptionalism, very muscular brand of foreign policy, criticizing President Obama consistently from the right on pulling troops out too quickly from Iraq and Afghanistan, talking to doing a reset with Russia, coddling dictators in Beijing, right down the line. That Romney didn’t show up for the debate. He absolutely pulled himself very close to President Obama’s positions on pulling the troops out of Afghanistan in 2014, on not introducing military forces into this crisis in Syria, and crippling sanctions on Iran. It was really stunning. And –
MS. IFILL: Do the specifics matter? Was this about both of them trying to look like commander-in-chief –
MR. KITFIELD: Well, it was actually I think a good strategy on Romney’s part. Actually, I think the public suffered from not having really two candidates with really very different instincts on foreign policy. Those distinctions were blurred in this strategy that Governor Romney adopted. But this is turf that he has stumbled on. Any challenger challenging the commander-in-chief who’s been in office four years is at a disadvantage. Whenever he’s got into the foreign policy arena, Romney has stumbled. He’s stumbled in that second debate by challenging Obama about whether he actually called what happened in Benghazi an act of terror. And this time, he sort of ceded the ground and tried to look moderate and presidential. And I think, if you look at the polls that probably succeeded. President Obama was ready this time, after the first debate, he called them out. You had this position before and now you’re saying this.
MS. IFILL: Amnesia.
MR. KITFIELD: Right, right.
MS. IFILL: But here’s the thing that puzzles me about this. I saw at least one poll where people thought Obama won the third debate, that he won the second debate. That Romney won the first debate, that Romney won all the debates. He’s still got – had the most to gain in the end.
MS. BORGER: Well, just by standing there next to the commander-in-chief, or sitting there, that you raise your level because you’re actually going toe-to-toe with the commander-in-chief on questions of foreign policy. And it was interesting. During the foreign policy debate, I was getting all these emails from conservative Republicans, one of whom said I think I’m going to go have another bourbon right now, particularly after the president said withdraw from Afghanistan on this timetable without questioning the timetable, without talking about the commanders on the ground –
MR. KITFIELD: Conditions-based, all of that –
MS. BORGER: – conditions-based and all the rest. And so – what was interesting to me was that all of the sort of neo-cons –
MS. IFILL: Did that bother – I mean were they –
MS. BORGER: Yes, yes. They were upset by it, but they’re not about to say anything right now. They’re kind of holding their – holding their fire.
MR. KITFIELD: Partisans and foreign policy experts like myself were really expecting this big clash of worldviews, because that’s how it’s been set up. And that is really – when you get to a debate, you really want to have distinctions clarified and illuminated. You don’t really want distinctions blurred, because then you want –
MS. IFILL: Well, let me ask you about one, the size of the military. That was one major clash in the debate, where the president – this is where the horses and bayonets came about. But the real argument was about what the size of the military should be and whether it should be cut and there’s not – there’s not uniform agreement on that.
MR. KITFIELD: No and that is one – that was one clear distinction. Governor Romney wants to keep 100,000 troops that the Pentagon, after these wars wind down, wants to get rid of, and he wants to increase the size of the Navy. And there is a difference there. He also wants to increase defense spending. And – depending on how you feel about whether now is the time to increase defense spending or whether you think it’s time to sort of put that money and into trying to get rid of our deficit and our economic crisis is a pretty good distinction. But again, to what end? The foreign policy debate was supposed to give you a sort of a strategic framework to decide what this president would do with the military, how he would act towards crises, and we didn’t get a whole lot of that.
MS. IFILL: You know, I wonder – and Molly, you’ve been doing a lot of this, which going out on the campaign trail with actual canvassers and door-knockers, and people who are talking to voters every day, and I wonder whether these kinds of issues that we talk about in our little hot house here in Washington come up on the cul-de-sacs, when people are trying to get voters to shop to vote.
MS. BALL: They do. It’s easy to say, oh, voters don’t care about x, y, and z because something doesn’t move the polls, but voters are smarter than we think. Generally, they pay attention and they are really – they’re processing all of this in a very careful way. I spoke to one woman in Florida who said the reason she’s still undecided is that she’s got all the debates on her DVR and she wants to do her homework –
MS. IFILL: What?
MS. BALL: – and she’s going to sit down –
MS. IFILL: What? I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. (Laughter.)
MS. BALL: I know. It sounded awful to me. It sounded like a recipe for a very long nap, but she really wants to do her homework. There’s a sort of tremendous earnestness. I think a lot of undecided voters are people who legitimately see validity in both candidates’ views, don’t feel like they’re experts on the issues, and so, like Gloria said, they really are looking for that trust factor, that character factor to come out.
MS. IFILL: But how much of this is about the undecided voters and how much is it about trying to turn out, at this stage – two weeks to go -- the people who were just more likely – more of the people who were likely to support you than the people who were likely to support the other guy?
MS. BALL: It’s absolutely both, yes. And that’s – and that’s the science of the campaigns that you were talking about before.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. BALL: And I’ve been visiting field offices in all of these different states and trying to see – most of what goes on, you can’t see –
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. BALL: Most of it is about the sort of the barcodes on the sheets as the canvassers are going out, who’s doors they’re deciding to knock on and why and who they’re calling and how, how they’re making those contacts? Obama built a very formidable organization four years ago. He’s continued to build on that using very advanced data targeting techniques, really sort of picking up where Karl Rove left of in 2004. Republicans didn’t nearly come close to that in 2008. They’ve made a lot of progress since then, but most of the people who watch this stuff objectively would say that they are still not in the same league.
MS. BORGER: It is such a science at this point and don’t forget. The Republicans had to go through their primaries. While the Republicans were going through their primaries, the Democrats were signing up voters, registering voters, figuring out how to get them out. That’s why you see in the state of Ohio, for example, even the polls are a handful apart with the president in the lead, the organization in the state of Ohio for the Democratic Party is unbelievable. The question is, who do you actually get to vote early? You have to be careful – the word is “cannibalize” – you don’t cannibalize your voters who are going to go out in the general election.
MS. IFILL: There are eight million people who have voted early by now.
MS. BORGER: Right, right. What you need to do is get those voters they call low propensity voters –
MS. IFILL: Sporadic voters, I hear that term –
MS. BORGER: Unlikely voters, yes, voters who might not otherwise vote, voters who – so you want to get them to vote early for you without – without depressing your own turnout on Election Day. So it is such a science and it’s very difficult to tell right who’s winning.
MS. IFILL: Does that kind of science trickle down to House or Senate races really? It’s very different, isn’t it?
MS. DAVIS: It’s very different. I think part of it, too, Obama’s campaign organization, they run – sort of their ground game is run a little bit separately from the operations in the House and Senate. They have different voter lists. They have different ways of targeting how they get their voters out. I think in some ways candidates just get the fringe benefit of having – in a presidential election year. That there’s not much they can do in terms of overlap. And in the sense that they tend to benefit in certain places because you get higher turnout in presidential election years. And in a lot of ways, that tends to benefit the incumbent, which is one way in which I think we’re seeing not a tremendous amount of turnover in the congressional elections this year – that the turnover in Congress tends to happen in off years, presidential years tends to reinforce the status quo within Congress.
MS. IFILL: How – how – if you had to isolate a state or two, especially in tightest races, which could determine – the ones that you’re watching that could determine the actual control of the Senate, which would you say those are?
MS. DAVIS: I think if you want to go to bed early, you keep your eye on Virginia, one because it’s such a tight presidential battleground and the battle between Tim Kaine and George Allen, two former governors, George Allen also a former senator, who famously made the macaca remark and when he was running for reelection, I believe it was 2006, both very well-known in the state. Every poll has had them within 1, 2, 3 points. This is sort of seen as one these bellwether races. That if Tim Kaine wins, Democrats are probably in a good position to hold on to the Senate. If George Allen’s winning, you’re going to want to stay up later and see where the rest of the map falls.
MS. IFILL: After all the debates were over, James, when you took the long view of these two candidates and how we got to see – this woman who watches them all on the DVR – will she know more about specifics, about how they will govern or just more about how different they are from one another, especially in this last debate?
MR. KITFIELD: Well, I mean, I think the debates have been disappointing that way. And I – and part of its strategy – I mean, clearly, on two of the debates, Governor Romney decided he wanted to absolutely move to the middle and be much more moderate. So he tried to – basically blurred a lot of distinctions that he had made during the primaries. That’s perfectly – it seems to be working for him. So who am I to criticize that? As a political strategy, it seems to be working for him. But it doesn’t really give you a lot of illumination about what the distinctions between these candidates. As I said before, I think the debates have been pretty disappointing that way and I know that there’s much you can do about it if one guy doesn’t want to basically fight that turf.
MS. BORGER: I think there’s a pretty big distinction in terms of the economy and what they would do, because I think there’s two different roads, on the –
MS. IFILL: This is what they really want as a –
MS. BORGER: – and they turned the foreign policy debate time and time again back to –
MR. KITFIELD: Back to the economy.
MS. BORGER: Back to the economy, because that’s what people are going to vote on. They’re not going to – foreign policy was much more sort of mood music, who do you trust. And the first debate, the reason I think that might have been so damaging to the president, is that it was about – largely about the economy and he didn’t seem to be fighting enough and he says to Mitt Romney the math doesn’t add up. Mitt Romney says that’s not true, my math adds up, and he was fighting. And I think that makes a big difference to people when they watch.
MS. IFILL: Briefly, I just want to end up by talking about this issue, because it seems it boiled down this week to status quo versus change. And – except that four years ago, Barack Obama was the change guy and somebody else was status quo, even though it was an open seat. How does that boil down the next two weeks? Do we see how that happens, Molly?
MS. BALL: They just keep having the argument.
MS. IFILL: Really?
MS. BALL: I think so. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Oh, good.
MS. BALL: You think they’re going to say anything new at this stage? That’s dangerous.
MS. DAVIS: Well, isn’t this part of the reason, too, I think where you see Romney focusing more on personal and likeability, because think, in some ways, he’s sort of passed the commander-in-chief test. I think the debate showed that. The polls show that. He’s proved himself a viable alternative. Now, it comes down to this likeability factor, which is what – as – on every poll I’ve ever seen Obama’s always had this – you may not approve of him, but you like him. And I’m not sure Mitt Romney has that.
MS. BORGER: And I think I comes down to voter enthusiasm and getting your people out to polls –
MS. IFILL: And sometimes scaring them to get them out. Look what might happen on the other side.
MS. BORGER: Well, exactly.
MS. IFILL: Okay, well thank you all very much. We’re still counting down. We’re at 10:23:35, 25. We’ll keep chatting away online on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” You can find that at pbs.org/washingtonweek, where you also find links to the rest of the stories our panelists are reporting.
Before we go tonight, we’d like to send our condolences to the family of former senator, presidential candidate, and humanitarian George McGovern, who passed away this week at the age of 90.
Keep up with daily developments in this too-close-to-guess campaign on the PBS “NewsHour.” Then, next Friday night, be sure to join me and the rest of the PBS public affairs family for our pre-election special we’re calling “What’s at Stake?” Check your local listings for the time.
That’ll be right after we see you here, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.