Los Angeles Times Political Reporter, Kurtis Lee

The Los Angeles Times political reporter discusses the upcoming presidential debate.

Kurtis Lee is a political reporter for the Los Angeles Times covering the 2016 presidential campaign. Lee covered state and national politics at The Denver Post prior to joining The Times. While at The Post, Lee was an anchor for Denver Post TV, the newspaper's daily video broadcast of top breaking news stories. In 2013, he was a member of The Post staff that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of the Aurora theater shooting. Before reporting for The Post, Lee worked as an online writer for the PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. Lee attended Temple University, graduating cum laude in 2009 with a B.A. in journalism and political science.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Just hours after we taped tonight’s program, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump squared off in the first of three presidential debates. In advance of our post-debate analysis tomorrow night on this program, tonight we’ll discuss the candidates and their race to the White House with L.A. Times political reporter, Kurtis Lee.

Then former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security and current University of California president, Janet Napolitano joins us to talk about various topics, including how colleges are designing education to fit a new student demographic.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Those conversations coming up right now.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: Tonight’s program was taped in advance of today’s presidential debate. Be sure to join us tomorrow night for our post-debate analysis. Our scheduled guests include Andrew Sullivan and Frank Rich. But tonight, I’m joined by L.A. Times political reporter, Kurtis Lee. Kurtis, good to have you back on the program.

Kurtis Lee: Great to be here. Thank you.

Tavis: Let me start by asking, again, tomorrow night we’ll get into more analysis of what happened tonight. But how important did you think these three presidential debates are, given what you’ve been hearing and seeing from everyday people on the campaign trail?

Lee: I mean, it’s key for these candidates right now because both have such high unfavorable ratings. I mean, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, they really need to boost their unfavorables. So these debates give people the real opportunity right now to see these candidates in their own words as ballots are beginning to be cast. I mean, early voting begins in just a couple of weeks. So, I mean, these debates are critical for them heading into November.

Tavis: I never believe–maybe you do, so I’ll get your take on this. But I never believe, particularly in a race that is this contentious, that’s this divided, that the numbers of undecided are really that high. I have a hard time believing that that many people who say they’re undecided are really undecided because Trump and Hillary are so different.

Lee: Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s tough, I mean, to believe that. I mean, because right now this country is so polarized. I mean, people kind of, you know, have their takes on these two candidates, but there are voters in these key states, I mean, from Colorado to Nevada, to Ohio and Virginia, that are swing voters.

I mean, these candidates are talking to certain groups of voters, suburban women voters in the suburbs of Denver or the suburbs of Cincinnati, who can swing elections. Black voters, Latino voters, you know, who can really swing these elections. So there are key demographic groups they’re talking to, but some of them are undecided, but some of them, you know, have already made their minds up.

Tavis: I’ll ask this question in a moment of Janet Napolitano who’s the president of the UC system. She is a college administrator, so I’ll ask her what she thinks about this issue. But what do you think of it as a reporter, and a young reporter, as you talk to young folk around the country about the fact that Hillary is having problems connecting with younger voters?

Lee: Absolutely. She has an issue with millennial voters. I mean, they’re not energized to support her and that’s a problem for Hillary Clinton. I mean, you have to really inspire people to get out, to go to the polls, and support you, not necessarily to go to the polls and vote against someone else such as Donald Trump. And that’s where you see some of her key allies start to come in to the mix.

I mean, you see Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail for her, you see President Obama as well as Michelle Obama on the trail. Those are folks who have the support of young people and they’re kind of serving as these surrogates for Hillary and they’re really getting out there and stumping for her and hoping to fill that void for her in this race.

Tavis: I don’t know about you, but I don’t know that excitement and enthusiasm are transferable.

Lee: It can be difficult. I mean, you know, she needs to gather that enthusiasm. I mean, that’s why these surrogates are coming into this race right now and really trying to help her in that regard.

Tavis: But, again, I don’t think just because you were excited about Barack Obama doesn’t mean that your enthusiasm for him is transferable to her.

Lee: It can be difficult, yeah. But you talk to the aides in the campaign and they’re hoping to bank on that and they’re hoping that it is transferable in that sense.

Tavis: What do you make of the speech that President Obama gave I guess a week or so ago now, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, his last speech speaking at this annual gathering of Black lawmakers and supporters where the president, to my mind–and Maureen Dowd and I from the New York Times had a conversation about this some days ago–but I thought the president certainly–Maureen called him egotistical and desperate.

Egotistical maybe, desperate to my mind for sure, but the president essentially begging Black folk. I mean, he’s laying it on. This is about me. It’s about my legacy. You got to vote for Hillary if you care about anything I’ve done. I mean, he was like pretty desperately begging Black people to come out and vote for her. How did you read that speech by the president?

Lee: It was interesting to hear in that speech. He said his name won’t necessarily be on the ballot, but his policies will be. I mean, he needs the support of African Americans to get out to the polls to elect Hillary to continue on his legacy, you know, things such as the Affordable Care Act, efforts to lower the unemployment rate.

So that’s why I mean that he’s really her prime surrogate in this realm to get the African American support. As you know, in 2008 and 2012, Black voters voted at all-time highs for President Obama. Will they get to that level for Hillary Clinton? It’s probably not likely, but the campaign really needs Black voters to come to that close of a level to gather that support for her.

Tavis: There’s no doubt in my mind that she’s going to win overwhelmingly the African American vote, but the question, as always, is turnout.

Lee: Yes.

Tavis: And I just can’t imagine–I mean, it’s like lightning striking twice. What he was able to pull off in 2008 was historic. And no matter how much people like her, it’s just hard to imagine–maybe you see something different since you’re out there reporting on it–hard to imagine in my mind is how she gets anywhere near that level because it was just such an historic election.

Lee: Like you said, I mean, polls show right now she’s overwhelmingly winning the Black and Latino vote. Will she get up to that level? It’ll be difficult, but, I mean, if she’s at a certain level, it can really help her in some of these swing states such as Virginia and Ohio where African Americans are a key voting bloc.

Tavis: I don’t know if you’re seeing this or hearing this, but there have been some stories of late that suggest that, again, she’ll win the Latino vote that turns out, but that the level of apathy in the Latino community is starting to set in and there isn’t the excitement that she needs to turn out a high number, historic number, in that community as well either.

Lee: And you’re seeing really that disconnect with obviously young voters as well across that demographic. Latinos, young Blacks, young white women are not necessarily enthusiastic about Hillary and, you know, not necessarily willing to get out and turn out at levels they did for President Obama.

That’s where the campaign really, you know, is doing efforts to get out there and have surrogates on the trail to really boost that enthusiasm for Hillary.

Tavis: The Latino thing is fascinating for me, though, because when you consider all of the demagoguery that’s come out of Donald Trump’s mouth about Hispanics and about immigrants, etc., it’s just hard for me to imagine that she can’t, at the level that she wants to, at least, excite that particular base. I mean, it’s different.

I mean, Donald Trump has said things and done things that are offensive to African Americans, but he’s just beaten that particular community, that Latino community, over the head. It’s just hard to imagine that any sort of apathy would keep them away from the polls.

Lee: Yeah, no. I think that, if anything, some of Trump’s rhetoric labeling some Mexican immigrants “rapists” when he first started his campaign, calling for this wall to be built and some of his immigration proposals, I mean, those are certainly not issues that Latinos are going out and supporting him for.

When you look to Hillary Clinton’s policies, I mean, I think that there is that support there, but will it be high enough for her to, you know, win some of these states will be interesting to see.

Tavis: Let me put you on the spot right quick. What’s been surprising to you? What have you found surprising, unsettling, in your coverage of this campaign?

Lee: I think that just really seeing the lack of enthusiasm among some of these young people for Hillary Clinton to the point of where it’s just like, you know, the campaign is really struggling to boost the enthusiasm among young voters. I mean, on college campuses, you’re not seeing that support on the trail.

I mean, the Clinton campaign is really getting out and going to college campuses. I mean, last week she was just in Philadelphia speaking at Temple University. You know, it’s just really the lack of enthusiasm among young people right now. It’s not something you saw at all in 2012.

I mean, you saw a lot of enthusiasm with young people in the primary for Bernie Sanders, so it’s really, you know, seeing if the Clinton coalition can kind of bank on some of that support from young people and seeing if they can really see any enthusiasm.

Tavis: Since you mention Bernie, why do you think that is that she hasn’t connected at that level? And I ask it because when people say it’s age, I say Bernie Sanders is older than Hillary. He connected. When they say it’s gender. I say if Senator Warren were on the ticket, she would not have that same problem. So I’m not sure it’s gender. I’m not sure it’s age. I’m not sure what it is.

Lee: I think it’s a lack of, you know, enthusiasm, real passion on the stump that you’re seeing. I mean, also this notion that people might be over the Clintons. I mean, people kind of yearn for this Washington outsider not necessarily in the terms of Donald Trump.

Young people aren’t necessarily banking toward them, but there’s this thought that, you know, where it’s just like the Clintons have been there in Washington for more than two decades. Do young people really want to support, you know, another Clinton in the White House? I think that that’s kind of the question that’s really hurting her.

Tavis: So what are you paying attention to? We’re just literally weeks away now from this election in November. What are you looking at? What are you keeping your eye on from here on in?

Lee: I think that just looking at it, you know, as votes are starting to be cast, looking at some of these swing states and looking at the Colorados, the Ohios, seeing kind of, you know, really keeping an eye on like turnout and get out the vote efforts. We’ll see where, you know, Trump is on the stump quite a bit. We’ll also see where Clinton is.

And just seeing like where the campaigns are really starting to focus once early voting begins. Because, I mean, those begin to look at, you know, the different states and understand what demographics are turning out, where they need to put their resources. So that’ll be really what I’m looking at in these next couple of weeks.

Tavis: Are you surprised that the race has been tightening the way it has of late? After the Democratic convention, Hillary went up in most polls, a lot of polls, by as much as 10 points. She was beating him in double digits in some of these polls and now we got a race that’s neck and neck.

Swing states we thought she was going to win like, there are a number of them, but certainly I think of Florida where Barack Obama eked out a victory when he ran. Hillary thought they were going to win that thing. That race has really tightened in Florida and in a number of other states. But anyway, are you surprised that the race is tightening the way that it is?

Lee: I think it was expected to see a bump out of that, the August Democratic convention. I mean, Hillary Clinton has had some stumbles in recent weeks. I mean, the “deplorables” comment, that definitely kind of set back her campaign. She issued a statement saying, you know, she regretted some of her comments in that regard.

But, yeah, it’s certainly tightening. That’s why, you know, as we get into October and look at these debates, I mean, people are really tuning in. This campaign has been going on for, you know, almost two years and…

Tavis: Two years too long [laugh].

Lee: Yeah, exactly. And now, you know, we’re into this home stretch. You know, the “average” voters are really starting to tune in, so that’s why these debates, you know, are key up until November.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: September 27, 2016 at 3:15 pm