POLITICO’s Jonathan Martin

Martin assesses the state of the presidential race—one week out—and the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the campaign.

Jonathan Martin has been POLITICO’s senior political reporter since its launch in 2007 and covers national politics with a focus on the upcoming 2012 presidential election. He covered the 2010 mid-terms, spent two years on the 2008 presidential campaign trail and was on the White House beat, travelling with the president for the first year of the Obama administration. Martin was previously a staff writer for National Journal, where he helped launch the “On Call” blog, and also worked at National Review, where he wrote about the aftermath of the 2006 election.


Tavis: As Hurricane Sandy continues to churn up the eastern seaboard, our thoughts tonight are certainly with all of those who are dealing with these high winds, flooding and the loss of power. The storm has also created, though, an awkward situation for both presidential campaigns with just seven days to go before Election Day.

So much of the East Coast was shut down today. We are grateful that Jonathan Martin braved the storm to join us this evening. He is, of course, the senior political reporter for POLITICO and joins us from Washington. Jonathan, thanks again for getting out in the bad weather, and good to have you on this program again.

Jonathan Martin: Thanks for having me, Tavis. Good to be here.

Tavis: Let me start by asking the obvious. We talked, of course, about the fellow citizens who are impacted by this more than inclement weather, this dangerous storm. But your sense on how the campaigns sort of navigate these storms?

Martin: Well, it’s been sort of this slow rolling reaction, Tavis, starting really yesterday and hastening today. Both campaigns have been canceling more and more events and it’s now at the point where basically both campaigns are gonna be dark for at least tomorrow if not beyond that. It’s nearly an unprecedented situation.

I’ve been talking to some historians today trying to figure out when a campaign, Tavis, in the final week of the election for President of the United States, never mind one that was this close, but just a campaign for President of the United States, effectively shut down while folks were voting in a lot of states and a week before polls open nationally. It’s a remarkable turn of events and I don’t think anybody knows what the upshot’s gonna be here until this actually makes landfall.

Tavis: I’m a sports guy. I don’t know if you are or not, but I’m gonna…

Martin: So am I, oh, yeah.

Tavis: So we’re both sports enthusiasts. In any particular game, be it football or any other sport, if there’s something that causes a breakage or a stoppage, rather, in the play, baseball’s the best example ’cause there’s so many rained-out games, that always impacts the momentum, depends on which team was up, whether they were making a come-back.

I mean, it does have an impact when a sports game is, you know, stopped for weather. Might this be the same politically, that one side or the other is going to gain or be harmed by the fact that they had this stoppage?

Martin: I think that’s probably the best comparison is when you’re moving the ball down the field in football or you’re putting guys on base in baseball, you obviously want to keep on doing the same thing, and the analogy applies to politics too. If you’re on a hot streak and you’re gaining in the polls, obviously you don’t want anything to interrupt that. I’m trying to think back to the past campaigns, Tavis.

You know, 9/11 which was earlier in the campaign cycle, but there were a couple of governor’s races and there was, of course, the New York mayor’s race that fall. Effectively, 9/11 just put the races at a standstill. Now, obviously, I’m not comparing the tragedy of 9/11 to this impending storm, but just in terms of freezing the race in place. I think that’s what potentially is gonna happen here.

It started today, it’ll certainly carry on tomorrow when the storm makes landfall. Then if it’s really severe, the race could stay in place. We’re talking about three days, four days not just before the Election Day, but while votes are being cast.

That leads me to what the biggest impact of this storm is, and that’s what’s changed American politics. People don’t just show up on the first Tuesday in November. They vote starting really a month or more out, a combination of absentee votes and early votes.

That, I think, is the biggest effect of this thing today is the fact that early voting could be interrupted and the Obama campaign especially has been a big focus of trying to get folks to show up early to vote. And if they lose some days in that window, that puts more pressure on them to get their people to show up on election day itself.

Tavis: I suspect, Jonathan, you tell me, that both sides basically have to try to play this the same way.

Martin: Absolutely.

Tavis: So if one campaign shuts down, the other does. I suspect that’s the case because these races for president especially are not just about substance. They are indeed. But it’s also about symbolism. It’s also about style.

Martin: Right.

Tavis: So you don’t want to test the temperament of the American voter because, I mean, you played it the wrong way. I mean, how many mayors and governors? Bloomberg comes to mind immediately in New York and I could think of others who got themselves in trouble, some in fact I can call who lost because they didn’t get the snow removed fast enough.

Martin: That’s right. There’s the famous story about the mayor of Chicago back in the ’70s who lost her re-election in part because of the response to a snowstorm. I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. I recall the Marion Berry being at one of the Super Bowls, I think it was in San Diego, when D.C. was snowed under. He caught a lot of grief for that too.

So there is no question that, given the fact that voters right now are sick and tired of being inundated with robo calls, with live callers, with mail pieces, with a barrage of TV and radio ads, they are already fed up with this election. If they see one of the two candidates acting in a way that they believe is insensitive, given the severity of this storm, I think that could really damage that candidate.

So you’re absolutely right. These politicians are gonna be very, very careful about how they proceed. If one steps down and goes dark, takes their ads down, stops campaigning, the other’s gonna be fast behind.

Tavis: All right, so let’s talk about the race because, when this storm does subside, this race will not end at least until Election Day.

Martin: That’s right.

Tavis: So everybody knows the race is tight. Let me ask you, given that you’re an insider at POLITICO, how tight? I suggested a moment ago that this may not even just come down to swing states. It may come down to counties within these swing states.

Certainly Ohio, as you know, is like campaigning in three different states or three different regions in the state where you campaign differently if you want to win. So how tight? How close is this thing right now?

Martin: Talking now less about a campaign for the presidency, we’re talking more now about a few governors’ races in the sense that both of these candidates are running statewide campaigns in a handful of states, Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado, New Hampshire to a lesser degree. That’s it. That’s the game. It’s really those states.

That’s where they’re gonna be for the final five days if we assumedly do get past this storm. They’re not just in those states. They’re focusing on certain counties, like you said, because these campaigns have gotten so sophisticated and they know what marks they have to hit. And if they don’t hit those in certain counties, they have no path to 270 electoral votes.

This campaign, I think, is at an extremely tight place right now. I can’t recall a moment where it was so hard to read, Tavis, as it is right now because you’ve got national polling that shows Governor Romney increasingly in a strong place and certainly is tying up some of these states.

Other state polling, though, shows President Obama with a slight lead. It’s a really tough race to read and I think it is gonna come down to what happens in the final week. Again, that whole notion has been thrown up in the air now because of the storm.

Tavis: I think that a 269 split in the Electoral College is about as likely as me winning the Powerball Lotto, so I don’t think that’s a real option or real alternative. I do think it is possible – I’m not sure how probable it is – but possible that one guy could win the Electoral College. One guy could win the popular vote.

Martin: I totally agree.

Tavis: If that were to happen to the extent that you think that’s even in the realm of possibility, what happens at that point?

Martin: I think it’s very much plausible. In fact, if you just look at the polling in all these states, President Obama is strong in a handful of states that he needs to get to 270. If he can withstand Governor Romney’s late run, he probably could pull off 270 plus electoral votes. But it’s not gonna be much more than 280 or 285, Tavis.

Given the fact that President Obama’s numbers nationally are gonna come down from where they were in 2008, both in states that he won, New York, New Jersey, California, he’s probably not gonna do as well as he did under the circumstances that he had, the wind at his back, back in ’08.

Then if you add in Governor Romney’s improved performance in a lot of red states where neither are competing, you’re looking very much at the possibility of one candidate, probably Governor Romney, winning more popular votes, President Obama winning more electoral votes.

It would cause, I think, a real sharp reaction on the right if this president is re-elected and does not have the majority of votes in the country. But Democrats are gonna immediately say we’ve been here before. Al Gore got more votes in 2000 than George W. Bush and President Bush became president.

So, look, there will be a hue and cry, there is no question about it, but that’s the nature of what we have and it’s not gonna be a situation where it’s like it hasn’t happened before. It happened 12 years ago.

Tavis: Well, obviously, the only response, to my mind at that point, would be never mind the hue and cry. The rule is simple. He who gets 270 wins the presidency. I mean, they could scream all they want, but that would be the order of the day no matter who ends up getting 270.

But as I sit here today talking to you, for all the talk about the closeness of the race that you and I have just engaged in and every other American seems to be engaging in a conversation about how close, how tight, the race is, I have not seen one poll yet – and this must clearly vex the Romney people – I’ve not seen one poll, one study, one survey yet, no matter how tight it may be, that shows that Mr. Romney has anywhere near the various paths to 270 that the president has. Yes or no?

Martin: And therein lies the challenge for Governor Romney. Even as these national polls show him doing well, the map is still daunting for Governor Romney because there’s just more past for President Obama. Governor Romney has, first of all, got a lock in Florida. Every scenario Governor Romney has includes Florida. That has not happened yet 100%.

Look, I think right now Governor Romney is more likely to win Florida than President Obama is, but it’s still not a sure thing. So you start there. Virginia? Governor Romney, again, has to win Virginia. It’s possible to win the presidency if he doesn’t win Virginia, but it gets really tough.

So those are just two states where recently there’s been as assumption from a lot of folks in politics that Governor Romney could possibly win those states. He doesn’t have them locked in just yet. Then you start talking about states beyond that, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, that are very much favorable for the president right now.

So it’s a really tough, tough path for Governor Romney and that, Tavis, is why the entire theory of the case for the Romney campaign has always been that he has to have a national wind at his back, that he’s got to have a sort of global win.

It can’t just be figuring out how to get some mix of states to get the 270. He needs that sort of big final push where the country decides that, yes, they’re ready to hire him as President of the United States and fire President Obama. But looking at the state polling for the last three days, it doesn’t seem like that’s happened.

Tavis: We talked earlier, Jonathan, about this notion of being careful how you walk this tightrope when you have a storm that is vexing again so much of the country. But there are some real issues in this storm that the Obama campaign could raise.

I suspect they’re probably smart enough not to raise it and maybe they’ll allow surrogates, somebody else, to raise it. Even then, they might not do it. But when a candidate says, you know, let’s get rid of FEMA and send the money back to the states, now theoretically it’s a good time to have that conversation.

When a candidate has said that, you know, made a mockery of global warming and climate change, here again another issue that could be placed on the docket. Now I admit I don’t know how you would do that at the Obama campaign without being seen as playing politics with the storm, but are these not real issues?

Martin: They are fair game. The question politically is how do you gingerly go about raising those or do you raise them at all?

Tavis: Right.

Martin: It’s gonna be tempting for a lot of the Democrats to go there. My guess, Tavis, is that President Obama’s high command, the folks in Washington in the West Wing and his campaign agent in Chicago, are gonna be very reluctant to do that kind of thing.

I think, from my conversation with them, their preference is to have this president acting like he’s the president. That’s why he left the campaign trail. That’s why he was in the White House today. That’s why they’ve released the picture of him in the Situation Room talking to his top advisors about this storm. I think that’s probably what they’re gonna do is just remind people that he is the President of the United States.

You know this, Tavis. Incumbency confers a lot of benefits on presidents. In a time of crisis when Americans turn to their leaders, it’s a moment where a president can really shine. We’ve seen it time and time again in American history. If this storm is really severe, this could be an important opportunity for President Obama.

Tavis: You have covered this stuff more and better than I have and I even I understand that, with all the confidence that Mr. Romney exudes publicly about his ability, his capacity to still win this thing, there will come a point in time when the reality will set in, if in fact he ends up being on the losing end here.

But what do you make, again with all the data that you and I are looking at suggesting that the president clearly has more paths to victory, what do you make at this point of over-confidence that Mr. Romney still exhibits on the campaign trail and is that how he really feels deep down on the inside?

Martin: I think that after his performance in the first debate in Denver, he felt better. His closest advisors and his family felt better about their prospects. So I think, in that sense, he does believe he’s at least a plausible candidate now, that he is sort of seen as someone that could be president. He’s very much in the game.

But there is no question, Tavis, that part of what these candidates do is psychology. When it comes to how they carry themselves and their rhetoric in talking about when I am president, not if I’m president, but when I’m president, that’s all part of trying to remind people that you’re on the winning team.

Americans want to be on the winning team and that’s what Governor Romney and, for that matter, President Obama are trying to do, remind people that, yes, they could win or emphatically I’m gonna win because more people want to support a winner than not. The second there’s any doubt from you or your advisors, that sends people fleeing because nobody wants to be around that sort of stench of death.

So I think Governor Romney, Tavis, certainly believes he is right now very much a plausible candidate, thinks it’s a close race and in a close race, so he’s right there. But you’re right in the sense that these candidates all act a certain way to get their supporters or potential supporters to believe that they can do it.

Tavis: No matter who wins or loses, this number just grates. It’s like chalk. It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard every time I hear it, given all that I’ve tried to talk about with regard to the issue of poverty in this country, and others.

I’m not the only person raising this issue, but everybody who watches this program knows I was just devastated that, in four presidential debates, four moderators, all respected, but not a single question about poverty. We’ve seen the poverty numbers come out during this campaign, we’ve seen the job numbers come out during this campaign.

Not a single question raised by one moderator about poverty in this country, and yet we now know from reading POLITICO that $2 billion – with a B – $2 billion dollars will be spent on this campaign. So the poverty stuff is my own commentary. You ain’t got to go there. But what do you make of the fact that $2 billion dollars is being spent on this campaign?

Martin: Well, it’s only what we’re gonna see more of going into the future especially if there is no law to overturn the Supreme Court decision that basically freed up the restrictions that were in place for some time on campaign finance. Look, money typically does find a way in politics and I think in a presidential year more and more folks are opening their wallets up and there’s no question that it’s had an impact.

But let me be a little contrarian with you. I’m not sure just how much of an impact a lot of this money actually has had in terms of the presidential race. If you just look at the number of super pacs that put money into this campaign, President Obama is still winning narrowly, but he’s still winning in a lot of these key states, Virginia certainly and Ohio. Those are states, Tavis, where these super pacs on the Republican side have been running ads for months and months now.

My point is, there are limits to what money can do and the rule of thumb in American politics is the higher you are in the ballot, the less important that campaign finance is and that money is because more and more folks are engaged in the campaign. They have strong feelings typically about the campaign for president. Now when you go down in the ballot, money matters a heck of a lot more because typically most Americans are following the races as closely as they are for President of the United States.

But there’s no question that more money is now being put into these campaigns than ever. A lot of rich folks, Tavis, think that they’re getting something for their investment, but I think on the presidential level it has not been all credited up to be.

Tavis: I accept, Jonathan, your contrarian pushback and I accept it because I don’t disagree with you. I’ve said many times here’s the reason why I think there’s too much money in our politics. How many ads can you be subjected to?

Now I live here in California, as you know, and because we live in California, as has been said before, we don’t really get a chance to see these controversial ads. I read about them in The New York Times and as I travel around the country, I read about them in the Washington Post.

But as I travel like I’ve done for the last couple of weeks – I’ve been working on a prime time special for PBS about education, so it’s had me on the move a lot lately – I’m fascinated when I land to get to my hotel room at some point later that night to turn on television just so I can get a chance in these various swing states that I’ve been traveling to to actually see the ads that I’ve been hearing about. In California, all we hear is the sound of the Hoover vacuum sucking the money out of Californians, but we never see any ads in California.

So here’s the point. I think you’re right that, at a certain point, you reach a point of no return, of diminished returns rather, because people can only handle seeing so many ads so many times. But to the first part of your comment, though, will we ever, you think, get to a place where the American public will in fact be outraged by the amount of money that’s being spent, number one?

And number two, might we ever see the day in this country where, like other countries, we’ll just say, you know what? We’re changing the rules. You can only campaign for a three-month period of time. These two and three and four-year campaigns are just too much.

Martin: I hate to be cynical, but I am skeptical on both counts unless it adversely impacts the politicians who are writing the laws at the time. That’s just my own view.

Tavis: Fair enough.

Martin: Politicians act based upon self-interest and what the public demands. If the public isn’t demanding it, they’re only gonna do it if it benefits themselves. One fast point, though, Tavis, because you mentioned that you’re from California. That is where campaign finance really matters, I think.

Look, most people have a strong view. If they are voting on Election Day, they have a strong view about President Obama or Mitt Romney or at least have a strong view about the two parties. Where the campaign money really, I think, has an impact is on local races, but it’s also on state ballot initiatives.

California famously every year has got all kinds of stuff on the ballot for voters to decide and that’s where campaign money really matters, I think, because most voters aren’t following those initiatives and referenda that closely. And if you got more money than your opponent in one of those battles, you could win.

Tavis: So a couple of other things in the time I have left here. So former aide to Joe Biden has apparently written a tell-all about his time with the vice president. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m told at least it’s not a flattering picture that he paints of the vice president. I don’t know that that will have any impact in the waning days. The question is, what kind of buzz is it generating inside the Beltway?

Martin: It’s gotten some attention here in D.C. because of the fact that it’s one of those classic Washington books. You know, the idealistic young American comes to Washington to change Washington and Washington changed him. It’s part of a sort of genre, if you will, that we’ve seen before.

What makes it more relevant to the here and now is the fact that, in the process of explaining his story into why he soured on Washington, he takes after his former boss, Joe Biden, pretty roughly and portrays Joe Biden in a negative light.

What’s interesting, Tavis, about that book is that it’s also a scathing indictment of how Washington politics works and especially how both parties relate to the business community here, especially Wall Street and the banks.

The Biden stuff’s gotten the most buzz, but this gentleman, Jeff Connaughton, also lays out a pretty broad indictment on both parties here in Washington in terms of how they relate to Wall Street.

Tavis: What’s your read on the House and the Senate, to your point about all these other races that are just as important? Will the Republicans hold onto the House and, as I’ve been watching and traveling around the country checking out the State races, I was just in my home state of Indiana yesterday in fact.

Martin: That’s a hard one.

Tavis: Yeah, Mr. Mourdock’s put his foot in his mouth again, and that’s a tight race. But will the Democrats hold onto the Senate? Will the Republicans hold onto the House?

Martin: I think the easy answer is that the GOP is almost certainly gonna hold onto the House. They may lose a few seats, but it seems increasingly likely that John Boehner is again gonna be the Speaker of the House next year.

It’s really, Tavis, an open question on the Senate. I think Democrats are in a much better spot now than anybody in Washington thought they would have been a year ago because of a combination of factors, most notably some problems with Republican candidates.

You mentioned Mourdock in Indiana. Certainly, Todd Akin in Missouri is another clear example of that. It’s very much possible that Harry Reid and the Democrats could keep a narrow majority in the Senate. Two votes, maybe even one vote or certainly a tie is possible there. Nobody ever would have guessed that a year ago.

I think the key there is to watch what happens at the presidential level. A handful of these races that are in tight presidential states and swing states are gonna turn on what happens on the top of the ticket and, if Obama is pulling out a narrow victory in a lot of these states, that could help Democrats butt in for the Senate.

Tavis: Got 30 seconds left here. The Labor Department, we’re told, is considering delaying the jobs report because of Hurricane Sandy. I don’t have time to get into it, but you know as well as I do that politics played on both sides of this create problems for the Romney and Obama campaign. I could argue it both ways. Depending on whether the numbers are good or bad, should they delay the report?

Martin: Look, I think they’re a government agency. If they can get it out in time, they should. That’s what folks expect. They work for the taxpayers. But there’s no question, if it doesn’t happen, Tavis, the conspiracy mongering is going to go wild.

Tavis: Yes, yes, yes [laugh]. I think you’re right. We will see what happens with the Labor Department. I hope they’ll get it out just to avoid all the political mess that that will create by those numbers being delayed. Jonathan Martin of POLITICO, thank you for your time. Good to have you on the program. Thanks for your insights.

Martin: Thank you, Tavis. Enjoyed it.

Tavis: All right. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. Until next time, keep the faith.

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

Wade Hunt: There’s a saying that Dr. King had that he said there’s always the right time to do the right thing. I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger and we have a lot of work to do. Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we could stamp hunger out.

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Last modified: October 30, 2012 at 11:48 pm