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Tamara Keith and Amy Walter on vaccine politics, voting by mail

NPR’s Tamara Keith and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report join Amna Nawaz to discuss the latest political news, including campaign messaging from President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden around the pandemic and the economy, whether Black voters could make the difference in key Midwestern states and the significance of voters casting ballots early by mail.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    And that brings us to Politics Monday with Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and host of public radio's "Politics With Amy Walter," and Tamara Keith of NPR. She also co-hosts the "NPR Politics Podcast."

    Welcome to you both, and thanks for being with us on this Labor Day.

    Guys, we just heard from that one family in the Midwest. And we heard William report earlier that both campaigns were in other states, but in the Midwest, focusing some of their messaging.

    Tam, let me start with you.

    Tell us about that messaging. In this final stretch leading up to the election, what are you taking away? What's standing out to you about how the campaigns are messaging to those crucial voters right now?

  • Tamara Keith:

    One thing that really stood out from today, as was evident in William's report, was about the virus and the vaccine.

    You know, in a way, President Trump has tried to keep the focus on law enforcement issues, but, today, he put a real focus on the vaccine, said, as he has many times before, that he thought there could be a vaccine right before the election.

    He also said that there could be great economic numbers right before the election. Vice President — former Vice President Biden has accused him of politicizing the vaccine. And then President Trump accused former Vice President Biden of politicizing the vaccine.

    I think that this is something we're going to want to keep an eye on this as this develops. Like, science and vaccine development isn't necessarily the kind of thing that you want to hang your campaign on, and it's also not the kind of thing that really benefits from being involved with politics, because convincing the public that a vaccine is safe and effective is not something that, in a polarized society, is going to be particularly easy if the messenger is someone who's running for president or is president.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Amy, tell us about the voters on the ground there. How much is this message, this fight over the vaccine and how it's being rolled out and the messaging around that, how much of that is resonating with those voters?

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes, that's a good question.

    And I think what Tam brings up is really important, which is that how much this virus, this pandemic has been politicized, everything from whether you are going to wear a mask or not, who you're going to trust, whether you trust the news media, whether you trust public health officials, whether you trust the president.

    I think it's very dangerous, when we're talking about a vaccine that could have a tremendous impact on the health of this country, to put that also in the political context.

    It's difficult enough, in everything that we know about getting people vaccinated, to get the number of people we need to get vaccinated to stop this virus from spreading.

    So, I don't think this is a particularly good idea. And it may be — whatever the politics are, I think that this is very dangerous to start playing — this is really playing with people's health and safety.

    As for the messages that are going on, I do think that what seems pretty clear is the president is hoping what voters are going to focus on is what's happening now. The trend line is going in the right direction on the economy.

    Sure, we don't have all the jobs we lost before the pandemic, but we're halfway there and we are going to keep getting better. No, we haven't gotten rid of the coronavirus, but we're kind of getting back some — to normalcy, and, again, hopefully there will be a vaccine soon enough.

    The Biden and Harris campaign, their message to voters is, you can't forget what happened before. As Vice President, former Vice President Biden said today, it didn't have to be this bad. In other words, yes, things are getting better, but we shouldn't have had to dig out this much in the way that we are, and, second, that as the economy is improving, it's improving only for one group of people.

    If you're invested in the stock market, you're doing great. If you're in the high earner category, you can work from home, you're doing pretty well. If you're anybody else, you're still struggling.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Amy, let me stick with you on a related question, though, about some of the groups they're speaking to.

    And this is picking up on the message we heard from the Harris family earlier, which is, when we talk about the Midwestern states, which we know will be crucial in this election, we often talk about white voters and white communities.

    But there is a significant population of voters of color there. In particular, when you look at some of those states that back in 2016 that were decided by a less-than-2-percent margin, six states in total, when you look at those states, Amy, could those voters, Black voters in particular, could they make the difference in 2020?

  • Amy Walter:


    I loved that segment. And I especially — I think that Fred Harris hit it right on the nose when he said, what's getting Black voters out isn't necessarily Joe Biden. It's probably not going to be Joe Biden, he says. It's Donald Trump. And he is the best motivator for every single constituency that Joe Biden needs.

    But I do think that the difference between now and say, 2012, there was historic Black turnout in 2012. We're unlikely — maybe we will see it — but to get to the numbers we saw in 2012 for Joe Biden, I don't know that's possible. In fact, more African American voters voted as a percent of the electorate than white voters did. Their turnout was higher than white voters.

    I don't know we're going to get to that point. But it's not necessary that Joe Biden does that, because he's going better with other groups than Obama did.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tam, let me ask you about that message on the economy.

    We have heard that from Vice President Pence as well today. They're leaning into the idea that things are getting better, and things will continue to get better if you just continue with this administration.

    When you're talking about an election that could come down to enthusiasm, who is motivated enough to show up and vote, is that message going to resonate? Is that going to mobilize people to get out?

  • Tamara Keith:

    You know, the real question about the economy, the president says that the economy is now in a super V, like a V-shaped recovery.

    It's not clear that that is what is really happening or whether this was this bounce, and now it's sort of plateauing. And so the thing that is going to be a real question leading into this is, how do people feel?

    Absolutely, 8 percent unemployment is better than 10 percent unemployment. More people working is absolutely better. But as people go about their lives, are they going to see closed storefronts? Are they going to think about themselves or their friends who are not doing as well as they were in February, for instance?

    And if President Trump is sort of focused on cheerleading the economy and saying, it's all back, it's all better, is that going to hit voters? Are they going to feel like, well, he understands me, he hears me, or are they going to feel like they have been skipped over?

    Former Vice President Joe Biden is putting a lot of emphasis on sort of, we continue to feel the pain, you're feeling the pain. Is that going to be seen as negativity or is that going to be seen as a reflection of reality?

    I think a lot of it depends on what people's reality feels like 60 days from now, or, because voting is already starting very soon by mail in some places, how people are feeling two weeks from now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, Tam, you mentioned voting starting by mail.

    We should mention, this week, some of those first ballots by mail could start to come in. North Carolina was the first to start mailing them out on Friday.

    Tam, when you look at the misinformation that is swirling around this issue, some of the doubt that's already been seeded in the process, very briefly, I want to ask each of you, what do you think voters should be doing to prepare for this election in these last few crucial weeks?

    Tam, let's start with you.

  • Tamara Keith:

    Well, so, President Trump last few weeks spread a bit of misinformation about the process in North Carolina for getting those absentee ballots making sure they count.

    But the underlying message of, make sure that you get your ballot early, that you turn it in, that you checked with the registrar's office to make sure that it was actually received, that sort of message, voting advocates and others, are saying that voting by mail is not the same as voting in-person. It's not error-proof.

    And people do need to sort of be proactive about the process. That's what voting advocates would say.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Amy, what about you? What's your message?

  • Amy Walter:

    As someone who, in school, was often criticized for not reading the directions fully — I'm terrible about that — read the directions.

    A lot of ballots that were thrown out in this primary were because people didn't follow the directions about, as Tam said, when to request them, when they need to be turned in. And, finally, many of them are thrown out simply because you forgot to sign where you needed to sign on the envelope.

    So, read the directions. All of these Web sites that these secretaries of state have put on, they're really good. Go to their Web sites. And if you still have a question, call them up.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I love that look into the life of a young Amy Walter there.


    That's Amy Walter and Tamara Keith joining us for Politics Monday.

    Thanks so much to both of you.

  • Amy Walter:

    You're welcome.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You're welcome.

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