Special: Washington Week Extra: Cleveland Edition - What do voters in Ohio care about in Election 2016?

Jul. 15, 2016 AT 9:07 p.m. EDT

Days before the Republican National Convention begins in Cleveland, Washington Week is on the ground to hear what voters in the battleground state of Ohio care about in the 2016 election. From third-party candidates to drug addition to media accountability, voters in the Buckeye State turn the table on our Washington Week regulars.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

MS. IFILL: We are in the perennial battleground state of Ohio tonight, preparing for the Republican National Convention, talking with voters about this unpredictable campaign, tonight on this Washington Week Special Edition .

ANNOUNCER: This is the Washington Week Extra: Cleveland Edition . Once again, from the Playhouse Square Hanna Theatre, moderator Gwen Ifill. (Applause.)

MS. IFILL: Thank you. Thank you. Hello. Hello, everyone.

Every week this campaign touches on another hot spot – terror attacks, foreign and domestic, racial and religious tensions, economic stress. We are here with an audience that has their own questions, as well as with a great panel to answer them. But first I want to turn to Nick Castele.

Hey, Nick.

NICK CASTELE: How you doing?

MS. IFILL: Nick Castele is a reporter with WCPN PBS Ideastream here in Cleveland. And I want to ask him about the unsettled mood that we’ve heard so much about around the country, and even here, especially perhaps here, in Ohio, and wonder whether what we read in our polls matches with what you’re hearing and what you’re reporting here.

MR. CASTELE: Well, I think it probably depends on who you ask and what questions you ask them. We hear Donald Trump as well as Democratic candidates in Ohio talking about trade when they campaign here. And I think they are speaking to a sense that people have that the economy they once enjoyed is not the same as it used to be. And I know that I could drive you around neighborhoods in Cleveland and show you communities where people feel like they still haven’t recovered from the foreclosure crisis and that the wealth that they once enjoyed in their homes isn’t what it used to be. So I think those are issues that people in Ohio, and especially Northeast Ohio, feel very strongly about.

MS. IFILL: So are the people who are coming here for this convention to have the discussions about the, you know, 30,000-feet issues about trade and about national security, do they connect at all with what you see on the streets and around this region?

MR. CASTELE: I think there are certainly elements in which they do. And, I mean, you hear from candidates speak to those issues, like the economy, that people care a lot about. And I think if you look to local elections, you can also see the way voters are speaking their minds. You know, there was a local prosecutor here in Cuyahoga County who lost his seat, largely, I think, because voters were upset with his handling of a grand-jury investigation of a police shooting. So even those issues on the national stage, you hear them here locally as well.

MS. IFILL: But they don’t necessarily get inside the Quicken Loans Arena?

MR. CASTELE: Well – (laughs) –

MS. IFILL: That’s always the question.

MR. CASTELE: Or do people inside the Quicken Loans Arena have a chance to get out and listen to people outside?

MS. IFILL: OK. Well, Nick, thank you very much.

MR. CASTELE: Thank you.

MS. IFILL: Thanks for helping us out.

I want to ask Dan Balz about Ohio because, probably more than anybody else on the stage, you’ve returned here time and time again to talk to people in this swing state because it is so critical for both parties. Does it feel any different this year?

MR. BALZ: Well, everything feels different because of Donald Trump. I mean, I think that’s a given in this election and one that we finally have gotten used to. It took a lot of people, including myself, a while to get used to that. The unconventionality of Donald Trump has shaped so much of what this election is about.

But I think Nick is on point, particularly about Ohio. I mean, Ohio is a perennial battleground, perennial swing state, and an economically sensitive state. And I don’t think that that has changed in the time since we had the last election.

MS. IFILL: OK, I have our first audience question here. And I’m curious what you have to say.

Q: Well, first of all, thank you all for being here. I hope you enjoy your stay.

Throughout the primaries, we’ve heard a lot of racist and xenophobic rhetoric. How do you think those sentiments will impact our culture after the elections in November?

MS. IFILL: Amy.

MS. WALTER: That’s a very good question, because I think we are looking at this election, or at least I am, as two phases. We have the campaign that took place in the primaries – actually, maybe I should say three phases – the campaign; then we have the general election. But then what happens once this race is over?

And I think that this is the fundamental question for all of us in this room, which is that the campaign, for as unconventional as it’s been, as disruptive as it has been, is actually following a pattern that we see in every other element of our life, right? Technology has been disrupting business. Globalization has been disrupting people’s lives and jobs, as well as so many other things.

And I think that what we’re seeing today is going to continue to reverberate way after this election. And it’s going to start, I think, first and foremost, with how the party comes back together, how the parties come back together after this debate, and how the country comes back together.

Sue Davis made a point in the earlier show about the 2012 autopsy, that Republicans got together after the last election and said here’s what we need to do if we want to win a national election. We have to do better with nonwhite voters. And they picked a candidate who’s going to do the exact opposite, right? So what do you do once you come out of a campaign maybe doing even worse with those voters, knowing where the demographic trends are going? Is this the time when the Republican Party says, OK, we have to listen to that and come back to the table? But who’s going to lead that party? And I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t think anybody does.

MS. IFILL: Anybody else want to weigh in on that one? No? (Laughter.) John, come on. Help me out.

MR. DICKERSON: Well, it’s what I was talking about earlier. The Republicans were preparing for the post-Trump era. If they – they know there’s a reclamation effort. Some of them feel that there needs to be a reclamation effort after the Trump campaign if it doesn’t succeed. And then there are others who say if it does succeed, it will succeed based on basically squeezing the last bit out of a strategy that doesn’t appeal to voters of the future, which is to say millennials or voters of color, that are growing.

And it’s why one interesting thing with respect to Ohio is it used to be that you could see Ohio and Florida and Virginia as kind of linked as battleground states. It may very well be that we see a separation. Ohio, which is, I think, 85 percent white, may be a different kind of state. But Donald Trump could win Ohio and lose badly in Virginia and Florida, which have larger minority populations as part of the electorate. Those are the groups that he does very poorly with. And so if that’s the case, then the question then becomes what kind of a state is Ohio relative to whatever the Republican Party decides to be.

MS. IFILL: Hi.

Q: Welcome, everyone, to Cleveland.

My question is, what percentage of registered independents will be voting for Donald Trump? And do you think this will swing the election vote?

MS. IFILL: What about the independent voter? Are there independent voters who are leaning toward Donald trump, or are we talking about hard-core right, hard-core left in this convention – in this election?

MR. BALZ: I think there are fewer and fewer truly independent voters today. There are a lot of people who don’t particularly want to associate directly with one party or the other, but behaviorally they are Republicans or Democrats. And we’ve seen that increasingly, that the percentage of people who are truly independent, you know, in the last election was probably less than – under 10 percent, maybe 7 percent.

It could well be the same here. They are still a very important group. And I think that they’re up for grabs this time, in part because both candidates are unpopular across the board, but particularly with people who consider themselves independent. And there is a message that each candidate has got for that particular group. And I’m not sure who’s won it yet.

MS. WALTER: Well, right now we’ve noticed in the last couple of elections with independents actually that the candidate who’s won independents hasn’t won the race. Mitt Romney did very well with independent candidates. In fact, that’s why he –

MS. DAVIS: Particularly in Ohio.

MS. WALTER: Ohio. That’s exactly right. The campaign – I’m sure you all had these same conversations with the Romney campaign in Ohio. They kept saying, but we’re winning by big margins with independents. We’re going to win Ohio. But, you know, I think more and more what independents are right now in many of these states are disaffected Republicans more than they are moderate middle voters.

So what I do when I look at the polls, instead of looking where independents are going, I think a better barometer is people who are self-identified moderates. And where those voters go often tells you who’s going to win. I think it’s much more predictive than independents.

MS. IFILL: Another question. Hi.

Q: Welcome to Cleveland. Do you anticipate a third party or person becoming available to vote for president?

MS. IFILL: Now, there are third parties. There’s a Libertarian candidate. There’s a Green Party candidate, I believe; Jill Stein and Gary Johnson. But you’re thinking about someone else besides them?

Q: No, just becoming available in popularity.

MS. IFILL: What do you think?

MS. DAVIS: No, but partly because we’re really late in the game here, you know. So for a third-party candidate or an independent run to happen, you would need to be incredibly well organized. You would need to be incredibly well funded. And what it would take to get on the ballot in 50 states to really make a dent in the race, it’s really not – we saw previous efforts in this election year where there were efforts to get a third party in or to get another conservative to run, and they’ve all kind of fallen flat.

But as Gwen says, you know, there are – there is a Libertarian candidate that’s going to be on the ballot in all 50 states and a Green Party candidate that should be on the ballot in all 50 states. I do think that that is something that may be of a concern for Hillary Clinton in that some of the Bernie Sanders supporters or more progressive supporters who are not comfortable with her – I’ve had many conversations with voters who say they’re looking at the Green Party candidate or the Libertarian candidate. And in – you know, in states like Ohio or Pennsylvania, these are 2-3 percent races. If they are able to draw away from her, it could be tough. It could have an impact.

MS. IFILL: There’s always the idea that an independent candidate – I think of John Anderson, I think of other types – will be the savior for people who basically don’t like either candidate very much. And we’ve seen polls which show there’s huge unpopularity for both likely major-party nominees. So why is that? Why is it that there isn’t another option at moments like this? Ross Perot was involved and he did well, except that people now argue he obviously gave the election to Bill Clinton. So –

MR. DICKERSON: Well, that’s part of your reason, that nobody wants to give the election to Hillary Clinton if they’re a conservative or a Republican. And so they wouldn’t want to vote for a Ross Perot-type candidate if they had conservative leanings, because they’re worried about the alternative. And then you can just reverse that for people worried about Donald Trump.

MS. IFILL: Yeah.

MS. WALTER: And Dan had a good –

MR. BALZ: I think – go ahead.

MS. WALTER: Dan had a good point too about independents. I think that we have become – as Americans, we identify ourselves less and less with party, but yet we’ve become more and more tribal. And so we are voting more straight ticket. We are living in communities that are overwhelmingly red or blue. And that is driving so much – not so much about the policies or even the personalities, but the sense of this is where my tribe is, and I’ve got to stick with them at all costs.

MR. BALZ: I was just going to add quickly, I mean, the other issue is the issue of practicality. I mean, Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, has several times looked at running as an independent, has plenty of money in which to do it, but concluded he couldn’t win. He could get a decent percentage of the vote, as Ross Perot did, but probably couldn’t win a single state. So why go through that effort?

MS. IFILL: Hello, sir.

Q: Good evening. What role does the media play, particularly in a very unconventional election year, when traditionally it’s worried about balance or giving equitable time to candidates, no matter how outrageous or improbable things that they say? So what role would the media have in holding a candidate accountable to the truthfulness of his or her comments? And how might you go about that?

MS. IFILL: So you’re saying if someone says Hitler had a point and our discussion becomes, well, did he?

Q: Right. (Laughter.)

MS. WALTER: Wow. Who wants to pick that one up?

MR. BALZ: I think there has been actually more tough reporting about what the candidates have said, and particularly Donald Trump, who has said a lot of things in this campaign than we’ve seen before. But I think every journalist, as with every American, has had to weigh what is the right way to do this? And, you know, in a sense we strive for balance and fairness, but one of the things we’re obliged to do is try to hold people accountable for the truth, and when people don’t speak the truth, to call them out on it.

What we’ve found with Donald Trump is that calling him out on it has not particularly hurt him, at least on the path to the nomination. We’ll see what happens in the general election.

MS. IFILL: Another thought?

MR. DICKERSON: There’s probably been no more fact-checked candidate than Donald Trump. And there are a lot of people for whom, at least when I talk to them, they say, well, yes, he might have gotten that fact wrong or that fact wrong, but he speaks for them to a larger truth, and therefore they’re willing to let him off the hook.

And that’s true also of Hillary Clinton. She doesn’t have as many fact-checking issues as he does, but there’s also other people who believe, particularly with Donald Trump being the alternative, you know, the fact that many of the things she said about her private email server were not true. That’s OK because of the bigger problem.

MS. IFILL: I would also – go ahead, Sue.

MS. DAVIS: I was just going to say, when you talk about fact-checking, I mean, I have never experienced an election in which facts mattered less, in that, like, you know, the four Pinocchios, the completely untrue, the things that we judge candidates by and hold them accountable to. I think all the things the candidates have said that have not been true, I believe, have been reported, and thoroughly, and sometimes exhaustively, and it hasn’t really impacted their public perception.

Amy said this is like – in so many ways, it just feels like a base, hard-core election, and there’s very little you can tell the rock-ribbed supporters of either side that’s going to rattle that support.

MS. IFILL: And I might add, I think, in the years since I’ve been covering politics, that people have formed their opinions so firmly about who they want to get their information from that they almost can’t be persuaded or dissuaded in any other – in any other discussion. And so we end up locked in these traps.

Hi.

Q: Hi. With the president’s approval rating above 50 percent, do you think the level of anger among the general populace has been overstated?

MS. IFILL: Well, that’s an interesting point, because the president, as a matter of fact, I think, in a speech this week, said it’s not that bad, essentially.

MS. DAVIS: I do think the president has benefited in some part by what a weird and negative campaign year it has been. And by comparison, I think a lot of people that maybe dipped on him are looking at him and thinking, oh, he did a pretty good job. (Laughter.)

MS. IFILL: His numbers have improved as we’ve watched –

MS. DAVIS: And his personal approval is up.

MS. IFILL: – bit by bit.

MS. DAVIS: Yeah. You know, and the last part – you know, obviously President George Bush left the office very unpopular. But Bill Clinton, when he left office, he had approval ratings in the high 50s. So that’s – it’s not that unusual of a trend for a president leaving to be very popular.

About the anger, I think that’s a really good question. I mean, I think we see it in the polls where it’s reflected. And I do feel – I think there’s anger, and I also do think there’s – I think I hear a lot when I talk to voters is fear and worry. And I don’t – it’s levels of degrees of anger. But I do think that people that I just – voters that I talk to, I do think that there is a real sentiment of unrest right now. And whether it’s anger or whether it’s fear or whether it’s uncertainty, it does seem to be in the mood right now.

MS. IFILL: Let me ask you, do you feel like you and the people you hang out with, folks you know, do they feel truly angry or just what?

Q: I feel uncertainty. I feel, you know, I guess, kind of a removed fear, but some of, I guess, the true anger that’s really being represented not so much – I guess, like, dissatisfaction, but not enough to have it be their defining trait.

MS. WALTER: Yeah, I’m so glad you raised that question, because I wrote about this. So I knew you knew that, right? (Laughter.) So thank you for giving me a softball. But, of course, I wrote it so long ago that now I don’t remember exactly. But the bottom line was I looked back at – the Pew Research Center has been asking that question. Are you angry? Are you angry at the government? How do you feel about the direction of the country?

And what they found is people aren’t any angrier than they’ve been in the past. But guess who’s angrier – the people who support Donald Trump, OK. And we’ve been spending, what – 99 percent of our coverage has been covering the Republican Convention and the Donald Trump phenomenon. So when your focus is so narrow to focus on one group and one group of voters, which is a narrow population of the – a narrow percentage of the population, that it gets blown out of proportion.

I do agree with Sue that there is an unrest and an uneasiness. As I said, I’ve been hearing from voters for years now about this sense of the center sort of collapsing. But as for the anger, I think what we see is in one group of voters it’s much more prominent than across the board.

MS. IFILL: John.

MR. DICKERSON: And just one other thing also is that we also find that the poles are more intense than they used to be. Actually, a lot of people are in the messy middle. But we now have social media and industries and people who are – their entire careers are keeping those people on the poles agitated and hopped up. And those are the people who participate in a lot of the politics.

And so a lot of what we cover is the anger, is the conversation between super-passionate people. And it’s why a lot of people in the middle, who watch politics and who participate in it, to the extent they do at all, through social media think – and Pew has also studied this – they look at the conversation and the way it’s taking place and they think, no, I don’t want to be a part of that, which only then keeps the conversation among those two angry poles.

MS. IFILL: Fortunately we’re in a room where people want to be a part of the conversation, the room where it happens, as it were.

Question? Yes.

Q: Drug addiction has touched every community in America. And several months ago Hillary Clinton unveiled a plan, a $10 billion plan, to address the epidemic. We haven’t heard anything from the Trump campaign. Do you think it’s an issue that Trump might address? And what do you think his plan might look like?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, the Senate just passed a bill.

MS. DAVIS: Well, I can’t – I mean, I can’t guess to what his plan would look like. And I agree with you. It’s not an issue that we’ve necessarily heard a lot from him about. I will say – and I know that this has been a hugely important issue in Ohio – I cover Congress, and that – you know, Congress this week did actually pass a law. You know, they sent a real law –

MS. IFILL: Yeah.

MS. DAVIS: – that is aimed at sort of changing the way that we treat drug epidemics in this country, particularly heroin and opioid. And what was interesting about it, aside from what it did, is it’s kind of shifted the conversation in this country on drugs. And I think policymakers used to look at drug addiction as something you could, you know, jail yourself out of, that it was a criminal-justice problem and you could punish people into getting better.

And what this bill does is it kind of – it shifts that conversation and says this is a public-health threat; it’s not a criminal-justice problem. And that, as a policy and as an attitude shift, that is the direction this country is moving in. And that has crossed overwhelmingly bipartisan lines. You know, the vote passed with 92 votes in the Senate. And I think part of that is a testament to how bad the drug epidemic has been in almost every state in the country.

MR. BALZ: And I think that it’s also – this is a good example of why it’s important that candidates, presidential and others, are out talking to voters, because this is an issue that began to surface as we started out in this presidential campaign in a way that it hadn’t before that. It’s not –

MS. IFILL: In New Hampshire.

MR. BALZ: In New Hampshire. It’s not that the problem didn’t exist. It’s that, in one way or another, it hadn’t registered on the politicians. And it clearly has. And Sue’s right. I think there’s been a sea change in attitudes across the board politically on this.

MS. IFILL: Hi.

Q: Hi.

MS. IFILL: Another question.

Q: Yes. Given that, from what we’re all talking about here, people’s views seem to be extreme, one way or the other, what’s the most challenging part of maintaining an unbiased point of view while you’re doing the interviewing of candidates, people at the convention?

MS. IFILL: I will start with that one, because mostly, in order to maintain an unbiased point of view, is you want to listen to the answer. If you’ve already decided you know what you think about everything and you know what your opinion is, you generally don’t want to hear what anybody has to say, or at least listen to what anybody has to say. And everyone I know – and certainly the panelists we have on Washington Week are so curious. We want to know. And that allows you to listen, I believe.

Anybody have a thought about that?

MS. DAVIS: I mean, part of the most fun of this job is getting to talk to people and what they think about politics and how they’re going to vote and what’s affecting their lives. So I think if we had a point of view and didn’t care what people thought, we wouldn’t do what we do, right? You start with a baseline, like I’m here because I’m curious about how people are going to vote in this country. And Ohio is a state that’s probably going to help decide this election.

So I don’t actually find it that hard. If anything, it’s really entertaining, because you get to talk to literally the spectrum of people in this country. And I have, like, heard every political opinion. I have been – and I’m still, like, shocked and amazed and, like, laugh and am informed by people. And it’s more fun than it is, you know, like, I have an opinion and I – let me argue with you about it. It’s more fun to hear what people have to think.

MR. BALZ: I think part of it is that – I don’t want to speak for everybody here, but I suspect everybody agrees – it starts with a respect for voters. It starts with a respect for the idea that we’re not the campaign and the candidates really aren’t. They may be running for office, but it’s – you know, it’s your campaign. And understanding what’s on the minds of people like you and people all around the country, and why, and recognizing that people on different sides hold very passionate views and very passionate views about the other side, and yet you want to try to understand that, as Gwen says. You want to understand where people are coming from on these issues and why.

MS. IFILL: Hi.

Q: Hi. This is kind of a follow-up. Do you think the press on the whole has been easy with Trump’s faux pas?

MS. IFILL: I don’t think so – (laughs) –

MR. DICKERSON: I was going to say –

MS. IFILL: – or we wouldn’t know about them.

MR. DICKERSON: – who here knows what he said about Mexicans in his opening statement, in his announcement of the campaign?

(Show of hands.)

MS. WALTER: Yeah.

MR. DICKERSON: Everyone, right?

MS. IFILL: If you can call that a faux pas, which I’m not sure you can.

MR. DICKERSON: I mean, the things – most people know his faux pas before they know any of his policy positions. And there are a lot of people who know the faux pas and say I’m still voting for him. So I don’t think it’s a lack of information.

MS. WALTER: The other thing to – you know, I get that question a lot about has the press done enough scrutiny. People keep voting for him. He won a Republican primary. That is absolutely true. He now has a disapproval rating that is the highest since polling, modern polling, has begun, OK? So it’s taken a toll. All these things that he’s said and all these things that he’s done, all the things that the press has covered, have taken a toll on how people feel about him.

Now, the challenge for Hillary Clinton is that her disapproval rating would be the highest in modern political history – (laughter) – but for him, OK? So it has – to say, like, well, it doesn’t matter, and people report this and nobody cares, it didn’t matter as much in a Republican primary among a very small group of people. Remember, the turnout in the Republican primary and the Democratic primary, you know, it’s somewhere around – overall, about 30 percent of eligible voters turned out, OK, to vote in the primaries. So when we’re talking about did it matter, we’ve got to remember what that universe was. And that is where – this is what this week is about is turning the page to say, OK, you won; good for you. Now how are you going to talk to the rest of America?

MS. IFILL: OK, it’s –

MR. DICKERSON: How are you going to talk to the rest of your party, and then the rest of America?

MS. WALTER: Well, yeah.

MS. IFILL: Well, and it’s on you, the rest of America. We have now left it in your laps.

Thank you all very much. I know it went fast. But we also want to thank everybody here in Cleveland who has helped us, who have shared their thoughts. And thank you very much for our panelists – Amy Walter, John Dickerson, Sue Davis and Dan Balz.

Beginning Monday, you can count on Judy Woodruff and me and the political teams from the NewsHour , along with NPR joining forces for the first time, for complete coverage of the Republican National Convention. Amy Walter and Sue Davis are both going to be with us.

Next Friday we’ll be in Philadelphia ahead of the Democratic nominating convention, and we’ll see you there.

From Cleveland Ohio, good night. (Applause.)

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