What Their Bases Want From Obama And Romney

Guest Political Junkie Matt Bai of The New York Times and Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, talk about the state of the Democratic and Republican bases and what voters on each side are looking for in their candidates in the months ahead.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Dennis Kucinich reconsiders Washington. Another congressional Democrat will retire. Mitt pulls even and sends a message to the incumbent. It's Wednesday and time for a...

MITT ROMNEY: Start packing...

CONAN: Edition of the Political Junkie.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

SENATOR LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Oops.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

CONAN: Political junkie Ken Rudin is on the road this week and can't be with us. So Matt Bai of The New York Times Magazine steps in to pinch-hit. Romney gets a flock of endorsements and an extension on his taxes. The president raises $55 million in March. Neither will take campaign matching funds.

New York Democrat Ed Towns becomes the 25th member of Congress to decide to retire. This week we're going to focus on the level of excitement in the base of both parties. We're going to start with the GOP. So Tea Partiers, conservatives, will you rally behind Romney? The phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

In a few minutes, former labor leader and Obama advisor Andy Stern on the left and the president. Later in the program, what happened at the Summit of the Americas besides the Secret Service scandal? But first, chief political correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai, joins us here in Studio 3A. And Matt, nice to have you back on the program.

MATT BAI: Neal, nice to be here. I like to think of myself less as the political junkie than the political pusher.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAI: We'll leave the junkiedom to Ken.

CONAN: To Ken, OK. Well, we're going to get to the base of both parties. But do you read anything into a decision by Ed Towns, who has one of the safer seats in Congress, to decide to retire? He's the 25th member of Congress to retire.

BAI: Yeah, I mean, we're looking at like a record number. So I don't think you have to read into that one to see what's going on. Look, the job is less secure than it used to be. You used to be able to hold it forever. Now there's all kinds of primaries and upheaval and anti-incumbency. It's not as fun as it used to be because the climate in Congress is so toxic and because, as the majorities bounce around, you can't really, you know, count on chairing a committee for a long period of time.

But, you know, I'm going to tell you, I think it's a positive thing overall. I mean, obviously it points to some real stresses in the system, and it points to some problems in Congress. But at the same time, turnover is good. I don't know that people should hold the job as long as they once thought they should hold the job.

I think the public's asking for change and different perspectives, that people are hearing them, that people understand that most Americans have several careers now, and there's no reason your average congressman shouldn't have a couple. I don't see that as a bad thing.

CONAN: People calling for term limits; they seem to be self-enacting.

BAI: Yeah, they're always self-enacting. I mean, that's the thing about term limits. People - voters ultimately send their own message, and politicians hear it.

CONAN: In the meantime, what part of the Republican establishment had yet to endorse Mitt Romney has done so, at least this past week. We saw Mitch McConnell, the leader in the Senate. The Republican speaker of the House has come out also to endorse Mitt Romney at great...

BAI: A couple of governors.

CONAN: And a couple of governors as well. And so yet we have to see also whether Mitt Romney can rally the base of support in the Republican Party, those conservatives who voted against him in so many of those primaries.

BAI: They did. And, you know, I spent a bunch of time down in South Carolina with a lot of the activists. There's no - of course that was a terrible state for him. But I think in general, you - I think you could fairly say that Mitt Romney has about as little or less support among the activist base of his party than any modern Republican nominee. I don't know how far back you'd have to go.

But, you know, the good news for Mitt Romney is that I think politics and presidential politics in particular now is oppositional in nature, that there's a tremendous dislike and contempt for the president of the United States among the conservative base. And I don't think he really has to rally those people to come out and vote, and vote for him.

I think he probably has to avoid alienating them too directly, but I think the real question isn't whether the conservative base will come out to vote for Romney. I think they will. I think the question is: How beholden does he feel? How insecure is he about healing that rift? Or is he willing to say, is he secure enough to say I'm the nominee of this party, I got there my way, and I'll take the party in the direction I think it needs to go?

Because that has real implications not just for the campaign and for the decisions he has to make coming up about a running mate and other things. It has real implications for what he does if he gets elected.

CONAN: Well, interesting, Sam Rohrer, a Tea Party-aligned former Pennsylvania state legislator who's now running for U.S. Senate, said ultimately they're not going to pull the lever for Obama, but there's a movement within the movement right now. Mitt's going to have to woo them. Getting their vote is one thing; getting their impassioned commitment is another. And impassioned commitment is what it takes to win.

BAI: Yeah, I mean, look, we - I'm not sure there's not a slightly dated tone to this conversation. We've always talked about rallying the base, you know, consolidating support. As I say, I think politics has grown much more oppositional, and I don't think you have to do what you once had to do.

I don't know that activists really, you know, will sit on their hands. I think they're going to - you know, I do think they're going to come out and vote. I do think there's a deep distrust of Romney among the - inside the activist base of the party, and I think the real...

CONAN: The Etch-a-Sketch moment.

BAI: Yeah, I mean that sort of symbolized a lot for him. And I think the real danger for him has always been, and I suppose still is, a breakaway attempt. I think they know that. I think he can minimize damage as long as there is no third-party effort. But if a Ron Paul or somebody else, you know, really is intent on challenging him as an independent, that I think could be quite calamitous to his chances. But I don't see that right now.

CONAN: There is also the difficulties, the speaker of the House had enough difficulties holding his Tea Party members in line on several critical moments in the past couple of years. That's going to be difficult for the nominee of his party to have that kind of influence, too.

And you have freshman members of Congress coming out and saying wait a minute, we're driving the agenda in this party, and the nominee better toe the line, or we're not going to be quiet about it.

BAI: And that's why I think Romney does have some decisions to make because that is going to be essentially the danger for him is that he's not going to be able to control the message of everyone inside the party, particularly in Congress, particularly in the activist wing of the party.

And obviously the president has already begun, the vice president has already begun to try and put him in this box of ideological extremism, to say everything you fear about the Tea Party or the conservative right, if you're an independent voter, you know, this is who Mitt Romney represents.

And to the extent that he feels like he has to be very careful not to step on toes, that he has to rebuild his bridges or build his bridges to the activist base, he makes it that much easier to put him in that box. If he doesn't do that, and I think that's a losing proposition for him, if he holds to a fairly just right-of-center approach, the kind of approach he had as governor and through most of the primary campaign and says look, I'm the nominee, it's, you know, me or him, then I think it's going to be very hard to put him in that ideological box because that's not his history as a politician, and I think people will find that hard to believe.

CONAN: Then there's the sort of delayed detonation from the Santorum camp, a fundraising letter that suddenly appeared this week in Iowa, a week after Mr. Santorum pulls out of the race, saying he fears what will happen if Romney becomes the nominee.

Now, apparently this was just delayed getting out, but this comes at an unfortunate moment.

BAI: Yeah, I mean, Senator Santorum said it was a financial decision to get out of the race. I'm sure it was a financial decision in the sense that when you're not winning, you can't raise money, you know, when you're not a viable candidate, and so he couldn't raise money.

I assume they're going to paper that over in the coming weeks. It's a standard primary divide. I don't think, you know...

CONAN: And within a couple of weeks, we'll see an endorsement by Santorum.

BAI: Yeah, and I think people understand. I mean, of course, there will be the requisite you said this, you said he was the worst possible candidate to go up against Obama, now you're endorsing him. But we see that every four years, and I think voters, you know, for the most part understand what's going on.

CONAN: Well, in this segment of the program, we want to hear from conservatives, Tea Party members. Are you going to be able to rally behind Romney? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll start with David(ph), David calling us from Orlando.

DAVID: Yes, thank you for taking my call. I'm an independent, and I listen very carefully to the arguments from both of the candidates. And I'm 54 years old, and I've made a real point in this election cycle to not get excited or drawn up in the enthusiasm of the process of selecting the candidate and approaching the elections.

And personally, I don't - I couldn't find Mitt Romney more uninspiring. I'm looking for some sort of a real clear indication from him about what sort of policy, you know, he would try and enact, what he would pursue when he was in office. And the only thing I can get is I want to get Obama out of office.

You know, the discussions about - especially what really infuriates me is the discussion about the cost of gas at the fuel pumps. It's such a superficial and myopic perspective that it's all about the Obama policy when we had our first fuel crisis back in '70s, and the policy in this country hasn't changed since then.

Consumption is being, in China, is increasing. And those are things that I think would give the candidate so much more credibility...

CONAN: David, will you be looking closely to see who he selects as his vice presidential nominee?

DAVID: No, you know what? Well, I'm curious. I'm mildly curious. But to me, on the Republican side, the only candidate who has spoken with any real consistency and passion about the things that he believes in and the policies he'll pursue is Ron Paul. And that consistency, although I don't agree with him on everything, that consistency carries a lot of weight with me.

CONAN: All right, David, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. Ron Paul, you - well, clearly not a threat to win the nomination by any stretch of the imagination. As you said, still a viable threat. Are some people still worried that he will try a third-party?

BAI: Yeah, I'd be concerned about it if I were them. I mean, I don't hear him making any noise like that. I don't know how viable it is. But, you know, his anger and contempt with the Romney campaign and the process has been clear throughout, and I think he could cause a lot of problems for Romney, more so, perhaps, than, you know, Ralph Nader caused for Al Gore in 2000, and we know how that turned out.

I mean, I thought, you know, to this point about Romney and being uninspiring, I thought Andy Kohut, who runs the Pew Polling Center, had a terrific blog post on our site, on the Times site, making the point basically that we have a president running against economic data that would indicate historically that he cannot be re-elected against a challenger running against favorability numbers that would indicate historically that he cannot get elected, and something's got to give.

CONAN: Yeah, somebody's got to win, yeah.

BAI: Yeah, somebody's got to win.

CONAN: Let's see if we can squeeze one more caller in, Jerry(ph). Jerry is on with us from Tallahassee. Just have a few seconds, Jerry.

JERRY: OK, Neal. I agree with your guest there that Romney can win if he doesn't fall into an ideological box but instead plays that card against Obama as a closet socialist.

CONAN: Obama as the closet socialist, as opposed to letting himself get painted as the closet Tea Partier.

JERRY: Yes.

CONAN: All right, Jerry, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. When we come back, we're going to be talking with Andy Stern, who is the former head of the Service Employees International Union and last time around played a pretty critical role for the Obama campaign. So Obamamaniacs, are you going to be as excited to vote for the incumbent this time around? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Matt Bai of the New York Times Magazine is with us. Ken Rudin will be back next week. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. It's Wednesday, political junkie day, but Ken Rudin is on the road this week. So guest junkie Matt Bai is with us today, chief political correspondent for The New York Times Magazine.

We spent the last few minutes talking with conservatives and Tea Partiers about whether they can rally behind Romney. Now we want to hear from the base of Democratic Party. How excited are you about your candidate? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Among the Democratic base, of course, organized labor. Andy Stern served as president of one of the country's largest unions, the Service Employees International. He's now a senior fellow at the Richmond Center at Columbia University and joins us now from the campus there in New York City in Morningside Heights. Andy, nice to have you back on the program.

ANDY STERN: Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And do you think there's going to be the same level of excitement for Barack Obama this time around?

STERN: I mean, I think it's going to be a stretch to get the level of excitement and the level of turnout, but I also think, you know, the differences between the candidates are so great that, you know, it's not a good time to judge, you know, where we're going to be.

But I think, you know, we had a president, well, then a candidate Obama who came off a very exciting primary election, you know, built a real reputation for change. You know, it was a historic moment when he got elected in Chicago. You know, I think that's going to be hard to reproduce here. In this election, you know, there's a lot of decisions and a lot of things that have now been done that are part of his record, and I think it's going to be something he's really going to have to work on.

CONAN: Well, just on the labor front, this past week the announcement of the fair trade agreement with Colombia, and you had the head of the AFL-CIO throwing up his hands and saying what's going on here.

STERN: I mean, I think there are those moments, and I don't really take them quite as seriously. You know, I do think it's important to understand you have Mitt Romney really for the first time campaigning about issues like right to work, about supporting Governor Walker and Governor Kasich, about taking away collective bargaining, about the NLRB and how they're a bunch of stooges for the labor movement.

So I think he's given the labor leaders a lot of fodder and a lot of fear. And I'd say amongst the labor leaders, you know, whatever their lack of enthusiasm is, there's a huge motivation about what might happen with a Romney president and their futures and their institutions.

CONAN: So a little like the Republican candidate, he is motivating people on the compared-to-what level.

STERN: I think there's definitely that there, but there also is the health care bill. You know, there are things that have been done around, you know, protecting the budget and, you know, dealing with issues that are important to workers. So I think there's a lot on the plus side, as well. But clearly the fear is a big factor here.

CONAN: Matt Bai?

BAI: Yeah, I mean - and hi, Andy, to you, and I hope you're enjoying it up there. You know, I've said before, and I think it's true, that the president really didn't run as a traditional Democratic nominee four years. He ran really more as an independent. He had an incredible confluence of forces: this unpopular president; the economic collapse; the unpopular wars; the fact that he represented this tremendous hope and excitement; that he represented racial progress and change; that he energized youth; he was generationally different. All of this created for him a campaign that the math for which was very different from what a Democrat normally runs as.

What we're seeing now is he's running for the first time as a Democratic nominee, just as Carter had to run, as Clinton had to run, as Mondale had to run. I mean, he's now running - Gore and Kerry - he's now running, you know, with the mathematical restrictions and opportunities that a normal Democratic nominee has.

It's going to be a more difficult route for him, and part of the difficulty of that route is energizing his own base because governing decisions in this day and age tend to alienate large swaths of activists who have expectations that are sometimes unreasonable.

CONAN: Unreasonable, Andy Stern, a lot of people said he was, in a way, a kind of candidate who everybody could read their own expectations into, and yet you see disappointment by some significant African-American leaders. I'm not looking at the polls. The polls are very solid for him among African-Americans, but some significant intellectuals on the African-American side say wait a minute, our unemployment numbers are just terrible. What is he doing about it? He's not said anything about it.

He refuses to address these issues. You see - we mentioned some of the disappointment on the labor front. We still have the Defense of Marriage Act, is still the law of the land. We don't have a union check-off. These are all issues that are, a lot of people said we would expect at a minimum those things would have been done in the first four years.

STERN: Well, I would say expectations for Barack Obama, President Obama, were off the charts. I mean, they were as unrealistic as anyone has ever faced. And a lot of that was because he did a masterful job in the campaign, as you said, allowing people to read into him, you know, whatever your hopes and dreams were, he was going to help solve those problems.

And, you know, I think that was an issue in and of itself. The 2010 election, you know, just added, a huge new set of circumstances to the whole situation. So I don't think there was any way, you know, he was ever going to meet all the expectations because they really weren't all his. They were what other people sort of expected from him from the way the campaign ran.

At the same time, I think there's a lot of things that have been done about women voters most recently, around Hispanics, Latinos, you know, that have also given the Republican Party, you know, and the president a big edge - the Republican Party a big negative and the president a big edge in sort of comparison.

So I think it's not surprising that the Pew poll says that I think now 90 percent of the electorate has already decided who they're going to vote for in this election. So the question of ballot access, the question that you raised about third parties, the question about turnout, you know, is going to play a much more significant role in this election than it is turning out and persuading independents, which really was the question in 2008.

CONAN: And turnout, Matt Bai, that depends a lot on the excitement of the base, doesn't it?

BAI: It does, it does, although I think Andy would agree, you know, that so much of that, as I say, is oppositional now. That, you know, that the threat of the other tends to get people out I think a lot more than, you know, say maybe 25 years ago when it really was, you know, people would sit on their hands, I'm not going to the polls for Jimmy Carter because I'm not going to be an activist. I don't think that really happens so much anymore.

I mean, one thing I would ask Andy about, and it's intriguing to me in looking at the polling on this president is his personal favorability ratings have been very resilient and impressive. And I think what that signals is, in an underlying way, that a lot of the people who voted for him, who are disappointed, even, or a lot of other voters, they are - who are entertaining both options, people wish him well. They wish him success.

And particularly if the economic data is moving, however sluggishly, in the right direction, I would think, particularly when you know you're going to lose some of that incredible energy you had among African-American voters, younger voters, it's a real plus for them and I think probably important that he does retain a lot of goodwill in the electorate, even when his job approval rating is a lot more turbulent.

STERN: Yeah, I mean, I think that's completely true that, you know, this has been a president, you know, absent a little bit of a scandal here in the Secret Service, that's really run an honorable, ethical administration. I think people do believe, you know, he is trying to do what's right for the country. And they like him as a person. They like his family. They like what he does. He seems very relaxed and very at ease in front of the American people. And so for all the frustration, I think you're right, Matt, that people really do like him.

And you contrast that with Mitt Romney, which is probably the most unpopular Republican, you know, nominee amongst Republicans that we have, and I think that's going to make a difference. I think people want to go the extra mile to see the president get re-elected. I'm not sure how they feel, you know, about going the extra mile for Mitt Romney, but we'll see that.

But I think the intensity of the work on turnout, you know, is going to be at a level of sophistication and, you know, a level of professionalism that we probably have never seen. I think what we saw in 2008, you know, began a trend, but, you know, now we're going to have nano-targeting, you know, not just micro-targeting and I think a lot of money invested because the independent vote is so small compared to the need to turn out first-time or, you know, voters that are for a candidate.

CONAN: So in other words, the targeting of people, not only know who to call but what time of day to call them and maybe what month.

STERN: And what issues and what magazines and - you know, what the union movement has done incredibly well is to talk to its members about issues that are important to them that they might not otherwise hear about in a campaign, you know, in the big, broadcast media.

You know, I think what we saw with, you know, the Obama for America effort, you know, was an ability to talk to voters very specifically, not just in their workplace but through all kinds of other new technologies and mechanisms and direct mail, which the Republicans did an enormously advanced job, to really target messages about issues that actually do matter to people where broad broadcast, you know, doesn't necessarily do that.

And I think we're going to see more and more of that, to really speak to you if it's birth control, if it's the environment, it's guns, you know, to make sure you absolutely understand where your candidate or any candidate stands on the issue.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Shannon's(ph) with us calling from Davenport, Iowa.

SHANNON: Hi.

CONAN: Hey, Shannon.

SHANNON: Hi, yeah, I'm a little disappointed in the president. However, I will be voting for him. And I agree with your guest that I think part of my disappointment was self-deception a bit, thinking that he was as liberal as I was when in actuality he did run as a pragmatist and a moderate, which is how he has governed.

CONAN: One of the huge issues four years ago was the wars the United States was engaged in, in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. troops out of Iraq, on their way out of Afghanistan. Shannon, is that something that you think he's lived up to his promises?

SHANNON: I think he lived up to them as much as humanly possible in the position he was in. Health care, I would have liked to have seen him go more for universal and/or push the single payer option a little harder. But again, I think it was a pragmatic choice in the end.

CONAN: Something he could get passed.

SHANNON: Correct.

CONAN: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Shannon, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Let's see if we go next to - this is Reed. Reed with us from Mebane in North Carolina.

REED: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

REED: Yeah. I'm going to support President Obama unconditionally. I drove - I remember driving people to the outlying areas of north Florida to register voters in 2008. It was a glorious time back then. I'm not disappointed in President Obama at all. He had a very short window of opportunity when Al Franken got seated from Minnesota as the 60th vote in the Senate to get his policies done. And he got a lot done that he said he would do, including health care, Iraq. I think he's been vilified as no other president has ever been vilified by the opposition. And I think he's handled it with enormous grace and enormous integrity. And I will support him unadulterated.

CONAN: I could hear the grace part. I think every president feels that they have been vilified more than any president previously in history. And George W. Bush would certainly have some arguments on that scale too.

REED: OK, OK. I'll buy that.

STERN: So would Bill Clinton, actually.

CONAN: Yeah. So will Bill Clinton. Thanks very much for the call. And, Andy Stern, you mentioned earlier the Republicans have not endeared themselves necessarily to Latino voters. The president also did not, from their point of view, pushed enthusiastically for immigration reform. Again, may be better than the alternative. But it's not going to be as enthusiastic as last time, no?

STERN: Well, I don't know if it will be as enthusiastic, but I think, again, you know, there's like, you know, a 40-point difference right now, I think, amongst Latino voters in terms of their opinions about the president versus Mitt Romney. And I, you know, I think they've seen some change and some - recently even more change. But I think, again, people are - had a lot of expectations. Some of them were met. Some of them weren't met. I think it would be wrong to think it's all in the second term you're going to see the real Obama.

I think we've seen the real Obama and he's a very measured, thoughtful person who, you know, tries to move the ball forward in an incremental way. You know, he's not a long pass, you know, Hail Mary-type bomb thrower or - I got my analogies all mixed up here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STERN: But he's not...

CONAN: Welcome to the...

STERN: He's not going for the long, big gains. He's sort of just drags, you know, he just pushes through in a very thoughtful and considerate way. And I think you'll see more of that. But I think a lot of these issues that weren't done he will move on in the second term. How much, I think, is a good question.

CONAN: Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International, joining us from the Columbia School of Journalism in New York City. He's a senior fellow at the Richman Center at Columbia University. Also with us is pinch hitter political junkie Matt Bai of The New York Times Magazine. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Esther(ph) on the line. Esther with us from Ithaca.

ESTHER: Yes. Hi. Well, I guess I'd have to admit that I'm not terribly excited about President Obama, although I'll definitely be voting for him, because there really is no choice. You know, for me, I have to vote for him. But I've been disappointed in the erosion of civil liberties since he's taken office and his maintenance of the Patriot Act. In fact, I've read in some places, like in Salon, that he's become even more hardnosed in terms of civil liberties than in the previous administration, the Bush administration.

CONAN: Well, certainly on the question of pursuing leakers. Matt Bai, that's been an accurate perception. He's brought, I think, six different cases against alleged leakers.

BAI: Yeah. I don't - I mean, I - this, again, is one of those issues, I think, it matters to a lot of people in the Democratic base. I think it's one of these telltale issues where you see what Andy is talking about, that President Obama is a sort of thoughtful, moderate voice, that he's not been, you know, that he doesn't sort of blaze the trail that a lot of liberals would like him to blaze. But I don't that's where this election hinges. I mean, I think it would be a mistake - I think the main point is...

CONAN: Or for those concerned about drone attacks in places like Yemen against American citizens, like Anwar al-Awlaki.

BAI: Very serious issues and issues that are important to debate. But you know, the main thing you hear there from a caller saying I'm not enthusiastic about it, but there's clearly nowhere else for me to go. I think that politically, if we're just talking numerically, aside from the issues, just mathematically, I think that's fine for the president, right? I think if Democrats say, look, he hasn't gone as far - and independents say, look, he's gone as far as we want him to go, but clearly we don't want to go back, right?

That's what they want. Clearly, we don't want the conservative policies. Clearly, we think he's the most reasonable guy in the race. That's a winning scenario for him, you know, and I think he can have those debates within his own party and still come out very much ahead electorally.

CONAN: Esther, thanks very much for the call.

ESTER: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Andy Stern, as you looked at the electoral map that we're going to be looking at much more closely over the next seven months, four years ago Barack Obama scored an historic triumph. He took places like North Carolina and Virginia, places the Democrats had not done so well in - since, well, I guess, the Lyndon Johnson landslide. As you look at that map this time around, how does he get to 270?

STERN: Well, I mean, I think we saw a poll come out in Florida today that showed him in the lead. We know the president is down - his staff and campaign is now prospecting in Arizona. I just think it's way too early, you know, to try to draw, you know, a state by state. But I would say the president is, you know, well positioned both on the issues and in terms of the differences that are coming out to be successful in a lot of the same states he was. I think places like Virginia may be harder.

But, you know, I wouldn't even rule that out at this point. I just think it's early in the cycle. People have very strong opinions about where they stand. And I think a lot of work now needs to be done about this question of, you know, voter suppression or access to the polls, which I think is a huge issue for the Democrats. And you can see most of the attempts to deny access are being done in states controlled by Republican governors or legislators. So I think that's a huge problem, to make sure we have the full range of opportunity for Democratic voters to get to the polls.

And I think you're going to see a lot of work done on building a very effective turnout machine. I think the challenge always is at universities. Unions have infrastructure. Cities have, you know, mayors and churches and other forms of infrastructure. You know, universities by their definition have students that are coming in and out and don't really have that kind of permanent leadership. And I think they're going to take a lot of work to really build that to try to get those numbers back to where they need to be.

CONAN: Well, Andy Stern, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

STERN: Thank you.

CONAN: Andy Stern, now a senior fellow at the Richman Center at Columbia University, former president of the SEIU. And thanks to our pinch hitter, Matt Bai, the chief political correspondent of the New York Times Magazine. What are you working on?

BAI: I'm trying to do a couple of covers right now, hopefully for - on the campaign over the next several months. So we're gearing up for more.

CONAN: So you're going to be on the road this summer.

BAI: Oh, yeah. We're - I'll be heading out West, and I think - and perhaps to the plains(ph) too.

CONAN: All right, Matt, thanks very much. We appreciate your time. Political junkie Ken Rudin will be back with us here in Washington next week. Coming up, we're going to be talking about what else happened in Cartagena this past weekend. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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