Taking Voters' Temperature As Midterms Loom

Voter intensity surrounding social issues like health care, immigration and same-sex marriage could be a deciding factor in November's midterm elections. Jacki Lyden discusses the issues with NPR News Analyst Juan Williams.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Voter intensity surrounding social issues like health care, immigration and same-sex marriage could be a deciding factor in November's midterm elections. It has the White House doing what it can to combat the political passion among many conservatives over these so-called wedge issues.

For more, NPR news analyst Juan Williams joins us now from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York City. Juan, welcome.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Jacki.

LYDEN: Glad to have you hear from New York. So we just heard how Florida and a group of other states are preparing challenges to the federal health care overhaul. And this week also, as you know, voters in Missouri rejected mandatory health insurance. So we're seeing, Juan, one of the key components of President Obama's domestic agenda very much back in the political crosshairs.

WILLIAMS: No doubt about it. And I think that what it signifies, Jacki, with 71 percent support among Missouri voters for this Proposition C, you know, banning the government from requiring that everyone buy health insurance, is evidence of how energized the Republican base is around the country. People really stirred on this issue, and people who were supporters, by contrast, really not making the effort. You didn't see the unions in the state or the consumer groups come out.

There was some small effort by - I think it was the Missouri Hospital Association to make the case that it's going to cost hospitals more to treat people who are uninsured and therefore create a problem for the state.

But, again, the passions really are high on the right as opposed to the left, and that poses a problem for Democrats who are seeking reelection in November.

LYDEN: Well, especially such a broad swath - 20 states. And then also the topic of immigration reform - a perennial hot-button issue, of course. Now, some Republicans have focused on the 14th Amendment, saying they want to deny citizenship to children born on American soil but to illegal immigrants. What's the GOP strategy there?

WILLIAMS: Well, again, you know what, this is an issue that really crosses all the country right now. The heat around the immigration issue is such that people are looking for different ways to tap into that voter anger and, again, energize their base. So for a while it was all about, you know, border security first, build a wall.

Now that whole idea has somehow evolved into this notion that if a person who is not an American comes to the U.S. to have a baby, that person maybe should not be granted automatically citizenship rights. Well, that's highly problematic. I mean, do we start deciding who's an American and not an American despite the fact that the Constitution has very clear said that those who are born here are Americans?

But, again, it's all about tapping into voter angst, especially on the right, and stirring the base.

LYDEN: Well, I'm here in New York where we've seen a lot of comment recently by people and politicians outside New York City about an Islamic center to be built near Ground Zero.

WILLIAMS: Exactly. So here again is an issue where you're hearing from people far outside New York - not New Yorkers. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, saying this mosque should not be build anywhere near Ground Zero, saying Ground Zero is sacred ground.

Jacki, I think what you're seeing here is that three months before the election, it's a difficult moment for Democrats in terms of message, money, motivations. You see that, you know, right now the Republicans, with President Obama's depressed approval ratings, are even putting him in ads. The president, for his part, really focusing on spending money on candidates, less on going out to some districts where he may not be popular, and the Democratic National Committee and others spending money also on get-out-the-vote efforts.

And so President Obama and his political advisers saying let's bring out some of the young people, minority voters, women swing voters, that helped President Obama get elected, but maybe not having President Obama himself in the arena. They don't want this to be a referendum on the president but more a choice about whether or not you go back to what they consider to be failed policies under the last president.

LYDEN: NPR news analyst Juan Williams joined us from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York City. Thanks again, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome. Have a good day, Jacki.

LYDEN: You too.

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