November Elections Focus On Domestic Issues

Election Day is four weeks from Tuesday. Some polls show the race tightening between Democrats trying to hold on to Congress and Republicans trying to wrest control. The hotly contested elections are being fought mainly on domestic issues, but national security has a way of intruding in campaigns.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're about four weeks out from Election Day and surveys suggest the race may be tightening slightly. Republicans are expected to gain seats in the House and Senate. The question is whether they gain enough to win control.

This hotly contested election is being fought mainly on domestic issues, but national security has a way of intruding on campaigns, and there is a war on in Afghanistan, as well as is a threat announced over the weekend. The U.S. issued a security advisory for Americans traveling to Europe.

We're going to talk about this with NPR's Cokie Roberts who joins us most Monday mornings.

Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What happens when something in the news gets voters thinking about security threats?

ROBERTS: Well, we have a couple of good examples of that in elections over the years. Back in 1990, there were a bunch of really strong Republican women running for the Senate. And they were doing very well over the summer. And then in August, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and all of a sudden their campaigns just collapsed. And there was a sense then, that voters really did not trust women on national security issues, and the issues that these candidates had been touting: health, education - those kinds of things, suddenly became less important to voters.

And we saw something similar in 2004 with the Bush and Kerry campaign, when the Russian - in Beslan took all those children hostage in that school. And suddenly, again, the issues that had been of concern to women were suddenly off the radar. And women started worrying about fundamental safety, and they were dubbed, that year, Security Moms. You remember that?

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

ROBERTS: And those moms voted for Bush, taking away the edge that Democrats normally have among women.

INSKEEP: So we're not saying that women should feel differently about security threats, or that women candidates should be treated differently, but you're giving examples where that seemed to have happened.

I have to ask, also, Cokie - when you talk about 2004 and security threats - this was a year when the Bush administration raised the terror alert to orange several times during the campaign season. And the Homeland Security secretary at that time, Tom Ridge, later said he thought it was unjustified, wondered if it was done for political reasons. We can't prove that, but can you prove that this does move votes?

ROBERTS: Well, as I said, we certainly saw examples in a couple of elections where you can't, you know, do an automatic cause and effect, but it certainly looks like votes move after an event.

You know, the same kind of criticism came to Bill Clinton in August of 1998, when he sent cruise missiles to attack terrorist sites in Afghanistan and Sudan. And he was accused of, remember, wag the dog scenario - that he was trying to distract people from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

You know, you can't prove any of those things. You can certainly make a case that Clinton was going after bin Laden and that Bush was nervous about what was going on in the world, in terms of terrorist chatter, as Obama seems to be today.

INSKEEP: So what does all this mean then for 2010?

ROBERTS: Well, again, Republicans do have a bunch of women they're counting on - Sarah Palin's momma grizzlies. Now, since 1990, we've had three female secretaries of state dealing with national security issues. So it's entirely likely, with any luck, that attitudes have changed on that subject. It's also true that voters tell pollsters that they trust Republicans to deal with terrorism more than Democrats. So maybe Republicans running for Congress will be helped. But I doubt it.

I suspect that if people start focusing on security, they react the way they have in the past. Which is that they stop being willing to just throw all the cards in the air, and say let's get the new guy - no matter what. Suddenly experience and know-how seem to matter more, and all these candidates touting the fact that they've never been in office, start looking risky instead of interesting.

INSKEEP: The experience and know-how of Cokie Roberts on this Monday morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks, as always.

ROBERTS: Good, Steve.

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