Undecided Voters Weigh The Issues, Candidates

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As the Democrats wrap up their national convention in Denver, the Republicans gear up for their meeting in St. Paul next week. A group voters, still undecided, share thoughts about the candidates and the issues that are most important to them. Marcos Pico, Ron Friedoff and Marcia Ford of Colorado explain what Barack Obama and John McCain need to do to win them over.


And that was Tell Me More host Michel Martin at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. To take a look at Tell Me More's convention coverage and Michel's blog from Denver, please check out our website, go to npr.org and click on Tell Me More. And you can also get the latest news about the Republican Convention at npr.org. And now, a conversation about the selection and undecided voters. During political conventions it's a gathering of the party faithful, that's where candidate rally their base, where party loyalty is the mantra and party operatives give rousing speeches about what it means to be a Democrat or Republican. Most voters don't need convincing. Their political affiliation is solid. However, many people aren't beholden to a party and some poll showed that nearly a third of voters have yet to decide of whom to support in this presidential race.

Well, we've invited a group of the undecided to tell us more. Ron Friedoff is the owner of Ross' Restaurant in Bettendorf, Iowa. He's with us from member station WSUI in Iowa City. Marcia Ford is an independent voter from Colorado Springs, Colorado. She's a vocal advocate of non-partisan politics and the author of the book "We the Purple: Faith, Politics, and the Independent Voter," and she joins us from the studios of Colorado Public Radio in Denver. We will also be joined by Marcos Pico, who works with the Latino research center at the University of Nevada-Reno, and he'll be joining us from member station KUNR in Reno. Welcome to all of you.

Ms. MARCIA FORD (Independent Voter, Colorado; Author, "We the Purple: Faith, Politics and the Independent Voter"): Thank you.

Mr. RON FRIEDOFF (Owner, Ross Restaurant, Bettendorf, Iowa): Thanks, Cheryl.

CORLEY: OK. Marcia Ford, let's start with you. The Democrats held their convention in your home state and Senator Obama made history by becoming the first African-American to lead a major party. In his speech, he laid out what he hopes to do, as well as pointing out what he considers some really stark differences between himself and Republican opponent John McCain, and I was wondering just what your reaction was so far. Did the convention events or his speech make you feel more or less enthusiastic about the Democratic Party?

Ms. FORD: Well, I don't know that I'll ever be enthusiastic about a major party, but I do feel that he addresses the issues that are of concern to a lot of people and especially a lot independents, who are looking for real change and for political reform, and I do believe that he did address those issues to our satisfaction.

CORLEY: I wanted to ask you because you said you don't think that you'd be enthusiastic about any major party, you identify as an independent voter, and you're an advocate of non-partisan political system, but you don't like the term that a lot of people mention when they talk about independents and they called them swing voters. So, what's wrong with that term?

Ms. FORD: Well, swing voter implies that you are easily influence by the rhetoric of one party or the other or even a third party or an independent, and I feel that many of us who are independents are not easily swayed. We are actually decided in that we're decided that we will be independent, and we have very strong views, a very strong convictions about what we believe the political system should look like and what reforms need to be put into place. So, the term swing voter gives this impression that we are just out there waiting for somebody to say the right thing and then, we're going to decide to go with that person and that's not the case at all.

CORLEY: Ron Friedoff, I understand the fact that you're still undecided, led to an unexpected interaction with Barack Obama recently. Tell us what happened.

Mr. FRIEDOFF: Well, my wife was at a rally for Barack in Davenport, Iowa, and she was mentioning our situation, we own a 24-hour restaurant there. And she mentioned that I was on the fence about who I was going to vote for in the election, and he asked her to call me on her cell phone and get me on the phone and then, once I got on the line, he got on, and started talking to me.

CORLEY: And what did he say to you?

Mr. FRIEDOFF: Well, he wanted to know what he could do to win my vote, and one of the answers I had for him was that I'd like to him to come in the restaurant and try our signature dish, the Magic Mountain, and so we could sit down and talk about some of the issues.

CORLEY: So, he wasn't able to convince you just yet.

Mr. FRIEDOFF: Not yet. I'm holding out for that visit.

CORLEY: OK. Marcos Pico, Nevada is expected to be a swing state and much attention is being paid to the Latino voters, which could make or break this state for a candidate. As a Latino voter yourself, what issues are important to you in making the decision?

Mr. MARCOS PICO (Latino Research Center, University of Nevada-Reno): Most importantly, the obvious one is the immigration issue. Obama has supported the Secure Fence Act and does - just puts me to hold up on giving him my vote, and McCain actually has supported the immigration issue, and he actually did something to see a change. And last night Obama didn't really show anything that he would support an immigration bill.

CORLEY: So you want to hear much more from Senator Obama on immigration then?

Mr. PICO: That is correct.

CORLEY: Marcia, if I can go to you. What issues still are unresolved for you that would, you know, make you decide who you would vote for in November?

Ms. FORD: The main issue for me is the economy. In terms of social issues, obviously my primary concern is political reform and seeing the system reformed. But in terms of social issues, I think that I need to see more or hear more from all of the candidates. In that I include the third parties and the independents on the economy and how we can get out of the mess that we're in. We need major change.

CORLEY: Ron, we've heard Marcia say the economy is important to her. Marcos says immigration is important to him. How about you? What do you want Barack Obama or John McCain to talk to you about if they do come to the restaurant and sit down with you?

Mr. FRIEDOFF: Well, I agree completely with Marcia that the economy is just such an overriding issue. You know, I've gotten to the point in my life where I realize the needs of my customers at my restaurant and the needs and the future for my children and grandchildren. The issues that I should be concerned with when I vote, you know, my business cannot succeed without my customers, you know, having some relief for all the expenses in their lives that have risen so dramatically.

CORLEY: If you're just joining us, I'm Cheryl Corley. You're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with a roundtable of undecided voters about their reactions to the presidential campaign so far. Marcia, Obama promises a nonpartisan approach to politics. And I was wondering if you're encouraged by that and if you think that's what you've seen from him so far?

Ms. FORD: Well, I think many independents have been encouraged by him on that one issue in particular because he has reached out to independents, he has listened to independents. And that is critical. And I would say that what we need is a trans-partisan relationship in that he is not only - that the government is not only responding to the two major parties and independents, but also third parties, just so that third parties and independents have a place at the table and that they have a voice in this government. And Obama has represented that in the past, and I hope he will continue to in the future.

CORLEY: So you believe that the two-party system is just too entrenched?

Ms. FORD: Oh, absolutely. I don't think there's any question about that.

CORLEY: Marcos, you also work in the field of education as a volunteer tutor to Latino youth, and I was...

Mr. PICO: That is correct.

CORLEY: How has this affected what you want to see from the candidates?

Mr. PICO: That is one of the major issues that I have about being back and forth. I believe Obama has a really good idea of what education is about in the United States, and he really wants to boost by giving to the sciences and mathematics. Going back to the community, going back to the middle-class America. And I think that's very important. That's why I want - I would give my vote to Obama in that sense. I'm very undecided in that sense, so I go back and forth every day just thinking about what my decision's going to be in November.

CORLEY: And he mentioned during his speech last night about college tuition, things like that, I would imagine that was something that held your interest or piqued your interest as well, what exactly he's going to do in that regard.

Mr. PICO: Yeah, of course, he caught my interest, not only for me, but for everyone else I believe that's a very important issue that he brought up. And I think he's right on the money on this one.

CORLEY: It's interesting to me that the issues that you all bring up, the economy, immigration, education, none of you have mentioned the Iraq war at all. And I was wondering how important that was to you and how you view each of the candidates' stance on it. Ron, why don't we begin with you?

Mr. FRIEDOFF: Well, that was one thing that I did come away from to help me make my decision was I happened to see the panel discussion at the Democratic Institute where they discussed foreign policy and the issues relating to Iraq. And I decided that, you know, that's not a weakness for Barack. He's got an excellent group of people there advising him during this campaign on foreign policy. I was very impressed with that aspect of the people he's got around him.

CORLEY: Marcia, how do you feel about how the candidates - and both of them, have handled the issue of the war in Iraq?

Ms. FORD: Well, first of all I want to say you can't separate the economy from the war. The war has greatly impacted the economy and so those two are actually my two top priorities in determining who to vote for. I believe that Barack Obama is going to have the right advisers around him that will help him to determine how to handle the war in Iraq. And I'm not so confident that McCain will do that. I think that after the last eight years, it would be very difficult for me to think that John McCain is going to make a real difference in Iraq the way that Obama will.

CORLEY: Marcos, your thoughts about the war in Iraq and the candidates?

Mr. PICO: I think, for me, it's very black and white issue. I mean, we either pull or we stay. I mean, Barack says let's pull away and it obviously correlates with the economy. McCain says let's stay and finish up where we started. So I'd rather see us come out of the war, and I very much think that the economy would boost up if that was the case.

CORLEY: To all of you, I was wondering if the election has changed your attitude at all about the political process in the United States as you've watched the campaign. If we could just go quickly around the table, Marcos, has it changed for you at all, just your attitude about the election?

Mr. PICO: It has, it has, for sure. I - it has very - it's very impacting to me actually.

CORLEY: Ron, how about you? Just real briefly.

Mr. FRIEDOFF: Yes, there are so many people in need in this country that - including the people of Iowa City who have suffered a devastating flood this year. So there's a real need for someone to fix a lot of problems.

CORLEY: And Marcia Ford.

Ms. FORD: Well, I'm optimistic because independents are the ones who actually voted in these two nominees, who gave them the nomination. So I'm optimistic that the system can be changed.

CORLEY: All right, thank you so much. Three individuals still deciding on who will get their vote in November. Thank you all for joining us.

Mr. FRIEDOFF: Thanks for having us.

Ms. FORD: You're welcome.

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