Audience Holds Key In Second Debate

John McCain and Barack Obama are clashing at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., in front of a crowd of undecided voters. Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, says the way the candidates answer the questions may be more important than the audience's questions themselves.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Well, some of the questions that will be put to the candidates tonight were submitted by voters over the Internet. The rest of the questions will come from an audience of about 80 people from the Nashville area. Those people have been selected by the Gallup Organization. So we asked the Gallup Poll's editor in chief, Frank Newport, to tell us more. He says they're all likely voters who haven't yet made up their minds.

Dr. FRANK NEWPORT (Editor In Chief, Gallup Poll): Basically they are people who are classically undecided, that is don't choose either candidate, or they may lean to one candidate or the other but they say they are not definite in their choice and there is still a chance that they'll vote for the other candidate.

BLOCK: And again, some of those - not all of them, but some of them - will have questions that are put to the candidates. You met with these folks from the audience today along with the moderator, Tom Brokaw. How did that meeting go? What were you doing?

Dr. NEWPORT: It went great. These people are tremendously excited because this is their chance to be a part of the Democratic process. Of course they'll be on, you know, national worldwide television and may have a chance to ask a question. Tom Brokaw was very good, described to them the civic responsibility they had tonight. And then they put their questions in an envelope, and nobody other than the participants and Tom Brokaw actually knows what these people will ask if called on tonight.

BLOCK: So in other words, he won't be reading those questions. He will just choose the people who submitted them because he knows he wants that question asked.

Dr. NEWPORT: That's right. He'll call on the individual, and they'll ask. And the reason he does that, as it's been explained to me, is to avoid duplication and to make sure there's a relatively good mix of domestic versus foreign policy questions.

BLOCK: Are the folks screened in any way to make sure they're not affiliated with one or the other campaign? This has been an issue in other debates. I know it's come up and surprised people.

Dr. NEWPORT: Yes, they are. Self report, but we do go through a series of screens that they do not work for a market research company, do not work for a political campaign, did not work for anybody involved in the media. And all of the people who are in the panel said, no, they were not any of the above.

BLOCK: What about other balance in the audience? Are you trying to weight for men and women voters or for age or for race? Is it supposed to duplicate the community where you are today?

Dr. NEWPORT: Remember, this is a population of uncommitted voters who in some ways are not representative of the total population. But given that stipulation, we recruit randomly from the national metropolitan area, 13 counties, and then we do seek some balance by gender, by age, and race. But overall, they are intended to reflect uncommitted voters in this general area rather than all voters in the area or all voters across the country.

BLOCK: And you said uncommitted voters do not represent the total voting population. Who are these uncommitted voters nationwide? What does this population look like?

Dr. NEWPORT: Well, you know, politically they're more independent, although that's not one of the criteria we use here. But they tend not to be minorities, because we know that African-Americans in this election, most elections, are very fairly strongly committed to the Democratic candidate. They tend not, for example, to be Evangelical white Christians, because those types of people are committed to the Republican candidate. We have young people represented, but you know, young people generally are more strongly committed to the Democratic candidate. So that pool of uncommitted voters tends to be kind of more middle of the road, generally more white, more average in terms of education and in terms of age.

BLOCK: What might surprise you tonight in this debate, Frank? Or have you been doing this so long that really you think you know just about any question that might be asked and how it might be answered?

Dr. NEWPORT: Well, we certainly don't know how it might be answered. And what we learned is it's how it's answered that makes a difference. We all remember back to 1992 when a young woman asked a question of Bush, Sr. It was a complex question about how the federal deficit might affect everyday life, and it was a little confusing. And Bush, Sr., maybe correctly so, said that's kind of a confusing question, or something to that effect. But then Bill Clinton kind of flipped the question around, walked to the woman, looked into her eyes and said, I feel your pain, I know what it's like to be economically distressed. And he clearly won on that dimension. So I think part of what's going to be fascinating is not so much the questions these average Americans ask but how these candidates answer them directly or indirectly.

BLOCK: We've been talking with Frank Newport. He's editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. He's in Nashville where tonight's presidential debate will be held. Frank, thanks very much.

Dr. NEWPORT: You bet. Glad to be with you.

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