What's Next In The Presidential Race?

With about 10 days to go until the election, political commentators E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times talk about how they think the rest of the race will play out.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris. John McCain had the campaign trail to himself today. Barack Obama was in Hawaii, visiting his grandmother. Michelle Obama and Joe Biden are filling in for him on the campaign trail. Barack Obama's grandmother is ill, and he said she may not live to see the election. As for John McCain, he traveled around Colorado and continued to go after Obama on taxes.

NORRIS: And after months of campaign trail eloquence, we finally learned what Senator Obama's economic goal is. As he told Joe the Plumber back in Ohio, he wants to quote, "spread the wealth around."

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

NORRIS: There's less than two weeks to go before the election, so we're joined by our regular political commentators, David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. Welcome to both of you.

NORRIS: Thank you.

NORRIS: Thank you.

NORRIS: David, I'm going to start with you. We just heard McCain reference Joe the Plumber. Joe the Plumber has been on the Joe the Plumber bus tour this week and his campaign has brought out all sorts of characters. Over the course of the campaign, we've met John the Caterer and Pam the Antique Shop Owner, and you've introduced us to yet another figure this week. Someone you call Patio Man. Who is he, and why is he so important?

NORRIS: Patio Man is your basic suburban dude. He's the guy who was upset because Sharper Image went bankrupt, and he can't buy more indoor putting greens. He's the guy who buys a 942-inch barbecue grill in case he gets the urge to roast a bison. And what's striking me about Patio Man - I've written a book about Patio Man - is that he's the guy who lives in the exurbs. He lives in suburbia. And basically, people move to those places because they want an orderly place to raise their kids.

They're looking for safety and security, and they tend to vote for the people who offer them safety and security. George Bush in 2004 won 98 of the hundred fastest growing counties in this country. And what strikes me this year is that the suburbs are going for Obama and the Democrats. Right now, according to the Wall Street Journal and the NBC poll, Obama has a 50 to 39 advantage in suburbia. And that's I think because of his temperament essentially that he has promised so far at least seemed so far to be the more orderly of the candidates.

NORRIS: So E.J., whether it's Patio Man or Riding Mower Joe or Waitress Mom or Knitting Circle Grandma, who are the most important cohorts who will decide this election?

NORRIS: You know, there are two kinds of cohorts here, the ones who are going to power an Obama victory if they turn out and the swing voters. It matters hugely if the Obama turnout operation - and I heard from politicians, Democrat politicians all over the country that they have never seen in their lives - in some cases 40 years in politics - an organization like this. And if they really succeed in turning out young people and have an enormous African-American turnout, that is going to be very important particularly in states such as North Carolina where very few people expected Obama to be competitive, he's now ahead in the state and the early voting seems to be going to Democrats.

NORRIS: Obama, who had trouble or was said to have had trouble all throughout this election with older voters, with women, with working-class voters. Did the trouble in the economy change?

NORRIS: That's where I was getting to. Those - the swing voters, that's the other kind of voters who are going to matter. And what's striking is that Obama is now running well ahead. I think it's about eight points in the New York Times' CBS poll among white men, where John Kerry was four years ago. He's doing even better among white women. He's getting somewhere between 22 and 30 percent of self-described conservative voters right now. I think some of that comes very much from what David said. I think the week when they came back to Washington, the calm Obama showed, and the uncertainty about McCain's strategy there kind of penetrated.

He looked like a calm and in-control guy. But more generally I think for a lot of voters, the economic mess reminded them that they just really want to get rid of these guys. In this case, these guys - the Republicans. And so he has sort of risen up way above the normal Democratic vote in constituencies where people wondered if he could even hitch on John Kerry's level.

NORRIS: John Kerry keeps hitting Barack Obama time and time again on taxes, and he uses Joe the Plumber to do that. He feels like he's found a winning metaphor with...

NORRIS: With John McCain.

NORRIS: With Joe the Plumber.

NORRIS: Right.

NORRIS: Is this a smart strategy for John McCain?

NORRIS: I think so. I think if you look at the weakness and what Obama is offering - first of all, as E.J. mentioned, he's got a lot of suburban moderate conservative support. That means a lot of people who were voting for him are not liberals and do not particularly like the idea of a radically expanded government. And next year, we're going to have a budget deficit somewhere around the order of $750 billion before any new spending or tax cuts. And if Obama is promising all this stuff, then it's legitimate to wonder will he really expand the deficit? Will he - will the Democratic Congress really expand the size of government? And when you're talking about Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and Obama together, I think you begin to maybe worry some these moderate voters who are inclined to support him right now.

NORRIS: I'm curious about the decisions that being made about where the campaign, the electoral map, particularly with the Republican Party where John McCain is campaigning, and what that may mean down ticket in building the party in the future?

NORRIS: There's a struggle right now in the Republican Party. Some Republicans want McCain really to give up and to campaign for Senate candidates so they can keep the number of Republicans at least 40, 45 so Democrats don't have a filibuster-proof majority. McCain is not buying it so far. Just looking at where he's going, he's going to places like Pennsylvania. They've put a lot on Pennsylvania, on winning Pennsylvania. Figuring states like New Mexico and Colorado are gone. They can get a lot of electoral votes in Pennsylvania and then hope to pick up Ohio and Florida. But that has a lot of Republicans shaking their heads. Can he really win Pennsylvania? He seems so far behind. But McCain people say it's not a sure thing, but they got a shot there.

NORRIS: And they're saying it's not a sure thing in part because they said the margin of error is probably much wider than it normally is because of all kinds of factors including the historic nature of this campaign.

NORRIS: I think they are counting on some - it goes back to the piece you did at the beginning of the show, the question of whether there is some hidden racial vote. I don't believe this much of a hidden racial vote because I think people who have a problem because of race were already saying they're for McCain. I don't think they have to be ashamed that they're for McCain. But McCain is now in the point where he has to pull an inside straight, the late Lee Atwater's phrase from back in 1988 in the Dukakis-Bush race.

NORRIS: Meaning, he's around the table.

NORRIS: He's got to take Pennsylvania away from Obama, which is very hard. He's down 11 or 12 points there. And he's got to hold all these states where he's running behind - Ohio, North Carolina, Florida. If he did all of that, he would have a very narrow path into the White House. But boy, that's hard to pull of.

NORRIS: Is there a danger also in being overconfident on the other side?

NORRIS: I think Obama got to nail down Pennsylvania. He's got to nail down the states that'll get him pass 273, and then he can try to path his lead. He could end up with easily 375 electoral votes if everything fell the way it's falling now. But I think he's got to nail down his space.

NORRIS: One last question. We really don't have a lot of time. But this news this week that the campaign spent an awful lot of money on Sarah Palin's wardrobe. David, how damaging was that?

NORRIS: Pretty damaging. I should say E.J. and I are sitting here in Vera Wang ensembles worth some tens of thousands of dollars. It's so damaging because it just seemed so stupid (unintelligible).

NORRIS: That's David Brooks of the New York Times. Also joined by E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. Thanks to both of you for coming in.

NORRIS: Thank you.

NORRIS: Thank you.

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