Election 2008: Issues


This is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. During some elections, hot-button issues like abortion, immigration and affirmative action are what voters and politicians argue about. This year, both candidates focused on the economy. That's on the national level. But on the state level, some states are running highly controversial ballot initiatives. In a few minutes we'll zoom in on the issues of affirmative action and gay marriage.

But now, let's take a broader look at how these controversial values issues affect the vote. With us we've got Michael Fauntroy, assistant professor at the George Mason School of Public Policy and author of "Republicans and the Black Vote." And Princella Smith, visiting fellow for the Independent Woman's Voice, a chief advocate for American Solutions. Hi, folks.

Ms. PRINCELLA SMITH (Visiting Fellow, Independent Woman's Voice, Chief Advocate, American Solutions): Hello.

Professor MICHAEL FAUNTROY (Public Policy, George Mason School of Public Policy; Author, "Republicans and the Black Vote"): Hello.

CHIDEYA: So I want to go through a few hot-button issues of the past and probably of the future but really not so much of the present. OK. let's take immigration first. The Democratic and Republican presidential candidates seem to avoid the issue. For example, the first presidential debate was supposed to be on foreign policy and national security. But there was no significant mention, let alone discussion of the U.S. relationship to Mexico, and that relationship really includes immigration, trade, national security all in one. So, Princella, why do you think immigration was not an issue for either side?

Ms. SMITH: Well, it was obviously a monumental failure when it was tried - when they tried to push through some form of a compromise. Bush fumbled it quite nicely, and then Congress followed in right behind him in fumbling it. And it's something that has proven to be very polarizing, and in an election season like you have right now I think both candidates have tried to stay away from things that were absolutely polarizing, if that makes sense. And that's it. I mean, we've unfortunately been through a two-year-long election cycle of the least amount of substance that people have seen in a very long time. No one has really come out with - other than John McCain - I mean, he tried a couple years ago. But nobody's really come out with a comprehensive plan to solve the problems that we're having with immigration. So that's the answer. It's just too hot-button, and they just left it alone.

CHIDEYA: Michael, even some Latino Republicans said that - we were talking to someone at the Republican Convention who was like, oh, yeah, it's just too - it's too hot. But, you know, you think about the fact that Obama is the son of an immigrant and Senator McCain leads a state that's a third Hispanic, and it really is even more remarkable. So do you see any trends in the future - in future - in the next, say, mid-term elections? Do you expect immigration to come back on the table or is it out of the rotation for a while?

Professor FAUNTROY: I think the future is going to look a lot like the present. You know, the reality is that the Republicans were trounced in the congressional elections of 2006, in part because of the movement of Latino and Latino voters away from the party based on the party's immigration stance. And Senator McCain has sort of been hamstrung by that history because if you look at his view relative to his party, he's much more nuanced, but he can't sort of play up those nuances because this is a base election for him. He has to get the Republican base out.

Regarding Senator Obama, you know, he doesn't want to bring it up too much either because he doesn't want to be seen as someone who is potentially favoring minorities over white voters, and that's part of his deregulization(ph) strategy. So that's it. The Republicans going forward will continue to be chasing based on the proposals we saw in the run-up to the 2006 election, and I'm not sure we're going to see very much on this issue. Perhaps on the margins, but not too much substantively in the years going forward.

CHIDEYA: OK, let's talk social security. Boomers retiring. Lot of money leaving for payments for the program. When he was running for president, Al Gore said he was going to put the money in a quote, "lock box," and nobody completely figured out what that meant. But it sounded good at the time.

Professor FAUNTROY: The much lampooned lock box.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: The much lampooned lock box. And Senator Barack Obama says he wants to protect social security. John McCain, Senator John McCain once said he would favor privatizing, but then this election has not brought that up at all. Just quickly, Michael first, then Princella, this is a big issue folks are going to have to deal with, in part because the economy means that more than ever. There'll be people who get a large amount of money of their living expenses out of social security, so how do you see this coming up in the future?

Professor FAUNTROY: Well, this is the really - you know, you would talk about third rails in American politics, you know. Really smart people in the past few years have been saying that some combination of the following will have to be done with regard to social security, and that it rising the retirement age, lowering benefits and increasing taxes. And, you know, if you look at what's going on right now, you know, in economic boom times perhaps people are more willing to at least listen to the notion of privatizing it, although that's still very controversial. But in very tough economic times, which we are likely to be in for the next few years, at least, you know, retirees and people near retiring age are not at all excited about the notion of engaging in some sort of privatization act. So I just think that social security would just continue to limp along as it is right now until there's a crisis.

CHIDEYA: Princella?

Ms. SMITH: Well, they absolutely need to do something about social security. This is something that politics absolutely does not need to be played with. You know, the term privatization has become so polarizing, as has universal health care. I think it's important that people are able to understand social security. I think a lot of people don't understand both plans. I know the plan that should be pushed forward is allowing people to invest their own money. Now some people call that privatization, but if you - if people are allowed to invest their money into what's called an annuity and then take that annuity and have it paid out once monthly to these people, then what that does is it actually it solves both the Democratic and Republican argument because people are receiving money each month. But at the same time, it's their own money. And not only that, they are able to pass that down to their own children. And I think that's something that, you know, it's turned into a Republican versus Democrat issue. But it really shouldn't be.

People should be allowed - right now, you have a system that people are paying into something that they're not getting much out of, and by the time someone like me, who's young like me, is able to need social security there's going to be nothing there. I mean, I don't understand the problem with allowing somebody to invest their own money into something that's not going to run out. And like I said, an annuity. And that's what needs to be pushed. It's very...


Ms. SMITH: Disappointing that hasn't been talked about in such an economic crisis that we're facing now.

CHIDEYA: But it's - it sounds like - that you don't believe there's anyone who's going to push that agenda.

Ms. SMITH: No. Honestly, I don't. I don't feel that that is - over the next what - let's just say four - over the next four years I don't feel that that's going to be touched because we've turned America's political landscape into just politics. Let's just pick the fights that we can win instead of the fights that need fighting.

CHIDEYA: All right. I've got two more issues. They're both huge, but just, you know, one or the other or both. Gun control. We've seen some stuff on, you know, the Supreme Court weighing in on gun-control issues. But it didn't come up a lot except for that moose rap on "Saturday Night Live." It didn't really come up during this election. And then there's abortion, which also didn't really come up quite a lot. One or the other or both. What do you think? I guess I'll go with you first, Michael. Thoughts about why - how these issues will cut?

Professor FAUNTROY: I will speak to both of them quickly. I really think that abortion and gun control are two issues that have become so polarized and nothing has been done on them substantially one way or the other. But I think most voters - you know, the politicians have to get out of the way of the voters on this, and the voters are not prepared. You know, when they're having a hard time paying their mortgages or paying tuition, you know, I don't think voters are trying to hear large-scale fights about whether or not people should have access to guns or whether or not people should have access - women should have access to abortions. I just think that for many people those two issues do not climb very high up the list with regard to what's going on - sort of bread-and-butter issues for voters. And so I think candidates are taking a cue from that, and they don't want to wade into those waters either unless they absolutely have to.

CHIDEYA: But Princella, weren't these hot-button issues supposed to be the ones that people made their minds up about? And not just, you know, you know, sort of the vague sense of whether someone would do well in general as a leader? It seems as if that kind of big bubble of, you know, this person is good overall, has really overwhelmed issues-based voting, for better or worse, and I'm not saying it's one or the other.

Ms. SMITH: It has, but I think, again, I mean, you kind of answered your own question earlier when you just - this environment is a bit different, and I think Mike's right. I think at this particular juncture, there is a bloc of voters that are voting on that, on abortion or on gun rights. And there are some people - I mean, I don't think that's ever going to end. There are some people who absolutely, that is always going to be their number one issue is abortion. And some people, their number one or two issue will be gun rights.

But I think what those issues have served for in this cycle, because of the looming economic crisis that has pretty much swallowed and encompassed this whole race, I think those two issues have served as base unifiers. You say it hasn't gotten a lot of national prominence, but if you go to these rallies, if you go to a GOP rally, they tout the fact that Sarah Palin has five kids, one of them with Down Syndrome, and that, you know, she chose to have the baby, knowing that the baby had disabilities. So they are hitting that pro-life aspect. At the same time, if you go Obama rallies, you hear Hillary Clinton talking about, quote, you know, the woman's right to choose.

And so they've rallied their bases with it, but they don't want to come out in national presidential debates and talk about it because they know first and foremost in most people's minds is this economy.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, you guys stay with us. Again, we're talking to Princella Smith and Michael Fauntroy about hot-button issues. We're going to drill down on two big-state ballot initiatives of 2008, that's affirmative action and same-sex marriage. We're bringing in Jennie Drage Bowser. She's a senior election analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. So Jennie, thanks for coming on.

Ms. JENNIE DRAGE BOWSER (Senior Election Analyst, National Conference of State Legislatures): It's a pleasure to be with you.

CHIDEYA: All right, let's jump right into this. There are 153 proposals in 36 states on ballots next Tuesday. So how does that overall compare to 2004 and 2000?

Ms. BOWSER: Well, the total number of ballot measures is a little bit lower than we usually see it. It usually comes in closer to 200. But if you take out of that 153 the number that were proposed by citizens via the initiative process, that's a total of 59, and that's actually the same exact number we had in the last presidential election. In 2004 there were also 59 initiatives on the ballot.

CHIDEYA: All right. What about affirmative action? You've got Colorado and Nebraska having proposals to ban race- and gender-based affirmative action. Is that really a repeat of what we've seen in places like California?

Ms. BOWSER: It is virtually the same measure that California voters approved back in the '90s, Washington also and then Michigan most recently in 2006. It comes from the same sponsor, and the language is virtually identical.

CHIDEYA: Ward Connelly being one of the people moving this?

Ms. BOWSER: Right.

CHIDEYA: And we've had him on the show. An African-American who has really helped foster the ballot initiative as a way of ending affirmative action. What is the likely outcome?

Ms. BOWSER: Well, the polling data in Colorado shows that it's still at about 53 percent support. But that has softened significantly over the last couple of weeks. The last poll before this one was the second week of October, and it was at 62 percent then. So it is softening. And in Nebraska, it's a little bit harder to say. There doesn't seem to be very much polling going on there. The only one I could really find was one taken by the sponsors of the initiative back in June, and it showed support at 71 percent.

CHIDEYA: All right. Let's move on to the big ballot initiative here in California, which is called Proposition 8. If passed, it would overturn the Supreme Court's ruling in May in support of same-sex marriages. And we've seen in California huge rush to the altar by people, including Mr. Sulu of "Star Trek." And so, you know, there are a lot of people who say, look, this is our right. It's a state's right. The Supreme Court validated it. You would be taking away rights if you pass this initiative. So tell me a little bit about how this initiative is playing and also the way that language is being used in framing it.

Ms. BOWSER: Well, you know, support on that one is - the polls are contradictory right now. One poll from the Public Policy Institute that was conducted just last week sounds support at just 44 percent. But another poll just a few days before that one found it at 48 percent, with 45 percent opposed. It's also a little bit contradictory when you drill down into those numbers.

The Public Policy poll found that support was moderately stronger for it among Latino voters, but the earlier poll found that Latinos and whites really saw it the same way, and it was black voters who really strongly supported it, at 58 percent. So the turnout in California, I think, could be really instrumental in deciding what happens on this measure.

CHIDEYA: All right. I'm going to back to you guys, Princella and Michael. Princella, polls show that 16 percent of black voters in Ohio voted for the Republicans in 2004, possibly in part, you know, of the fact that there was a gay marriage ballot initiative. How much are African-American voters traditionally conservative, social-issues voters, and has the year of Obama just thrown that model out the window?

Ms. SMITH: I don't know if it's necessarily the year of Obama as much as it's the year of let's get Bush out of the White House. I think that some people feel that they were duped into that kind of thinking to vote for President Bush, unfortunately. And so what that has done is - I don't think it's changed people's minds about that. I just think that it has moved their interest elsewhere, if that makes sense. I don't think it's - I guess less of an issue. I just think it's not at the top of the list anymore.

CHIDEYA: Michael, when you take a look at these ballot initiatives, let's go to the affirmative action one. Do you think affirmative action state-by-state ballot initiatives are still going to continue to roll out over time?

Prof. FAUNTROY: I think it really does depend on the national economic mood, you know. I really believe that, you know, this election's going to be very different than past elections because voters, particularly working-class voters, are going to focused much more on their own self interest in terms of their economic fortunes. And so I'm not certain that the state-by-state strategy will continue to be as successful going forward as it has been going in the past.

Now you mentioned Ohio, and I think that's very curious. The Republicans have done a really good job of using ballot initiatives on controversial social issues to drive up turnout. And you know, at some level, you've run out of bullets to play after you play the abortion card and the anti-affirmative action card. You know, there may be some sort of immigration stuff you may be able to play in one way or another. And in Colorado they have the union membership and mandatory dues collection initiative as well. But once you get beyond that kind of stuff, there's really not anything on the local, state level that can really drive a turnout. So I'm not sure going forward it's going to have very much resonance.

CHIDEYA: Well, we have to wrap it up there. Thanks, guys. Thanks all three of you.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you.

Prof. FAUNTROY: You're very welcome.

Ms. BOWSER: It's been a pleasure.

CHIDEYA: We were speaking with Michael Fauntroy, assistant professor at the George Mason School of Public Policy and author of "Republicans and the Black Vote," Princella Smith, visiting fellow for the Independent Women's Voice and chief advocate for American Solutions. Both of them joined us from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. Plus, we had Jennie Drage Bowser, senior election analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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