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NPR Chats : Election 2004

The Home Stretch
Wed., October 27th

Less than a week before the election, Senior National Correspondent Linda Wertheimer answered your questions about the presidential candidates' strategies for the final days. She also assessed the potential impact of this year's unprecedented get-out-the-vote drive. Linda has spent much of this fall crisscrossing the country, particularly in battleground states, to speak with voters about a variety of issues. With NPR's Robert Siegel, Linda will co-host live coverage of the 2004 election Tuesday, Nov. 2, beginning at 8:00pm ET.

Linda Wertheimer

As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories. A respected leader in U.S. media, Wertheimer provides clear-eyed analysis and thoughtful reporting on all NPR News programs.

A full transcript of the chat appears below.

Linda Wertheimer : Welcome to NPR's Live Web Chat. I'm Linda Wertheimer. We're calling this particular "chat" the Home Stretch. The election is less than a week away, we have no idea who's on first, polls are all over the map — but hey — let's talk anyway. I've been spending most of my time talking to voters in the battleground states, and before that talking to voters in the primary states. I haven't seen much of the candidates. However, it's been my experience over a number of elections that if you talk to as many voters as possible, you get a pretty good picture of what's going on. So ... welcome. Let's begin.

kenn-st.louis : Many reports boil the election down to a few key precincts/wards in "battleground" states. That assumes that certain states are NOT in play. On whose information or polls do these forecasts depend, and how accurate are they?

Linda Wertheimer : The so-called "battleground states" are states where the race is determined to be very close. Either candidate could win a battleground state and both of them are spending lots of time trying. The determination that states are close is made by polling. Polls are not all created equal, but the professional pollsters we're talking about do know which polls to trust and of course they do their own polling. As a general rule, a poll ought to have more than a thousand responses over a brief period of time and an error rate of less than four per cent. I believe in polls — if you're reasonably careful which ones you pay attention to ...

joan-wa-state : Is an Electoral College tie really a possibility, and if so, what happens then?

Linda Wertheimer : Scary though it may be, it's a possibility although not a probability. Since we haven't had anything like an electoral college tie in modern times, we're not really prepared for what would happen or indeed really sure what would happen. The constitution calls for the election to go to the House of Representatives. Each state gets one vote and presumably the delegations would cast that vote based on which party has a majority of the state's members.
However .... nowhere is it written that members of congress would have to vote a party line ... they could just duke it out and give us one more interesting election. We hope and pray this never happens. At least I do.

kyle -- iowa city ia : Thanks for participating in this chat. In Iowa we are inundated with bitter partisan advertising. While I thought I had prepared myself for it, the level of vitriol seems worse this year. Do you agree we're at an all time low in political attacks?

Linda Wertheimer : Hey Kyle, I'm not sure that I do agree that we've hit a new low in campaign advertising and political attacks. If you take the outside groups out of the equation, the ads the candidates put on the air have been tough but not truly rotten. You can recognize the candidate's own ads by that "I approve this message" message at the end. We've seen lots of stretching of facts, eliding of quotes and other misleading stuff in the ads, but I think we've seen worse in other years. One thing that is different is that both candidates have big budgets and both are concentrating on a small number of states. In Iowa, you are surely caught in the crossfire and after so many months .... from caucus time to now .... it's gotta be a pretty distressing experience. I'd give up TV and stick to NPR, if I were you.

kenn-st.louis : Since Iraq and national security feature so heavily in this election, how much (if at all) did this week's reports of "lost stockpiles" of explosives have on undecided voters?

Linda Wertheimer : We don't know yet, this whole controversy is too fresh. Just a little while ago, the President responded for the first time to the question of why those stockpiles were not safe from looters. He says that Senator Kerry doesn't have all the facts. If I were to speculate about an effect, I'd say that the damage, if there is any, has already been done.

joan-wa-state : I've been calling infrequent voters. They ALL plan to vote. Do the polls really take them into consideration?

linda wertheimer : You've hit on one of the reasons why we're seeing the polls go back and forth, why big newspaper/TV net polls seem to show first one candidate ahead and then the other. We who are watching this develop are not at all sure who is going to vote. If lots of infrequent voters show up, what does that mean? It might mean that younger people will vote in larger numbers than usual, it might mean that registered minorities will vote in bigger numbers. I think you're talking about people who've not been particularly interested in other years and are finding this year very interesting. I have no idea how this might affect the outcome of the election — but it is exciting.

beth-brasstown : How can you feel like your vote will count in the presidential election when only a very few states supposedly will "elect" the president if you don't live in one of those states?

Linda Wertheimer : This is a really good question ... on the one hand I'd say count your blessings, because the people in battleground states have heard so much about this campaign that voters have told me they've stopped watching television. They can't stand to see another ad, they've stopped answering the telephone because they're getting calls from the candidates (on tape, presumably) and they're basically dying for the whole thing to be over.
However ... you should not allow the fact that you're not in a battleground state to affect your vote, the popular vote is a very important tally of American sentiment ... we need to know what people all over the country think about our leadership. I'd say pile up that vote for your guy, even if you know that your state is already going for one or the other. It's important.

katie -- austin : Will Justice Rehnquist's illness mobilize any voters, pro life or pro choice?

Linda Wertheimer : Perhaps — if Mr. Rehnquist is seriously ill, and we don't know that yet, then he will likely step down and have to be replaced. Politics being what it is and the Senate being very closely divided, I cannot imagine that a decision could be made about adding a member to the court until after the first of the year when the next Congress convenes. Still — the prospect of a new justice might bring some voters out. Hard to imagine that anyone sufficiently interested in politics to think about the President's effect on the court would not vote be voting already — but maybe it might mean that a fair weather voter would come out on a nasty day.

joy-rockhill : Why do you think the Kerry campaign has pulled its TV ads in Colorado, especially considering the contest is unexpectedly close? Thank you.

Linda Wertheimer : Generally, campaigns pull the ads if they think they know what the outcome will be. The other big reason for pulling ads is to save money or to put money somewhere else. My feeling is that both campaigns have tons of money, maybe feel they have to be a little bit careful about how they spend it, but money probably isn't the reason here. Back here, we're a little more interested in your Senate race than in the presidential race in Colorado.

skip-greenvillesc : What of the House and Senate?

Linda Wertheimer : The House and Senate are both controlled by Republicans and the chances are pretty good that by the end of election night that will still be true. The House districts have just been rearranged, as they are after every census, and for the most part the rearrangement has made more members entirely safe. The Senate, on the other hand, doesn't work the same way, since Senators run in the entire state. There is some possibility that Democrats might gain ground in the Senate. There are a number of Republican seats that could switch, however, there are also Democratic seats, especially in the South that may switch the other way. The Senate will be close after the election, maybe even closer than it is today, but unless there is some kind of wild revolution going on out there that we haven't picked up ... the likelihood is that the status is quo.

Linda Wertheimer : I was asked about early voting a few minutes ago. We had a technical problem with the answer, so I'm going to try that one again. The question was about when early votes are counted and whether we know anything from exit polling about which way they are going. The answer is that lots of states now have early voting, either by absentee or by setting up some sort of town polling place, like the public library where you can turn up and vote. Each state treats early voting slightly differently, but as a general rule, even if early votes are tallied early the totals are not released until the polls close on Election Day. Sometimes the early votes are counted after the polls close, and come in even more slowly than the regular vote. However it's done, there is no exit polling. Exits are a way of measuring the sentiment of a particular group of voters (by where they live and vote, usually) that can be generalized to a larger population. Early voters don't offer that kind of opportunity — polling them would tell us nothing much about what other voters may be doing and thinking.

wayne : How long will this election take? Should we expect to know the outcome on Wednesday AM or will it be December again?

Linda Wertheimer : I don't know and I wish I did. There is a fair chance that this election could take longer than just the one day. If some states are really close and disputed votes might make a difference, then the process could drag on. Both sides have marshaled legions of lawyers to try to safeguard the rights of their voters, and whenever lawyers get involved things can slow down.
My hope is that there is a winner by a decent enough margin so that we'll know where we are by sometime in the very early morning on Wednesday. But again ... I don't know.

erik-chicago : Can u suggest a simply strategy to convince close friends who are currently not planning to vote?

Linda Wertheimer : I have no idea why people don't vote. I generally just ask questions, rather than trying to persuade anyone to do anything. However, if the last election didn't demonstrate that every vote counts and everyone ought to be voting ... I can't imagine that anything any of us could say would convince them now.

wayne : Are the battleground states going to get more political favors due to pandering by the candidates?

Linda Wertheimer : Why on earth would you think that??? I'm sure that it won't escape their notice if one or the other of the candidates wins because Ohio or Florida falls into their camp. And of course, if it's very close then little old New Mexico (my home state) could come in for some special treatment.

mike-west point : Having been involved in watching elections for a long time, do you see the wave of volunteers traveling to swing states to "screen" and to "get out the vote" as a good or bad development in our political landscape?

Linda Wertheimer : I've been amazed by the numbers of volunteers who are signing up in this election season. I've talked to people who haven't done anything more serious than vote for the last few cycles who are showing up at telephone banks and calling the battleground states. It's impressive and I cannot help but believe that it's good for the USA to have as many people as possible involved in the election.

bob-rochester hills : What percentage of 'unlikely voters' are likely to vote?

Linda Wertheimer : No way to know the answer to that -- I'd be afraid to guess. However, we ought to be able to tell something about them from the exit polls, so stay tuned.

nelio : There is much talk about how Gore lost Florida with 537 votes and Bush lost elsewhere with 5000+ votes, and candidates pandering for few extra votes this times so they do not lose by such small margins this time. They are appealing to all kinds of people such as Hispanics and blacks and primarily Christians, yet strangely shying away from appealing to the other large immigrant and minority communities in the US such as Indians, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, etc. or the 2 Million Hindus, the 5+ Million Muslims, the Buddhists etc. Very Strange Indeed. Do only the Christians count in America?

Linda Wertheimer : In states where there are sizeable collections of minorities, the candidates are going right for them. That's true, for example, of the Middle Eastern community in Michigan. It is also true that if a minority community is not big enough or does not vote in large percentages, that they could be overlooked in a campaign. The President is trying hard to turn out a vote from the fundamentalist Christian community, which may make this election feel a little more "Christian" than usual. However, I think it's fair to say that any group that's big enough to affect an election will be noticed in a close race.

bob-rochester hills : Does it seem plausible that Kerry will win more battleground states than projected because of new voters (based on most of them being Pro Kerry)?

Linda Wertheimer : This is one of the things that make this election so exciting. There are lots of new voters, but I don't necessarily think we know what their intentions are. We've heard all year about many thousands of Christian fundamentalists who did not vote in the last election. The "newbies" could go either way. I'm watching what are called the "internals" of the battleground state polls -- which have indicated that Kerry is doing well in some of them, perhaps a bit better than he appears to be doing nationally — but again, when you look at bits of a poll you're losing accuracy because you're looking at a smaller number of people. I keep saying I don't know, because I don't.

npr online : We now have enough questions to take us up to our scheduled 1:00pm EDT end-time. So, please, do not submit any additional questions at this time. Linda will continue to answer a few more of questions already received.

mike-west point : I sense that Democrats are energized, not so much by the man John Kerry, but by the possibility he could win and an intense dislike for the current administration. Republicans are energized because they have a leader. But the Republican campaign, at least over the past couple of weeks with a constant trickle of bad news seems in damage control mode. Has either situation ever won a presidential election and which has the upper hand in this one?

Linda Wertheimer : I think your analysis is very thoughtful and very likely right. Many voters, especially in the middle west and the mountain west have not warmed to John Kerry. The swift boat veterans have not helped with those voters. But there are a lot of voters, as you point out, who want to fire the president, and for them, the question is not who do they love, but who can they tolerate. I think you're also right that the president's side has been playing defense, especially since the debates. This is not a traditional kind of incumbent presidential campaign, in which the President is above the fray, he's right in the fray. I have no idea whether voters will think that's a good thing or a bad thing.

phillip-sierravista : This election race, especially near the end, has produced many unfounded claims and promises from the candidates. How do you suggest voters sort out the truth, and most importantly, how can we as a nation prevent this level of falsehood in the future?

Linda Wertheimer : I actually don't think it's been all that bad, but maybe my standards are not as high as yours. One thing that certainly could happen is a change in the way the federal election commission regulates independent groups. I think those "groups" on both sides have been responsible for some of the worst of the ads. If you mentally edit and pay attention only to the ones that carry that little "I approve this message," and then check with some of the truth squad Web sites, I think you can keep pretty good track of who's misleading and generally messing around with voters' heads. Campaigns, if they're close, will always be tough. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, right? In fact, I'd say that having so many people concerned and interested is a very welcome change from the last few campaigns. And of course, if you have any ideas about how it could be better, you can always get in there and try to make it happen. You guys are great, thanks very much for taking the time to send in questions. I hope you'll all be with us on election night.

npr online : Thank you, Linda, for this in-depth assessment as we enter the final crucial days of the 2004 election. Best of luck -- and hopefully at least a little sleep -- as we head into the home stretch.


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