Politics Wrap-Up: Voter Turnout Breaks Record Just two contests into election 2008, there's been one clear winner: voter turnout. For more, Farai Chideya is joined by Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Ron Christie, vice president of the lobbying group, DC Navigators.
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Politics Wrap-Up: Voter Turnout Breaks Record

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Politics Wrap-Up: Voter Turnout Breaks Record

Politics Wrap-Up: Voter Turnout Breaks Record

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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

We've been talking about Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton and Republican Senator John McCain basking in the warm glow of their wins in New Hampshire. Just two contests into election 2008, there has been one clear winner - voter turnout. It has been enormous.

For more we've got Mary Frances Berry, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Ron Christie, vice president of lobbying group DC Navigators. He's also a former special assistant to President George W. Bush.

Welcome, folks.

Mr. RON CHRISTIE (Vice President, DC Navigators): Hi, Farai.

Dr. MARY FRANCES BERRY (History, University of Pennsylvania): Well, thank you for having us.

CHIDEYA: So, Mary, maybe you kick this off by talking a little bit about this whole issue of voter turnout. Are you surprised that…

Dr. BERRY: Well…

CHIDEYA: Go ahead.

Dr. BERRY: I'm surprised and I'm pleased. I love to see all these people turning out to vote. And in fact it's very news for Democrats because they have all these numbers. And a Republican friend of mine was so shocked by it that he said, look, you know, it sounds like if Mickey Mouse ran for president with these numbers we'd have a rat for president because he was impressed with it. And I was so happy to see all the young people turn out, and then all the people who wanted to vote and couldn't like in the Iowa caucuses because they had to work or whatever it was. But it's just truly amazing and it's impressive. And maybe for once we will get the kinds of numbers in our democracy out voting that we've all wished that we could have.

CHIDEYA: There are millions of people who in the general presidential election don't vote, Ron. Now is this more critical for the Democrats in terms of pulling numbers up or do the Republicans have a huge stake in voter turnout as well?

Mr. CHRISTIE: I think both is true. The Republicans certainly, given the importance of this election and given the energy and the mobilization that the Democrats have been able to display, that it's important for the Republican members of Congress, the Republican presidential candidates and everybody in between to get their folks to come out and vote.

But I just want to act at what Mary said a second ago. I think the most exhilarating aspect of what we've seen in the last couple of days is that in the state of New Hampshire for example, you had half a million people, you have a million in there who are eligible to vote. You've got half of these folks who are coming to vote: the young folks, people who've not participated in the political process before, people who want their voices and their votes to count and to be heard and that I think transcends your Republican or your Democrat Party affiliation. It's important that people are getting their voices heard.

CHIDEYA: Let's move on to the topic of likeability. There has been a lot made about whether or not Senator Clinton is warm enough, emotive enough, feminine enough; and whether Obama is someone is just more likeable; is Senator McCain someone who comes across as firm or stern, I mean, you can throw all these adjectives at people. How much that does matter? How much is this a personality-based race?

Dr. BERRY: I think it is. It matters a whole lot. And I understand in past elections the outcome is just sometimes been determined almost by whether somebody likes people. I remember in 2000, when people said Gore is not as likeable as Bush, you know, and I remember when Mondale was running as Reagan, they say, you know, he's just not likeable enough and Reagan is likable. So policies matter, politics matters, but people, you know, we just all have gut instincts, visceral reactions to people. And if you like somebody you're more willing to look at them, listen to them, think about them than not. Now, McCain, I think, there's likeability and there's also who is light.

I think the media has favorable impressions from reporters I have listened to and talked to about Huckabee, for example, they find him likeable. They find Obama likeable. And I think asking Clinton the other night whether she was likeable and her response to it which showed that she wasn't very happy as not being likeable. It is there. Whether or not voters will tell you that they're voting on that basis is something that's very important and everybody who's running for office should do everything they can to make themselves appear likeable even if they're not.

CHIDEYA: It sounds like a Sally Field's acceptance speech. They like me. They really, really like me.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. CHRISTIE: But, Farai, it's an important point. I just want to jump on that too. It's an important point because I think looking at the Democratic candidates for president you can't really distinguish them that much by ways of policy. They talk about change. They talk about universal health care. They talk about a wide variety of subjects. I think what it comes down to is a question of likeability.

People like Barack Obama, I'm as conservative as a Republican as you're going to find, but I find him very likeable, very charismatic, very personable and it's fun to listen to him and I think that that is what resonates with voters. Do I have a connection with this person? And I think that with Senator Obama people connect to him given his personality.

Dr. BERRY: But I think it's also dangerous too, having said that, and I'm as much a victim of it as anyone responding to likeability is because we have had presidents who are likeable but the policies turn out to be terrible, and then people all say, well, next time I'm going to be more careful and I'm not going to react like that but we do it every single time. So we have to have some balance and we have to sit back and think, and not be bowled over. But it's hard to do that.

CHIDEYA: We're human. But speaking of human and what is innate versus what is chosen. This week the feminist writer Gloria Steinem did an op-ed for The New York Times about Hillary Clinton's viability as the Democratic presidential nominee. She argued that gender is the most restricting force in American life, even more than race.

Do you think that she's right that, Mary, that people are going to view gender as this immutable issue in ways that now with Barack Obama they may not see race or - how do you relate to her?

Dr. BERRY: Well, people who I interviewed coming out of the Iowa caucuses, young women said that, many of them said that it was more important to them to have - to operate on the basis of race and racial progress than it was to worry about their own gender, they actually said that. And that they felt better about approaching it that way.

I remember Shirley Chisolm, the first black woman in Congress from the north and who ran for president in '72, telling me at some point before she died that she found that trying to run for office it was more important to people that she was a woman than that she was black. She was surprised. She always defined herself as having problems based on race. I think Gloria Steinem who should know as well as anybody she's paid her dues, if it hadn't been for her a lot of women wouldn't be where they are now. I think she has a point, and I think it's very difficult to overcome but I hope it's not impossible for someone sometime.

Mr. CHRISTIE: See, I don't think that's the case, Mary. I mean, I'm going to be careful because I'm with two very distinguished ladies here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHRISTIE: But I don't think…

Dr. BERRY: Tell us about it, Ron.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Yeah, exactly. In my experience - but seriously, I think if you look at a candidate such as Lady Margaret Thatcher, you looked at someone who had a very strong sense of resolve and leadership, and people responded to her and she also happens to be a woman. I think that if you have a candidate who's running for any particular office here in the United States, if they're qualified and if they have the ability to connect with voters, they will become elected.

I just think that there's too much focus being placed on Senator Clinton, oh she's a candidate just because she's a woman. She's a member of the United States Senate, she has her own record to stand on, but if people only marginalize her and look at her just because she's a woman, I think that impedes rather than brings about progress.


Dr. BERRY: Well, that's not what I'm saying. It's not what I'm saying, Ron. I'm saying that as far as Steinem's approach, which is to say that if you've had a woman who had the very same qualifications as Obama that was her point that she made.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Right. Yeah.

Dr. BERRY: The woman would be having a difficult time because people would say she doesn't have experience, she doesn't have this. But that there's so many people who want to do something symbolically around race that they're willing to, sort of, give him a pass. That's the point she's making.

CHIDEYA: All right.

Dr. BERRY: I'm simply saying that I do think that gender is a problem in overcoming this whole argument about what women's role should be in this country, in the United States, is very hard.

CHIDEYA: Very quickly, almost out of time. I'm going to toss this to you, Ron. Do women have to be more steely, in a way? If you look at someone like Lady Thatcher, if you look at someone even like Condoleezza Rice, there's a certain degree of backbone that may have to come as a compensation for being a woman? And I'm using that term in air quotes. But do you think women also in politics have to step up and in some ways be tougher?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Yes, absolutely. No question about it. I've been in politics for, what, 16 years in my professional career and as an African-American male you can have all the right attributes and all the right qualifications but people look at you slightly different for being black, that's a fact. And I have no doubt, again you two ladies are the experts here, but I have no doubt that that is something that women encounter in the workforce in general and in politics in particular that you've got to be steely or perhaps a little tougher just because you're a woman.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Mary, we're going to have to continue this conversation later.

Ron, thanks a lot.

Mary, Ron, more on the campaign trail soon. Thanks.

Dr. BERRY: Okay, thanks.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Ladies, it's a pleasure.

CHIDEYA: Mary Frances Berry is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and she spoke to us from member station WWNO in New Orleans. Ron Christie is vice president of the lobbying group DC Navigators. He's also a former special assistant to President George W. Bush, and he joined us from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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