SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
Hey, everybody. It's Scott Detrow. And before we start the show, I have a request. It is the final weeks of a chaotic presidential election. And not only are we podcasting every day to bring you all the news you need, many of us are traveling across the country in a pandemic to do the same. And we are able to do this because of one thing - your financial support. When you support your local public radio station, it helps us at the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, but it also helps the political reporters where you live - reporters like Emma Hurt from WABE in Georgia and Steve Harrison from WFAE in North Carolina, who are both joining us today to talk about the Senate races in those states. So just go to donate.npr.org/politics to get started. Thank you so much. It really goes a long way, especially in moments like this where we really know things are hard for everybody. Thank you so much.
JASMINE: Hi. This is Jasmine (ph) from Lynden, Wash. It's currently 4:00 in the morning, and I'm getting ready to unload the first truckload of mail here at the post office, including all the ballots for Whatcom County. This podcast was recorded at...
DETROW: That is a very important job, and we appreciate you doing it, especially at 4:00 a.m. It is 11:30 Eastern on Thursday, October 15.
JASMINE: Politics are always changing, but one thing is certain - the mail never stops. OK. Enjoy the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the presidential campaign.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.
DETROW: And, Domenico, we know that that mailmen and women across the country are busy because, according to the U.S. elections project, more than 17 million ballots are already in.
MONTANARO: Amazing. It's such an important job at this time of year with all the questions that have been going on surrounding mail-in ballots.
DETROW: Yeah. So we're going to talk today about a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. We're also going to focus in on North Carolina and Georgia's Senate races. But first, we're going to note some news from the Biden campaign. Senator Kamala Harris is canceling her campaign events through the weekend. That's after one of her top staffers, communications director Liz Allen, and a member of the flight crew on a recent flight that Harris took have both tested positive for the coronavirus. Allen traveled with Harris on a trip last week. And since then, Harris has tested negative twice - on Monday and then yesterday.
We will keep you updated on this. It's also just worth noting that the campaign released all of this information preemptively, and that is very different than how the Trump campaign has handled things in recent weeks.
DETROW: Let's shift gears here, though. There's a new poll from NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist. You worked on it. And it has shown what a lot of polls have shown for months, and that is Joe Biden has a considerable national lead over Donald Trump.
MONTANARO: Yeah. He's now jumped out to a double-digit lead, 54 to 43% over Trump among likely voters. This is the highest that we've had Biden in the poll - at 54% - since we started testing the head-to-head matchup between Biden and Trump back in February. You know, Biden getting to 54 is really significant. We've seen that in some other polls as well. And Trump has not gotten above 44% in our poll at all. And we haven't seen him really much above that in any polls nationally.
Of course, the national, you know, national surveys do not decide the election. That's, you know, those key swing states. And, you know, Trump is still within striking distance in those places, but even over the last few weeks, we've seen Biden increase his lead in a lot of those places. And we've got less than three weeks to go, Scott.
DETROW: A lead like this across the country - what does that tell you about the key swing states? And what key swing states are you thinking the most about right now?
MONTANARO: Well, I'll give you one number that made my jaw hit the floor, almost literally, when I saw it in our subgroups was that Biden now for the last three months has consistently had strong showings with white voters. And in this poll, he is - he has 51% of white voters. He's beating Donald Trump 51 to 47 in our poll with likely white voters. Trump won white voters by 20 points in 2016. And no Democrat has won that high a share of white voters dating back to Jimmy Carter in '76, and the country was far less diverse. So what does that tell me? Biden's overperformance with white voters means - across the country and up and down the ballot - that has the potential, if it stays at this level, to be a tsunami.
DETROW: Well, speaking of up and down the ballot in key races, I think we should broaden out the conversation and take a close look at a couple interesting states with interesting Senate races and bring some great reporters from our great member stations in. Steve Harrison, from North Carolina member station WFAE. Hey, Steve.
STEVE HARRISON, BYLINE: Hey.
DETROW: And Emma Hurt, from Georgia's member station WABE. Hey, Emma. Welcome back to the podcast.
EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Hey there. Great to be here.
DETROW: So you have - actually, between you three - really interesting Senate races going on right now. North Carolina and Georgia are states that were not really on the top of the Democratic broader wish list at the beginning of this election, but they have gotten closer and closer. And both look like places where Democrats have a decent chance of maybe flipping control. Let's start with Georgia. What do the two races that you're covering right now look like, Emma?
HURT: Yeah. Two. So the first one is...
DETROW: (Laughter) You say that with a tone.
HURT: (Laughter) It's been fun. It's been real fun. So the first one is our, like, regularly scheduled race. So that's Republican incumbent David Perdue, and he's being challenged by Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff. And Perdue is a really close Trump ally. And so he's having to walk a tightrope because, you know, if polls are telling, then the presidential race in Georgia is tight, and Perdue needs to outperform Trump in order to avoid a runoff. He needs to get more than 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff. And then we have our special election kind of crazy race and - stick with me here.
So we had an incumbent senator retire early because of health reasons, Johnny Isakson. He's replaced by an appointee, Kelly Loeffler, who's been in office since January. And immediately, per the Georgia Constitution, she's up for election in November. But it's a special election with no party primaries, so we've got 21 names on that ballot. And what it's turned into is a really bloody intraparty fight on the Republican side between Loeffler, who is an outsider, and then Congressman Doug Collins, who's a staunch Trump defender in the House. And they've just been hammering each other for months.
And on the Democratic side, there's one front-runner who's emerged, Raphael Warnock. And just now, his campaign energy, I think, is starting to come through in the polls, where he's starting to pull ahead. And you can see him at, you know, 40% in some polls and Collins and Loeffler splitting the Republican vote behind him.
DETROW: And let's shift our focus north just a little bit. Steve, what is that North Carolina Senate race looking like right now?
HARRISON: Thom Tillis is the Republican. He is a first-term senator. And kind of the narrative with him going into this was that he was not trusted fully by President Trump's base. He had broken with the president on a few occasions during his term. That caused a lot of anger from the president, caused a lot of upset - his base to be upset. So kind of one of the narratives was would Republicans turn out and support Thom Tillis in the way that he needed to win, you know, a pretty close state? The Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham, is an attorney, a member of the Army Reserve, running a very centrist campaign. But then two weeks ago, we had these two huge surprises that dropped in the race, and now everyone's kind of scratching their head to see, like, how is this going to play out in the next three weeks.
DETROW: For listeners who aren't up to speed as much, just walk us through what those two enormous surprises were, and then we'll talk more in detail in a little bit.
HARRISON: Yeah, so on a Friday night two weeks ago, Senator Tillis announced that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, most likely from that event at the White House for Amy Coney Barrett. And then really a matter of, like, an hour or two later, Cunningham announced - kind of confirmed that he had sent inappropriate romantic/sexual text messages to a woman. And then he later confirmed that he had had an affair.
MONTANARO: It just feels like one of those quaint, old type of scandals pre-Trump, you know?
MONTANARO: That just doesn't seem to have the same resonance now.
HARRISON: And I think that's a great point. And it's really interesting here because their strategy seems to be really just to hunker down and ride this out.
DETROW: All right. We're going to take a quick break. There's a lot more to talk about in both Georgia and North Carolina, though. And we will do that in a moment.
And we're back. And North Carolina and Georgia are states where a lot of people have already voted. Emma, what has the early vote been like in Georgia, and how has that affected how the candidates are campaigning and making their closing pitch?
HURT: Early voting in Georgia this year has been bigger than it ever has. You know, candidates and campaigns have been talking to voters about it, I think, more than ever before. Candidates themselves are early voting. And people have responded. The secretary of state said that early voting participation on Monday, the first day for most counties, was up 30% from the last record in 2016. And all in, more than 900,000 people in Georgia have already voted between early voting and absentee. That's, you know, more than 1 in 10 now.
DETROW: And has that been generally the case in North Carolina as well?
HARRISON: Yeah. So today, on Thursday, was the first day of early in-person voting in North Carolina. The big change here is that we've had voting by mail for several weeks, and there has been a huge surge of people voting by mail. I think in all of the 2016 general election, about 200,000 people voted by mail in North Carolina. We are already far, far ahead of that in terms of return ballots. More than a million people have requested them.
DETROW: And, Domenico, both of these states are really extreme examples of states that have been longtime Republican states. North Carolina - the exception in 2008 - otherwise has voted for Republican presidential candidates. But you have seen massive growth in urban and suburban areas, which happen to be the exact kind of areas that have really been repelled by President Trump and shifted Democrat. I mean, how much are we talking about a turnout model that might not look like anything we've ever seen before in Georgia?
MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, look; we've been saying demography is destiny. You know, this is a place that was largely white 20, 30 years ago and is now split between whites and nonwhites pretty evenly. And, you know, the state's politics haven't quite caught up yet. You saw Stacey Abrams in her gubernatorial race come pretty darn close. And, you know, there's a lot of energy, a lot of effort on the ground there. You're seeing those long lines. And, you know, you do wonder when states like Georgia, North Carolina, even if Texas could switch.
HURT: And I think, you know, in our two Senate races, we have kind of on display that fracture. You know, on the Republican side, we have this fight, and you see both candidates, both leading Republicans, really trying to appeal to the conservative base that, you know, used to completely control the state without - you know, without much effort, right? Trump won Georgia with five points in 2016 barely even visiting.
HARRISON: One interesting thing about North Carolina - if you go back to the 2016 race, Hillary Clinton had these huge margins in the urban counties - you know, Charlotte, Raleigh, et cetera. But when you kind of look a little closer, she was able to kind of outperform Barack Obama in those counties because of Republican voters. And if you look closer, though, you know, the turnout in African American precincts was lower than it was in 2012. So I think a big push by the Biden campaign in North Carolina this time has been to try and get the turnout in 2020 to look more like 2012. But I think this year, it's looking likely they'll win it again.
DETROW: And let's just end the conversation on a broader note. Domenico, these are two expensive, hotly contested Senate races. They are not alone in that respect this year. You have seats that are in danger of flipping from Republican to Democrat in Iowa, Arizona, you know, even places like South Carolina and Montana - usually states we do not talk about as contested Senate races are really up in the air right now - Alabama. This could be a wildly different Senate in a few months.
MONTANARO: Well, with the Senate at stake, you're darn right that there's going to be a ton of money that's poured in. President Trump in particular has inspired Democrats to open up their wallets and contribute mostly through ActBlue, which has raised almost a billion dollars - a billion dollars through a lot of this. And, you know, on the presidential side, we just saw advertising dollars, TV advertising dollars, cross a billion-dollar threshold, which is really a stunning figure. And that's not even including how much money is being spent on the Senate races, which is a lot.
DETROW: All right. Emma, Steve, thanks to both of you for joining us today. And good luck in the final weeks of this race, whenever those final weeks end. It's very ambiguous this year for a lot of different reasons, but thanks to both of you.
HARRISON: Thanks for having me.
HURT: Thanks for having us. It was great.
DETROW: Remember; you can support all of us on this podcast by supporting your local public radio station. To get started, head to donate.npr.org/politics. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the presidential campaign.
MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.
DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
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