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To win the White House, a presidential candidate must attain 270 Electoral College votes. Political strategists on both sides agree that President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney already have 80 percent of the American electorate locked up. The battle for the remaining 20 percent will come down to a handful of states across the nation: Voters in Virginia, Ohio, Iowa and North Carolina will likely determine America’s next president. New data show unemployment falling in several crucial swing states, while home values are rising in Nevada and Florida. And in Arizona, opposition to a new immigration law has galvanized Latino voters. Diane and guests discuss the role of the battleground states in the 2012 presidential election.
- Amy Walter Political director, ABC News.
- Jim Tankersley Economics correspondent, National Journal magazine
- Larry Sabato Founder and director, Center for Politics at the University of Virginia
- Kelefa Sanneh Staff writer, The New Yorker magazine
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Political gurus say the 2012 presidential election will be decided by a handful of so-called battleground states. Voters in those states have very different economic, political and social priorities. In the swing state of Ohio, unemployment is well below the national average. And while home values in Nevada have plunged, prices are on the rise in the pivotal state of Florida.
MS. DIANE REHMHere to talk about key issues for voters in these battleground states: Amy Walter of ABC News, Jim Tankersley of National Journal magazine, joining us by phone, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. I hope you'll weigh in this morning. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send your email to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning, everybody. Thanks for joining us.
MR. JIM TANKERSLEYGood morning.
MS. AMY WALTERGood morning.
MR. LARRY SABATOGood morning.
REHMLarry Sabato, let me start with you. Give us a little background and history on the Electoral College. It remains controversial in many people's minds. But just tell us how it operates.
SABATOWell, of course, it's based on a winner-take-all system in 51 jurisdictions. The 50 states plus the District of Columbia, they're -- each of those jurisdictions, except for the District, is given the number of electors equal to the number of representatives in the House of Representatives plus two United States senators. The District of Columbia, by constitutional amendment, is given three electoral votes. Five hundred and thirty-eight electoral votes total, a majority is exactly 270, and that's the magic number.
REHMSo what is it that makes a state a battleground state particularly in this election?
SABATOWell, again, going back to the function of the Electoral College, if you have a partisan balance that is tilted heavily to one side or the other, as we do in over 35 states, you could even argue 40 states are essentially already decided. At least 35 are decided. I think our panel today could go through and pick 35, and we'd be right in 34 of the 35, if not all 35. Those states are off the table. The candidates would be nuts to spend much money in them unless they're worried about winning the national popular vote, which doesn't really count.
SABATOThey focus on the remaining, say, 10 or 12 or 13 states that might be turned one way or the other because there's a close partisan balance. So we're talking out west about Nevada and Colorado, maybe New Mexico -- I doubt it -- in the Midwest, Iowa and Ohio, maybe Indiana and Missouri -- I doubt it. You could argue Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania might become competitive, Ohio, Virginia, Florida, maybe North Carolina and New Hampshire. I think I just exhausted most of them.
REHMAnd Vice President Joe Biden is speaking in New Hampshire today. Larry Sabato is director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, author of "Pendulum Swing," 2011, and the forthcoming "The Kennedy Half-Century" to be published in 2013. Amy Walter, would you agree with Larry's assessment of the so-called battleground states?
WALTERAbsolutely. And, you know, you really break it down to the Rust Belt states where the economy, obviously, is lagging in many ways behind other parts of the state, especially Virginia. So the concerns of folks in Ohio, little bit different than those in Virginia economically. The auto industry, obviously much more prominent in Ohio. You all brought up the point in Nevada, the housing market, obviously still a very, very big issue there and the unemployment rate.
WALTERThe other day, they said, well, boy, the unemployment rate dropped. It's now close to 11.5 percent. And I said, well, is that good? And one of the reporters out there said, no, it's actually not. It's just that more people have dropped out. That's why the number went from 12 to 11.5. So the unemployment rate in that state is still radically high and...
REHMBut in Ohio, it did go from 8.8 down to 7.4 percent.
REHMSo you do have some changes going there. Jim Tankersley, how do you see it?
TANKERSLEYWell, I see the economy obviously being the driving factor in all of these states. This is not one of these elections where the economy only matters in certain swing areas or not. And, by the way, just having a bad economy doesn't make you a swing state. California's economy is terrible right now, but they're pretty much solidly in the president's category. What I think both Amy and Larry have alluded to is that we're going to see a lot of states where economic conditions and how they change over the next few months could really dictate the electoral outcome.
TANKERSLEYIf the housing market, for example, keeps getting better in Florida, that could -- that could lead to improvement in their economy which could help the president. If it stays really bad in places like Ohio or in Michigan, then that could make things harder for the president. So this is going to be a campaign where the battlegrounds are subject to the wins of the national economy.
REHMJim Tankersley is economics correspondent for National Journal magazine. Amy Walter is political director for ABC News. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Larry Sabato, what about the television ads we're seeing? What do they tell us so far about who the candidates -- or which states the candidates feel they have to direct their attention to?
SABATOWell, it's very interesting. I think it is true, even through today, that most of the ads that are being aired now are being focused on Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina by both sides. They clearly see those states as in the toss-up category. Again, I have doubts North Carolina. I think it's probably leaning to Romney, but Virginia, Ohio and Iowa are absolute pure toss-ups that can go either way.
SABATOMaybe North Carolina will be in there after the Democratic Convention in North Carolina. One doesn't know. But you can tell something about what the internals -- the internal polling in the campaigns is showing by where they're spending their money. You know, there's -- it takes a lot effort to raise this money. They're not inclined to waste it.
REHMWould you, Larry, be absolutely stunned if North Carolina did go for Barack Obama?
SABATOIf it does, I think it's a clear indication early on election night that he's winning the election. I know it's wrong to take just one state as a barometer -- and I try to avoid doing that -- but North Carolina was Obama's closest win. He barely won it. I think it was about 14,000 votes, under ideal circumstances for a Democrat. And clearly the circumstances, as Jim was suggesting, are not ideal economically.
SABATOWe're in that gray area where the economic data suggests the election could go either way. If Obama manages to carry North Carolina, it makes it awfully difficult for Romney to get to 270. He needs to reconstruct the old Bush Electoral College majority, maybe adding a state or two like Wisconsin where he does have some opportunity, given the recall turmoil up there.
WALTERYou know, the other issue, too, is demographics. That's really driving so much of this Electoral College math. Used to be there was a time when you decided Democrats and Republicans, based on economy. That was, you know, whether they're a blue collar or a white collar. Now, what we're seeing is, you know, in states that are older, wider, more rural, or at least less urban, those are states that are going more Republican.
WALTERStates like North Carolina -- this is why Democrats still feel optimistic about North Carolina -- it's younger, more transient, higher percentage of minority voters, and you have a higher percent of people with the college degree in a place like North Carolina than you do in a place like Ohio. Those are Obama voters. And so, when we look at where these battlegrounds are, you know, I just look at Colorado and Virginia as, really, the two states that are going to determine this election.
WALTERAnd both of them have tremendous similarities, right, fast growing, highly educated, big minority population, yet there's still that underlying Republican edge to both of them, winning over suburban and exurban -- essentially, whoever wins that suburban-exurban, white, educated voter, that's going to be the winner of those states.
REHMJim Tankersley, take Virginia. Give us your analysis.
MS. JIM TANKERSLEYWell, Virginia is an interesting place. It's a place where voters really are swing voters -- and Larry knows this well -- where you can -- they elected the president and then, a year later, delivered a resounding victory to a Republican governor. So they really do go back and forth. A lot of the action is in the Washington, D.C. suburbs where you have, just like Amy was mentioning, very highly educated and a diverse population there.
MS. JIM TANKERSLEYBut rural voters matter there a lot, and Obama did well in mobilizing rural voters and winning higher percentages of them than John Kerry had in 2008. And I think that this is going to come down to: Can Obama do really, really well in the suburbs again, and can he try to put together some sort of a coalition, frankly, of voters he's been struggling with, these kind of white rural voters Amy was talking about?
REHMWhat about the suburban to Washington, D.C. voters?
TANKERSLEYRight. They are obviously a crucial part of his strategy here, and not just the suburbs, the exurbs, those areas, those rings of suburbs that are outside the first ring of suburbs, people who commute long distances, who move out there for cheaper housing. There are different issues there. The Washington, D.C. metro area has one of the strongest economies in the country right now.
TANKERSLEYSo we are not talking about an economically battered region, but you're going to have to -- he's going to -- the president's going to have to connect with the voters in the suburbs and the exurbs on the idea that, you know, the country is improving regardless of their own personal fortune.
REHMJim Tankersley, economics correspondent for National Journal magazine, and Larry Sabato. When we come back, I want to hear your view on Virginia. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. As we talk about swing states in the 2012 presidential election, certainly the electoral votes of that are given to each state. I want to hear from Larry Sabato, what your view is on Virginia.
SABATOWell, I think if you could ask the campaigns privately, if they could pick one state that would be a barometer, surprisingly, it would be Virginia. It always surprises people because they're thinking old dominion instead of new dominion. They're thinking South, the way Virginia was for most of the 20th century -- all the 20th century, really -- rather than Middle Atlantic, what it is today because of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. It really boils down to this: Can President Obama's team regenerate the large turnout that they were able to get in 2008?
SABATOThat additional turnout, the additional increment of young people, of minorities, of socially liberal exurbanites and suburbanites, especially in Northern Virginia but also college communities and suburbs and exurbs in places you wouldn't expect, like the Richmond area, which used to be solidly conservative, that is the key to winning Virginia. And, look, he got -- Obama got 52.6 percent in Virginia in 2008. Virginia, incredibly, of the 50 states, was the closest to Obama's 52.9 percent average nationally. He did much better in Virginia than he did in North Carolina, Florida, or even Ohio.
REHMAll right. Larry, and your prediction?
SABATOOh, I don't -- I couldn't give you predictions (unintelligible).
REHMCouldn't give me a prediction? All right.
SABATOOh, no, no, no, no, no. This is May. People who make predictions in May eat crow in November.
REHMAll right. And joining us now from his office in New York City, The New Yorker staff writer Kelefa Sanneh. Good morning to you, Kelefa.
MR. KELEFA SANNEHGood morning.
REHMI know you wrote a piece for this week's New Yorker titled "Raging Arizona: How a border state became a battleground." Tell us about Richard Carmona and why he might be a factor in the 2012 presidential election.
SANNEHWell, Richard Carmona is the Senate candidate who is hoping to become Arizona's first Latino senator ever. And he's got kind of an unusual background. He was a surgeon general under President George W. Bush, and he also happens to be a Puerto Rican guy from New York, so an unusual sort of Latino in the state of Arizona. But one of the things that his campaign is hoping -- and it seems like a possibility -- is that after the passage of 1070 in 2010 and some of the other policies in the state, Latino voters will be more engaged and excited and maybe angry than ever.
SANNEHAnd if he's going to win -- and, again, it seems possible, although his opponent is Jeff Flake, the sitting congressman -- he's going to need a huge turnout from Latino voters. And last year, they kind of had a warm-up where they had a recall election where they recalled the state senator who had pushed through 1070, and they elected a Latino, the second Latino member to the Phoenix City Council. So there really is a sense that, you know, the Latino community in Arizona is more politically engaged than it had been in the past, partly because of some of these immigration laws.
REHMAnd we should say he's running for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jon Kyl.
REHMIt could -- if he were to win, that would be a huge win for Democrats in the Senate, would it not, Kelefa?
SANNEHYeah. I mean, they feel like that's one of their best chances for a pickup. And, like I said, you know, the most recent polls have him behind by a few points. But, again, there's a sense that he is the kind of Democrat who could win in Arizona. He has this Latino background, but he also has a record as a relatively non-partisan Democrat, he can say, having served under George W. Bush.
REHMI wonder, Amy Walter, how you see this.
WALTERI think that he does have an amazing story, and it is a story that Republicans have liked, too. I remember not long ago, Republicans were trying to recruit him to run for many of the House seats. So he is -- he has been courted for a long time partly because of who he is and what he represents. You know, Arizona is a really interesting state.
WALTERIt's a lot like Texas, where you look at the numbers -- again, if you go back to demographics and you say, boy, if Latinos turn out and vote at the percentage that they've been voting nationally for a Democrat, a Democrat should be able to win this state. That's a very a difficult thing to do. Some of it is that the voting age population doesn't match the population-population. We don't know how many of these people are actually registered to vote.
WALTERAnd then, finally, it's white voters, too, that are more Republican in a place like Arizona or Texas than they are in a place like Virginia or North -- well, I (unintelligible) put North Carolina but Ohio. So it is -- it's about not just pushing out and getting Latinos to vote, but it's -- you also have to be able to win over a significant segment of the white vote. You don't have to win the majority, but you can't lose it by the percentage that Democrats have traditionally (unintelligible).
SANNEHAnd, obviously, we're focused on what's going on this fall. But, you know, for a lot of activists in Arizona, part of what they're thinking about is the long game. You know, the white population, the state is aging. The Latino population of that state if very young, so kind of they feel like with every year, they have a better chance at the kind of representation they want.
TANKERSLEYYeah, well, what this -- one of the things that this highlights is just how much the map of this year is maybe not going to be the map of four or eight years from now and that -- it's interesting. If you look at where the campaign ads are concentrated right now -- Iowa, Virginia, Ohio -- the fact that Colorado is not on that list, a state with a growing Latino population, also a state that, as Amy alluded to, has these underlying -- what have we long considered to be underlying Republican tendencies but has gone blue in the last several cycles of statewide elections, this is not good news for Republicans.
TANKERSLEYThis is a demographic shift that they're going to have to contend with down the line. And, again, they're going to have to find some other states to try to put into their category if states like Arizona suddenly become toss-ups.
WALTERYeah. And the one other note about Arizona, I remember -- I haven't looked at it this year, but, traditionally, some of those majority-minority districts in Arizona have the lowest turnout of any districts in the country.
WALTERSo, I mean, it's not just simply that they're not turning out. They're way below any other congressional district.
REHMBut -- go ahead, Larry.
SABATOI don't think Arizona is even close to being a toss-up this year. I think Romney will win it fairly handily, and Flake will get the Senate seat for the reasons that Amy and others have suggested.
REHMDo you agree with that, Kelefa?
SANNEHWell, I don't have the expertise to make predictions, but certainly, you know, from going there, I got the sense that it was a slightly different state than I thought it was from reading the headlines.
REHMWhat do you mean different?
REHMWhen you say it was a different state from what you thought reading the headlines, what do you mean?
SANNEHWell, I didn't realize that there had already been -- you know, until I really went there and talked to people, I didn't realize there had already been this strong counter-reaction to some of the policies that make headlines from Sheriff Joe Arpaio and from the immigration bill. I didn't realize that there had been that kind of pushback against that. That was news to me.
SANNEHI also didn’t realize that the Latino population, as big as it is there, was -- as someone alluded to -- hadn't voted in high numbers and therefore was so underrepresented. In one of those city council races last fall, they -- in one of the districts, they increased Latino turnout by 500 percent. I mean, so, you know, one way of looking at it is, you know, there's a lot of potential there. And the question is whether, you know, this year, next year, down the line, someone is able to really tap into it.
REHMAmy, you said during the break, it doesn't come down to state by state but rather county by county.
WALTERRight. When we talk about seven states, eight states, six states in play, actually, pare that down even more and look at just the number of counties that are in play in each of those states, and it's pretty remarkable. The number of people who are going to determine this election sit in just a handful of counties, so if you look at the state of Colorado, there are really two counties that determine this election, the suburbs around Denver, Jefferson and Arapahoe Counties. Who wins those counties wins the state.
WALTERGeorge Bush won them in 2004. Barack Obama won them handily in 2012. Larry and Jim were talking about Virginia and the suburbs. It's really Prince William and Loudoun County, the exurbs out there, and Henrico County, which is Richmond. Those really are going to determine who wins that state. You can really go in each and every one of these states, pick out one or two or three counties.
WALTERThere's one county in Nevada, Washoe County, which is Reno. That's the name of the game there. So we think about, well, there are only six states making a difference. Well, actually, most of the people in that state aren't even as significant as the small number of people who live in key counties.
REHMSo interesting. I've just seen a poll that was taken in April, showing Romney with 42 percent of the vote in Arizona, Obama with 40 percent and 18 percent undecided. That 18 percent, Jim Tankersley, it seems to me, could throw everything up to the wind.
TANKERSLEYWell, it sure depends on who they are. And I'm going to fall back on -- by the way, I do agree with Larry that it's much more likely than not that Romney wins Arizona. But I -- I'm going to fall back on the economic conditions argument here. I think it's much more likely the president wins Arizona if -- I mean, his chances there improve if the economy there starts to really pick up. Now, there's a reason to think it might, actually, which is that the Phoenix metro area is experiencing the fastest housing recovery in the country right now. That's a -- among the major metros.
TANKERSLEYThat's a very good thing that housing recovery leads to economic recovery. So much of what's holding back the economy right now is the debt overhang from the housing crisis, so, to the extent that there is hope for the Obama campaign in Arizona, it would be in that sort of economic bank shot of housing keeps getting better, the economy gets better, the conditions get better for him. Maybe he can pull off a long-shot upset.
REHMKelefa, what did you hear when you were doing your reporting on the economics of Arizona?
SANNEHWell, I mean, certainly, that was something that a lot of people talked about. And I was -- you know, as I talked to people, you know, people were trying to figure out how that related also to the immigration debate because there's this lag, right? When the economy is strong, that draws a lot of people in, and that's when you had the number of unauthorized immigrants in the state go from 88,000 in 1990 to 560,000 in 2008. So you had this huge explosion in this population, and that caused -- that inspired a lot of this legislation to kind of crack down on unauthorized immigrants.
SANNEHAnd, you know, by the time the Supreme Court decides it this fall, we already got that population fallen -- we think largely because of the economy -- to 360,000. So it really is on every -- for all the different political debates, a lot of them hinge on the economy, and a lot of them more complicatedly than you would think just because it takes sometimes a few years for things to kind of work through the political system and get expressed as laws.
REHMKelefa Sanneh, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, thanks for joining us. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Amy Walter, I want to ask you about ads on television, negative ads. Especially the voters say they don't like them, and yet other people, especially the gurus, say they work.
WALTERThey work, so they will continue to be used. You know, the best analogy I have for this comes from a media consultant. So I will say he obviously is invested in this. But he said, look, when you're voting for somebody, you don't get anything but one choice, right? So just imagine if in consumer advertising, you said, you can have Pepsi or Coke. You can't have both. This is it. You have Coke for four years. So if Pepsi and Coke had to battle each other about who -- what you would drink for four years, it would be a lot nastier than what we see now.
WALTERSo this is a very significant choice that people are making, and you don't get a second choice. You get one. So, that said, that's why they work, and that's why they'll be -- continue to be used by consultants. Look, the president -- we have a new poll out today. The Washington Post-ABC poll out today shows that the race is basically tied. The president has a statistically insignificant three-point lead over Mitt Romney. But what you see -- the biggest struggle for the president right now is -- going back to the economy -- his approval rating on the economy is only 42 percent.
WALTERFifty-five percent think he's not handling -- doing a good job handling the economy. His overall approval rating, 47 percent, and yet he's tied with Mitt Romney on who do you think would do a better job handling the economy. The reason is people don't know much about Mitt Romney right now. So if you are the Obama campaign, you look at those numbers and you say, hmm, right now, people don't think we're doing a particularly good job on the economy.
WALTERBut they don't really know enough about Mitt Romney to think that he would do a better job. So we have to make sure that, by the time that we get to November, we've completely disqualified him as an alternative.
REHMAnd on that very point, Larry Sabato, you had New Jersey Mayor Booker come out and say that the Obama campaign should not be focusing on Bain Capital, that he thought that that was an irrelevant issue for voters. How did you react to those comments, which Mayor Booker has now backed away from?
SABATOYes. He had a little walk-back (unintelligible) hostage video. He had to take back what he said on "Meet the Press." You know, Cory Booker has gotten himself into trouble. He needs a hero to rescue himself from the fire. You know, how did I interpret it? He didn't like the attacks on private equity. And, of course, being the mayor of Newark, he's dependent on that in various ways to restore his city and probably for his own political career.
SABATOSo he has a difference, as Harold Ford and some other Democrats have a difference, with President Obama. But, as Amy suggested, there's really no alternative for President Obama. He has to try to make the election a choice between Obama and Romney, not simply a referendum on Obama. If economic conditions don't improve -- and, remember, there's only five months, and voters tend to tune out a bit in the general election.
SABATOThey -- they're suspicious of changes or data that they see. They believe the election could be manipulated. So you've got a short timeframe here to turn things around. And if you can't turn things around, if the economy is basically where it is right now, then Obama's chances may well depend on coloring Romney a particular way.
REHMJim Tankersley, you were talking earlier about the housing market in Arizona. What about Florida? What's happened there?
TANKERSLEYThe Florida housing market, like Arizona, is a little bit of a success story right now. I mean, let's caveat all this: Success being that they are starting to come up off a very deep bottom that the rest of the country is just now finding. But Tampa, Orlando, Miami, these are all metro areas where we have seen housing values rise, and they are -- they're projected to rise over the next year. Zillow, the real estate firm in Seattle, has a big projection on this.
TANKERSLEYAnd this is, again, good news for those local economies. There's a couple of reasons for this, it appears. One is that they've worked through their foreclosures and had come back to some fairly historical price-to-income ratios faster than other areas. And, two, they've got a lot of investors coming in, buying up properties because there's a huge demand for rentals because of people who lost their homes from foreclosure. So these are -- this is not a good reason for your housing market to have bottomed out, but it's working.
REHMJim Tankersley, economics correspondent for National Journal magazine. When we come back, time to open the phones. I hope you'll join us.
REHMWelcome back. If you've just joined us, Amy Walter is here -- pardon me. She is political director for ABC News. Jim Tankersley is with National Journal magazine. Larry Sabato is at the University of Virginia. Let's go first to Houston, Texas. Good morning, Nan. (sp?)
REHMHi there. Go right ahead.
NANIt's an honor to speak to you.
NANThe point I want to make is that a lot of the focus is on a few certain states. And Texas, believe it or not, if there wasn't voter suppression or voter grab, is a Democratic state. If you look at the demographics, we are 25 percent Hispanic, 25 percent black, 25 percent other minority and growing all the time. But the youth and the minority vote is being suppressed.
NANI've seen it on a first-hand basis as a deputy voter registrar. The youth's vote is suppressed because the kids think they're signed up through DPS, and they are not. And I know this because I'm doing voter registration on a Houston Community College campus.
REHMAll right. Larry Sabato, do you want to comment?
SABATOWell, she's right about one thing. If we could go forward into the future mid-century, Texas, because many of these groups, Hispanics and others, will have become citizens to a greater degree, will have registered to vote and will actually get out and vote to a much greater degree, Texas will be more Democratic just like Arizona will be, assuming the current demographic divisions between the parties are maintained between now and mid-century.
SABATOSo I think that's true. As far as voter suppression is concerned, you know, this November is going to be a real test case because a lot of Republican legislators and governors have passed voter ID laws of one variety or another, and we'll see whether or not it has an effect of suppression in November.
REHMAnd what about voting machines themselves? How much faith reliance is there on their working well, Amy?
WALTERWell, there's the machines, and then there's the humans that work the machines. And what we've seen in a lot of these primaries -- and we see it in every state, every election cycle -- there's one precinct where somebody forgot to put the right key in. Somebody left the box in the back of their car, right? This is -- and I do not think there's malice in this at all. I think there is honest-to-goodness human error. The other thing we have to remember, though, is when we look at these states that we talk about as the battleground states and the percentage of early vote, that's really going to be the issue here.
WALTERBy the time we hit the end of October, places like Colorado, Nevada, Florida, you know, maybe half the vote will already have been cast. So when we do talk about who's turning out and when they're turning out...
WALTER...the push right now is not so much getting people to the polls on Election Day and making sure that they are able to show up there and show their voter ID, but it's getting those people in the mail to get their vote cast.
TANKERSLEYAnd that could cut both ways. That could advantage Romney if you think that the headwinds of the -- on the economy will abate slightly as the year wears on and the economy will be improving as we head toward Election Day. It could help Romney if people are voting earlier when things are a little worse.
TANKERSLEYOn the other hand, the organizational advantage that will be required to get people out for early voting right now clearly favors the Obama campaign. Romney has not built the sort of organization for getting out the vote through the primaries that Obama has built over the last, you know, four years plus a campaign of being president.
REHMOK. Here's a very basic and important question from Lynne (sp?) in Jacksonville, Fla. Good morning. You're on the air.
LYNNEGood morning. Basically, I'm wondering who are the electoral voters, how are they chosen, how often do they change, and aren't they beholden at least to a degree to what the populace is voting? I know that our forefathers designed the Electoral College to dampen wild swings in the masses, but we're much more educated today. So why do I vote?
SABATOWell, you vote because all the alternatives are worse if you don't vote. I mean, I'm not going to argue that question. You have to vote. You may not like the system. You can always try and change it, although I must admit the changes in the Electoral College are scheduled for the 12th of never. So feel free to push for popular vote or whatever you wish...
REHMBut how are they chosen, Larry?
SABATOWell, they're chosen by the parties. The parties pick, in each state, absolute loyalists, and they have to be careful because we do have a history of the occasional faithless elector. We had one in the critical election of 2000. One of Al Gore's electors from the District of Columbia, which he had won with, you know, 80, 90 percent of the vote, ended up casting a blank ballot for some -- for a reason related to the District about voting rights and so on.
SABATOBut, you know, it was kind of a dumb thing to do. However, it was her First Amendment right to do it. There are state laws in various places mandating that electors vote the way the people vote in the state. But most constitutional lawyers believe it could not be enforced in the courts, that any penalty would be revoked by the courts because the elector's rights are in the Constitution.
REHMInteresting. Here's a tweet, which says, "How is an election fair and representative if the president is chosen by a few select states? Does my vote even matter?" Amy.
WALTERWell, it does. I mean, to Larry's point, of course, it matters in the sense that, you know, we make all these assumptions today on what's going to happen where, and yet we've often been quite mistaken as the election goes on. But the reality is that the beauty of the Electoral College is, as we've been discussing for most of this morning, it changes with the change in the American electorate, the makeup of the American electorate where people are moving to, the fact that now the Northeast is no longer ascending.
WALTERIt's obviously the Southwest that is taking up an oversized role. If you would have -- just go and look at the 1992 Electoral College map and look at it today. It's a very different place where Democrats are getting votes or the Republicans are getting votes. Bill Clinton was able to win in the Deep South. And Republicans were competitive in places like New Jersey. So this moves and change -- one year you may not be particularly important, but you never know where those movements are going to be important.
REHMAll right. To Aberdeen, N.C. Hi, Marian. (sp?)
MARIANOh, good morning, Diane. Thank you so much for taking my call...
MARIAN...because, you know, of course, there are a lot of comments about North Carolina and where we are and what we're going to do. But I just thought this was an interesting fact which was on -- by the way, I am a Democrat. I'm a volunteer at the precinct level. And so in the May 8 primary, even though only a little more -- about a third of registered Democrats voted and two-thirds of registered Republicans voted, President Obama still had 125,000 more votes than Romney.
MARIANAnd also, when the president was in Charlotte in his last visit, 10,000 people turned out. When Romney was there a couple months ago or so, about 150 to 175 turned out, so I think, you know, there's just really a lot of enthusiasm for the president. We are -- the Democrats, we are working to, you know, register new voters. We're going to do a much better job getting out the vote in November, you know, than we did in the primary. And so there you go. I just want to give you a perspective from someone who's actually here working on the ground.
REHMJim Tankersley, do you want to comment?
TANKERSLEYI mean, I think those were all fair points and -- but I think it's difficult to extrapolate from the primary turnout what the -- I mean, the president was running unopposed. Gov. Romney was running against, you know, other names on the ballot. But the much bigger important is -- the point here is that independents in North Carolina are going to decide this election like Amy and Larry have been talking about.
TANKERSLEYI think that, right now, they lean Republican, and that's largely because -- and I sound like a broken record -- 'cause the economic conditions in North Carolina remain troubling. And the housing market there is not nearly as rosy. It's still in decline. They haven't hit bottom yet. So this is not good for the president.
REHMAll right. Let's turn now to another swing state, to Oxford, Ohio. Good morning, Steve.
STEVEGood morning. I would like to submit that when Ohio is called a swing state, a battleground state, that people take into account a very important development. And that is, true, Ohio is a closely divided state politically, yet, because Republicans were in charge of drawing the districts after the recent decennial census, they control over 60 percent of the legislature and 70 percent of the congressional seats. Now, I would submit that this gerrymandering will have some impact, how large, one does not know, but some impact on the presidential election.
REHMLarry, talk about gerrymandering.
SABATOWell, if he is complaining about it, I'm with him. You know, it's become outrageous in lots of states in both parties. You know, Illinois did it to the Republicans, and the Republicans did it to the Democrats and North Carolina and so on. All around, ring around the rosie. However, in a presidential election, turnout is driven overwhelmingly by interest in the presidential race. So in a midterm election, I think, he has a much better argument.
SABATOThere, the fact that you have so many uncompetitive districts will absolutely drive turnout down. I don't think that's going to happen particularly in this polarized, extremely competitive presidential race.
WALTERYou know what else is funny, is to look at the Electoral College. We keep talking about 270. That's what you need to win. But if you go and -- there are plenty of websites you can go to and play with the map and see what happens if you change one state from red to blue or blue to red. And it's actually pretty easy to end up with a tie, which is 269 to 269. New Hampshire seems to be that sort of piece of the puzzle there that where you move that can determine just whether or not that the Electoral College is tied.
WALTERAnd in that case, as we know, if the Electoral College is tied, it goes to the House of Representatives to pick the winner of the presidential race. So how many congressional seats one party has is obviously very important 'cause those are the people that are picking the president.
REHMAnd I think we ought to say that here we are 22nd, May. We have not only five months to go. We have debates to go. Debates do matter. Do they not, Larry?
SABATOWell, they matter in that partisans tune in to cheer for their side and they get pumped up depending on what they see or they can be deflated depending on what they see. So I suppose, to that extent, they matter. They can also matter if a candidate makes a terrible gaffe, you know, if he declares Poland free when it's not, that kind of thing. But relatively speaking, debates are much less important than Jim's favorite topic, just to reemphasize the importance of the economy.
REHMThe economy, of course.
WALTERBut I do want to raise this point, though, because -- and, again, we are only on May 22. We have a long way to go. But, I think, for a lot of voters right now, they really are looking to see what Mitt Romney is made of. They know a lot about Barack Obama right now. They don't know a lot about Mitt Romney. To see the two of them side by side, I think, is going to be a very important factor in how people ultimately make their choice.
REHMAmy Walter, political director for ABC News, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I know we are talking about swing states. But can a vice presidential choice make a difference in how these swing states operate? Jim Tankersley.
TANKERSLEYWell, it hasn't happened for a long time. And I would be highly suspect of anyone telling you it's going to happen this time. The two people who are mentioned most as the possibility of bringing a state along with them would be Marco Rubio, senator from Florida, and then Bob McDonnell, the governor of Virginia. Bob McDonnell's very popular in Virginia -- it's true --and could maybe help Mitt Romney there a little bit. Marco Rubio is popular in Florida, but in the ballot test that I've seen, it doesn't appear to add much.
TANKERSLEYIn neither case, though, do I think either of those guys really bring an actual victory in a state for the candidate for the simple reason of -- again, we know so much about the tops of the ticket now that we're not voting for vice presidents. You know, if we were, then, you know, Joe Biden would have made a much bigger difference maybe in 2008 or be making a much more of a difference now. But he wasn't picked to deliver Delaware. He was picked because he helped emphasize a message of the overall campaign about Barack Obama.
REHMHow much of a difference, positive or negative, did Sarah Palin make, Amy?
WALTERI was just talking to a Republican about this who said, look, the amount of energy she brought was very important and the amount of money she raised cannot be underestimated, the amount of money that she raised for the Republican Party overall and John McCain. And that was a shot in the arm that nobody expected and did keep them going.
WALTERThat said, I do think there were plenty of suburban women voters that I met with, places like Virginia, who said when John McCain picked Sarah Palin, it was that day that I said I cannot vote for John McCain. I thought that was a reckless decision, and I thought that indicated the way that he would make decisions. It seemed very petulant, and that's not the characteristic I want to see in a president.
WALTERThat said, people vote for the president of the United States.
WALTERAnd, ultimately, John McCain didn't make the sale.
REHMHe didn't make the sale. Did that make a big difference in your mind, Larry Sabato?
SABATONo. I think McCain would've lost handily whether it was Palin or Tim Pawlenty or Joe Lieberman or anybody else on the ticket because the wins were at Obama's back, and they were in McCain's face. Let me add, though, Rob Portman, Ohio, don't ignore the fact that there, you can make a difference, a point or two. And look back to the 1944 race when Roosevelt won his fourth term, but Dewey did one smart thing.
SABATOHe put the governor of Ohio, John Bricker, on the ticket. It added about two points to Dewey in Ohio. Even while he was losing nationally, he won Ohio. It was one of the only states to flip away from Roosevelt. So it can be done, but you have to pick the right candidate in the right state in the right year. It has to be a competitive race generally.
REHMLarry Sabato, he gets the last word. He is director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Jim Tankersley of National Journal magazine, Amy Walter, political director of ABC News. Upward and onward from May through November, all of this continues. Thanks for being here.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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