NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Akin fights on, McCaskill unloads, Brown and Warren drop the gloves, and Ann Romney hits back at GOP critics. It's Wednesday and time for a...
ANN ROMNEY: Stop it.
CONAN: Edition of the Political Junkie.
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PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.
VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?
SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
SENATOR LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.
SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Oops.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.
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CONAN: Ken Rudin is off for Yom Kippur, so guest Political Junkie Charlie Mahtesian, national politics editor at Politico, joins us again to recap the week in politics. Both presidential contenders campaigned in Ohio, while new polls show Romney trails in just about all the swing states.
After Todd Akin ignores the dropout deadline in Missouri, rival Claire McCaskill unleashes a new attack ad. And the Massachusetts Senate race careens off the high road. Six weeks out from Election Day, and one week ahead of the first debate, we'll talk with campaign veterans about what needs to get done when and who calls the shots.
Then later in the program, political scientist Jason Johnson tells us what research shows about how campaigns should function. In this first segment, what one state do you think will make the difference on November 6? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. And Charlie Mahtesian joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.
CHARLIE MAHTESIAN: Hi, Neal.
CONAN: And Mitt Romney has joined Paul Ryan on a bus tour. President Obama's on college campuses in Ohio today. Does that suggest they think the Buckeye State is the one that's going to make the difference?
MAHTESIAN: Well, I think it's an acknowledgement that the hour is very late and Ohio is really central to any sort of Republican framework for victory. I mean, you're talking about a lot of electoral votes right now, and when you take a look at the core battleground states of about nine, Ohio looms pretty large. It's the, you know, second-biggest treasure trove after Florida that's available out there right now.
And when you take a look at the polls, Romney's really struggling there and is really having trouble getting some traction and breakthrough.
CONAN: And so he's got to focus on Ohio, but if Ohio - if the polls are right, he's eight to 10 points behind in the polls that came out today, if those polls are right, what does he do then?
MAHTESIAN: Well, that's a huge problem. It's not determinative. There are paths to victory without Ohio, but already his path is very narrow, and he really can't stray from it. Without Ohio, it becomes even more narrow, and he has to pick up even more of these swing states, where he's struggling in the polls to begin with.
So, I mean, it makes Florida essential at that point. But Ohio is really critical.
CONAN: An unusual day in the campaign yesterday, both major-party candidates making big speeches in New York City, and neither took the time to attack the other.
MAHTESIAN: Yeah, I think that's the power of Bill Clinton you're looking at right there, the one figure that really transcends partisanship in American politics. They went there for his Global Initiative Program, and obviously he's somebody now, when you take a look at his favorability ratings, they're stratospheric. He's nowhere near the divisive figure that he used to be.
And so that really wasn't a venue for sort of the attack politics that we've seen recently, and both candidates, obviously the president and Mitt Romney, dialed it down a great deal.
CONAN: And the president also had the opportunity earlier in the day to appear as the president of the United States, not the Democratic candidate, in his speech at the United Nations.
MAHTESIAN: Exactly. And that, you know, is an example of the power of the bully pulpit. When you are in office, you can appear in venues like that, even though I'd say, you know, when you take a look at who won that day, I don't know that it was a great day for the president, given some of the heat he took over his approach to his United Nations appearance.
But even so, it gives you an idea of the kind of advantages you have when you're an incumbent.
CONAN: And I wanted to get to some of the Senate races, as well. The deadline for Todd Akin to pull out of the - get his name off the ballot in Missouri passed yesterday, and he's insisted all along...
TODD AKIN: For the about 100th time or so, I am in this race...
AKIN: And the reason I'm in the race is because the people of Missouri chose me to do a job.
CONAN: And he says he takes that seriously. Of course, he's not getting a lot of help from his Republican colleagues.
MAHTESIAN: Right, well, I think he said it maybe several hundred times that he wasn't getting out, but I don't think most people believed that to be true. I think there were a lot of Republicans, both in Missouri and also in Washington, that figured he would maybe make a - recalculate his chances by this deadline, and a lot of folks thought he would drop out because he wouldn't have enough money to run or because his standing in the polls is so dismal right now.
But it turns out he was telling the truth that he did not intend at any point to get out. And so he's in it, and now Republicans have a very difficult choice to make about a nominee that they have, that they're stuck with, that is a very winnable, getable seat. Claire McCaskill's probably the single most vulnerable incumbent in the Senate.
And so now Republicans have to figure out do they want to get involved with this race and support Todd Akin, knowing that any support that they give him is going to be used against their candidates across the map. And also, most of the Republican establishment came out pretty clearly in the wake of his controversial remarks, saying that they are not going to contribute and not going to get involved.
Now it's a very different calculus when you're looking at late October, the Senate's at stake. This is a very winnable seat. Do you give it to Todd Akin or not? So it's a tough situation for the Republican Party to be in.
CONAN: Other than Newt Gingrich, with whom he campaigned, and I guess Jim DeMint and a couple of other Republicans have come out in support of him, but the other major political figure who's all in favor of him staying in the race is of course Claire McCaskill. She had not mentioned his greatest faux pas until midnight. She issued a new ad that came out today, and this is now running in Missouri.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Todd Akin, in his own words. On March 18, 2011, Todd Akin said he didn't like Social Security. On September 3, 2011, Todd Akin said Medicare was unconstitutional. On March 16, Akin said he wants to abolish the minimum wage, on April 21st said he would eliminate student loans. And on August 19, Todd Akin said only some rapes are legitimate. What will he say next?
SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: I'm Claire McCaskill, and I approve this message.
CONAN: That's going to be hard to counter if you're not running ads of your own, and if you don't have money, you're not running ads.
MAHTESIAN: Right, this is the best possible scenario for Claire McCaskill is getting a wounded nominee like Todd Akin. And I think there's just so many avenues of attack for her right now. And not only does she have that advantage, the other problem that Todd Akin is going to have, as you mentioned, is the money advantage.
I mean, he does not have a lot of money for a statewide candidate, for a Senate candidate, and he doesn't really have all the options that are going to be available to other Senate candidates elsewhere. So, you know, she is probably in the best position she could've hoped to be in at this point.
CONAN: No trivia contest today because Ken Rudin is out for the high holy days, and we're instead asking you to call and tell us what one state do you think is going to make the difference come November 6, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. And we'll start with Mary(ph), Mary's with us from Bonner Springs in Kansas.
MARY: Yes, are you there?
CONAN: We are, and I suspect you're not going to tell us it's going to be Kansas.
MARY: I think it's going to be Florida.
CONAN: And why is that?
MARY: Because of the Latinos. There's more Latinos living down there and more Jewish communities and elderly people live there and retired. And that's one I really think that will be very crucial.
CONAN: Well, Charlie Mahtesian, at least a couple of those constituencies that she talked about break heavily democratic.
MAHTESIAN: I agree 100 percent with the caller.
MARY: I'm a Democrat, but I'm voting for Romney.
CONAN: I think most of your state will vote for Romney, as well.
MARY: Well, I think they will, too, you know, but the reason I'm voting for Romney is Romney's values. That matters more to me, his - I'm not a Mormon, but I am a Christian. But I do go along with more of his values than I do with Obama's.
CONAN: All right, Mary, thanks very much for the phone call and the astute political analysis. Florida?
MAHTESIAN: Yeah, I don't think you can argue that there's any other state more important, largely because of the 29 electoral votes there. It's just a massive state. And keep in mind when you look at the American electoral map, you've got the mega-states - New York, California, Texas. They're not in play. Florida is really the last mega-state in play. Illinois is not in play, either. So that really accentuates how important it's going to be.
And obviously you've got all the constituencies that are at play in this election, whether you're talking about elderly voters or whether you're talking about Latinos, not just Cubans in the Miami area but also Puerto Rican voters. So you've got this state where you've got all of the most important, most sought after constituencies offering a treasure trove of electoral votes.
CONAN: Let's go next to Robert(ph), and Robert's with us from Raleigh, North Carolina.
ROBERT: How are you?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you.
ROBERT: Well, I believe Virginia is going to be a very crucial vote for a few reasons. First of all, you've got Virgil Goode, who has been approved to be on the ballot in the Constitution Party. And I'm a resident of the area where he used to be my congressman, and now he's run and been on as a Republican, a Democrat and an independent.
And in that part of Virginia, which is strongly conservative, he has a good local following. And he is not going to take votes away from Mr. Obama, but he...
CONAN: The polls say he's going to get something like maybe two percent of the vote in a state that...
ROBERT: Well, you know, two percent of two million votes is 40,000 votes. And secondly I think Tim Kaine was more popular as a governor than Mr. Allen was, and Mr. Allen already has baggage of losing a senatorial race.
CONAN: Six years ago. Well, Charlie Mahtesian, Barack Obama surprised a lot of people by carrying Virginia four years ago, and the polls say he could do that again.
MAHTESIAN: Right, and I think it highlights the changes in Virginia's political demography over the last decade or two. I mean, it's really changed from being a Republican lock in presidential races to one, you know, that's highly competitive. I think the caller makes a great point about Virgil Goode, who has a great deal of support on the south side of Virginia. And that's all probably coming out of Mitt Romney's hide because many of those are very conservative voters.
But I think at the same time it's not just Goode who's a problem for Mitt Romney in other states, it's Gary Johnson can be problem, too, the third-party candidate.
CONAN: Libertarian Party.
MAHTESIAN: The Libertarian Party candidate, who was a former New Mexico governor. And so when you have an election that's this close in the polls, and, you know, you've got lots of states here that people forget, whether it was Wisconsin or Iowa. There are lots of states - North Carolina or Missouri in 2008. These are states that were decided by less than one percent in recent elections.
And so against that backdrop, any sort of third-party presence is a very important consideration.
CONAN: I want to listen to a couple of ads from the Massachusetts Senate race, where Republican incumbent Scott Brown, well, they pledged not to allow outside money to come in, but this week the campaign took on a different tone. This is the new ad by Senator Brown.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Elizabeth Warren is trying to put questions about her heritage behind her.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Warren admitted to identifying herself as Native American to employers, something now genealogists have said they have zero evidence of.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: She's facing tough questions about whether she claimed to be a minority for professional gain.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Warren did give an answer. The problem is it keeps changing.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Is there anything else that's going to come out about you that we don't already know?
ELIZABETH WARREN: You know, I don't think so. But who knows?
CONAN: And now the reply from Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat.
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WARREN: As a kid, I never asked my mom for documentation when she talked about our Native American heritage. What kid would? But I knew my father's family didn't like that she was part Cherokee and part Delaware. So my parents had to elope. Let me be clear: I never asked for and never got any benefit because of my heritage. The people who hired me have all said they didn't even know about it. I'm Elizabeth Warren, and I approve this message. Scott Brown can continue attacking my family, but I'm going to keep fighting for yours.
CONAN: Well, we're going to talk more with guest Political Junkie Charlie Mahtesian coming up. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. It's Political Junkie day. Ken Rudin will be back with us next week. Guest junkie Charlie Mahtesian is sitting in when he's not here in Studio 3A. He's the national politics editor at Politico. Of course you can still find Ken's latest column and that ScuttleButton puzzle, both at npr.org/junkie.
We're just getting started today, but this presidential campaign is heading into its final six weeks. Both candidates are prepping for the first debate next Wednesday. Polls show President Obama picking up support in most swing states after a series of stumbles by the Romney camp in recent weeks. Mitt Romney appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes" this past weekend, and when he was asked whether or not he could turn his campaign around, he replied...
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MITT ROMNEY: Well, it doesn't need a turnaround. We've got a campaign which is tied with an incumbent president of the United States.
CONAN: We'll talk with several campaign operatives from both sides of the aisle. If you've run a campaign, call and tell us: What were you doing six weeks from Election Day? What worked, and what didn't? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And you can email - that's what I just said, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joining us now, Matt Schlapp, who's the founder of Cove Strategies, a political consulting firm. He served as political director for George W. Bush. He's been on multiple national campaigns, and he's with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
MATT SCHLAPP: Great to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: Also Keith Nahigian, the campaign manager for Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign. He's president of Nahigian Strategies, a political consulting firm. He's with us by phone from Chicago. Nice to have you with us.
KEITH NAHIGIAN: It's a pleasure.
CONAN: And we're in a few minutes going to talk with Mark Sullivan, founder of the Voter Activation Networks. But I wanted to ask you, Matt: We're six weeks out. Does Mitt Romney need a game change?
SCHLAPP: No, I don't think he needs a game change. What you tend to do in these campaigns, especially if you see yourself having a bad week or two or falling behind a few more points in polls, is it's really tempting to reach out for things. And that's really the mistake.
Of course you want to respond to things that pop up in the news in the 24-hour news cycle. But really you've got to stick to your plan. And their plan should be very clear, which is President Obama has overseen this economy, which a lot of people believe has caused a lot of, you know, harm out there, a lot of people who are looking for jobs, a lot of people who haven't seen their wages go up.
He needs to stick to that message, and he needs to stick to the message that, you know, unless we have a change at the top, a change in the White House, you know, we could be seeing economic calamity, and America's position in the world economy could change.
That is the message of this campaign, and they've got to make that message, and they don't have to grab at kind of unique or interesting little tidbits to get there.
CONAN: Keith Nahigian, in the atmosphere of a campaign that is seeing itself falling a little bit behind, is that easy to do? You're presumably having all sorts of people saying we've got to do this, we've got to do that.
NAHIGIAN: That's part of the fun thing about campaigns is everybody likes to be the armchair quarterback all the time. But these campaigns, you have to realize, were built for a trajectory of election day, and there's a lot of things going on, from identifying voters to laying out key principles to building grassroots operations.
All that is on a path that is - it's very hard to change. And all of that is built to go to a certain stage. It's not kind of there to be entertaining throughout the entire fall period. It's really meant to get people to take a particular action on a given day. So I think you're going to see everybody just kind of stay the course.
I do think these debates coming up are important. I think it kind of starts - I think these debates are kind of the new Labor Day weekend. I think people's attention spans have changed. I think it'll be when people are just starting to pay attention. And October's a very long month this year because of the election being a week later, in November, that I think you're going to see a kicking-off here the second week in October and going one full month. And I think people will make their decisions.
CONAN: Keith Nahigian just mentioned identifying voters. Well, Mark Sullivan is founder of the Voter Activation Network, now called NGPVAN. He developed the data management software used by many Democratic and progressive campaigns. And he's with us from member station WBUR in Boston. Nice to have you with us today.
MARK SULLIVAN: Thank you, glad to be here.
CONAN: And six weeks out, what would you be doing if you were in one of these campaigns?
SULLIVAN: Well, this is the point in the campaign where a massive ground operation really begins to kick into gear. This is a complex phenomenon that involves literally thousands of paid staff trying to coordinate literally millions of volunteers, who are in turn trying to talk to tens of millions of voters and, at the end of the day, get all the people who are on our side of this to turn out to the polls.
CONAN: And how do you identify these people?
SULLIVAN: Well, that process began much earlier this year, and in fact it happens over long periods of time because previous campaigns have done some of that work. But throughout the course of the year, we literally have people knock on millions of doors and make millions of phone calls and talk to people and ask them which, you know, which candidates do you like, and which issues are important to you. So literally it's person by person finding out who's with us.
CONAN: And in a place like Wisconsin, where they've been having an election it seems every six weeks for the past three years, it - they must know every single adherent to both parties.
SULLIVAN: Well, they know a lot of them, but in reality, no matter how much of this work you do, there are limited resources, and there are people who are just hard to reach. So then there's also a fill-in-the-gap strategy, and that's something that's called, you know, modeling or micro-targeting, where you look at all the people that you have talked to, you do statistical analysis of them based on - you do sort of - you look at them and see how their feelings correspond to things like how old they are and other demographic variables, voting patterns, where people live.
And you use that statistical analysis to try to project to the people that you haven't talked to what you might be able to predict about their behavior.
CONAN: Matt Schlapp, I think I read today, and I think I may have read it in Politico, that a good ground game is worth a field goal, three points. Is that about right, do you think?
SCHLAPP: Yeah, I mean, one to two to three points I think is accurate. I think you get much beyond that, and I think you're just hoping a little too much. And I think if you look at this race, and I know it was true in the 2000 campaign I was on in Austin, which was you're looking at these polls, they're bouncing around a little bit.
When a poll comes out tied for a presidential campaign, and in really any campaign, boy, that is a terrible position to be in because you wonder does it come down to your vote, does it come down to the battleground state that you're focused on. Does it come down to your turnout program?
And so when these - you know, there was a Gallup poll that came out even just as early as Monday that showed the race at 47-47. When the campaign sees that, they are really kind of calling their political director, their grassroots directors and saying OK, you're giving me all these great numbers, and they come on these red sheets, and they're seeing all the door knocks they're doing and all the early ballots that have been turned in, et cetera.
And they just want to make sure that those numbers aren't make-believe, that they're solid, because when it comes down to that, in the case of 2000 we ended up spending 30-some-odd days in Florida in a recount. And boy, that's a lot of stress that a campaign would like to avoid by winning by more than three points.
CONAN: And Keith Nahigian, as you come down to the wire, one of the things, as you said, there's this arc. You want to stay on-message. You worked with some candidates who've had some difficulties in that regard.
NAHIGIAN: Absolutely. You - make one quick point. One of the untold stories, I think, in this race has been you talk about ground-game organization. The advantage of a majority of these tossup states being run by Republican governors, Republican governors have a natural, slight advantage of having an operation, an organization ground game.
And I think that may, when we go back and write the books on this particular race, that could be a significant advantage if the margin is small in some of these key states. But you're saying, staying on-message, I think going into these debates, staying on-message, coming out of the debates, you're going to be - basically I think there's a debate phase for two weeks, and then there's going to be a straight get-out-the-vote phase.
So we're really at the last couple of innings on this, and the execution of it needs to be done properly, and it's important again not to go off on message and to stay on-message. This is a job from the economy campaign.
I do think something for your listeners to watch is I think President Obama needs to shrink the number of states he's in. So the less states he can be in the better in terms of tossup states, and I think Governor Romney really needs, in the next two weeks, to perhaps widen the number of states.
He's already added Wisconsin. He's added, you know, Colorado, Nevada, some of these other states, and I think that's something for your listeners to watch in these next two weeks during the debate phase of where are the actual tossup states going to be and those trend lines.
CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Mark(ph) is on the line with us from Boise.
MARK: Hello, Neal.
CONAN: Hi, Mark, go ahead, please.
MARK: I would just make a couple of quick observations. I haven't seen much in the national political press about the Romney ground game. Everybody knows that the Obama campaign was able to put together a state-of-the-art, groundbreaking new ground game in 2008. I'm really wondering whether because of the late settling of the GOP nomination, relatively late settling of the GOP nomination, whether Romney really has the ground game that's as sophisticated in as many places as I'm fairly confident Obama's is.
CONAN: Matt Schlapp?
SCHLAPP: Well, all I can say is I guess we're going to find out. But at the RNC, Rick Wiley is the person in charge of the ground games for Romney for president, Rich Beeson, who's a veteran of these programs, is the political director and is going state to state checking on these programs. And the metrics that I've been told is that they are beating even what we did in 2004, which people of both parties really looked at as a model for this type of program with their door knocks and their phone calls and their connects, and obviously beating what happened from our side in 2008. So if you're concerned about the ground game, you ought to know we have two of our very best generals on the Republican side in charge of it this time.
CONAN: Charlie Mahtesian, the word was at least last summer that the Obama campaign had invested heavily in the ground game, getting ready for that, and that the Romney campaign was going to go more with broadcast advertising.
MAHTESIAN: Right. And I think one of the things that the Obama campaign has always been recognized for is their ability to get out the vote, the ground game. They're fantastic at it. You saw in 2004, as Matt was mentioning, that was a gold standard re-election campaign. And, you know, you might have thought, how can you beat that? Well, in 2008, you might argue that the Obama campaign did beat that with their ground organization. And so all of a sudden, I think more of a premium has to be put on the ground game this year than broadcast because in so markets now it's almost oversaturated.
People aren't even paying attention anymore. And so, to me, the thing that I look to and when I talk to Republicans at the state level, the first thing I want to know is, how does it compare to '04 because almost invariably they'll tell you in '08 it was chaotic in their state, and there was no organization. This year, the vibe that I get from talking to people is much closer to what Matt said in terms of a better ground game, better organization. And they're hoping that that in addition to the saturation of broadcast ads gets them over the top.
CONAN: Mark, there in Boise, you were involved in politics?
MARK: Yes, sir. I worked on two successful statewide candidate - campaigns for the last Democratic governor in Idaho, maybe the last Democratic governor ever, Cecil Andrus.
CONAN: And six weeks out, what were you doing?
MARK: Well, as your guests have indicated, concentrating heavily on the ground game, trying to stay on coherent message and really concentrate on the voters that you've already identified during the course of the campaign and making sure that they're getting the absentee ballots, or they're teed up to actually get to the polls and cast their vote for your candidate. One thing I'm struck by, a number of your guests have mentioned the need for the Romney folks to stay on message, but with all due respect, I don't think he has been able to stay on message the last couple or three weeks. Generally speaking, if you're talking all the time about your campaign whether it needs to be retooled, you're probably losing.
CONAN: Good point, Mark. But, again, they're also saying that maybe the debate - first debate can be a reset of some sorts so - but, anyway, thanks very much for the call - phone call. We appreciate it.
MARK: Always enjoy your show. Thanks.
CONAN: Go ahead.
NAHIGIAN: One thing the caller mentioned is, you can build all the best organizations you can, but that makes a little bit of a difference. It's really also the natural energy wave. Who's the motivated side? Who's the motivated, naturally motivated? You can organize, and you can turn out, but who is naturally motivated? And you can argue perhaps the Republicans are a little bit more motivated on the side of being against perhaps what has happened the last couple of years in terms of the wave. But I do think that the Democratic party has caught up a little bit in that, but again, the best organization you can have you still - there's the energy gap and whether - whoever has that the last couple of weeks, the last three, four weeks is definitely at an advantage.
CONAN: That's Keith Nahigian, the president of Nahigian Strategies. Also with us is Mark Sullivan, the founder of the Voter Activation Network, now NGP VAN; and Matt Schlapp, the founder of Cove Strategies, a former political director for George W. Bush. And guest Political Junkie Charlie Mahtesian is with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, Mark Sullivan, I wanted to go back to you. As you're trying to - that enthusiasm, is contacting the voter micro-targeting? Is that helpful in bringing out the vote?
SULLIVAN: Well, it's helpful in using your human resources better. You know, when you've got this amount of investment that you're making in this operation, every, you know, you want to use those people resources as best as you possibly can. This is your most important resource in the final weeks of the campaign. And so what you don't want to do is you don't want to put people on the phone calling the wrong voters. You don't want to have them knocking on the wrong doors. You want to get them turning out the right people. And so, yes, that's where the micro-targeting helps us make sure. Both micro-targeting and technology in general has us making sure that people are using their time efficiently and talking to the right voters.
CONAN: And how do you get that information, these voter registration rolls?
SULLIVAN: Yeah. There's public data in every state that that tells us a variety of information about who's registered to vote and in some cases which party they belong to, where they live. There's some information about their voting patterns, how old they are. That's a starting point. There's also lots of data out there that corporations use that tells us more demographic information about people, about their incomes, about their financial situation, about things they're interested in. And then, of course, the critical, the gold standard is the data that you actually get from people at the door or on the phone.
CONAN: And Matt Schlapp, I wanted to ask you. Given that kind of information that's now available and the digital revolution that we're in...
CONAN: ...the campaigns are now buying ads on specific television programs...
SCHLAPP: That's right.
CONAN: ...marketed towards specific demographics. It's really changed a lot.
SCHLAPP: Yeah. Well, there's a couple of things I think that after this election we're going to have to look back on and see if we've really had the type of innovations that I feel like we've had. We've had a lot of spend with outside groups in these campaigns on the television. A lot of that spend is crescendo-ing here in the next couple of weeks, but early vote has already started in more than 30 states. I don't know if that matches up well. We also see a lot of people watching television in a new way. They're watching television from their DVR. They're skipping over commercials A matter of fact, as big as a - I like to have the title Political Junkie, too, by the way...
SCHLAPP: ...but as big a Political Junkie or political nerd as I am, it took me watching college football on Saturday, really see a whole array of Virginia ads and national ads because so much of us get our video in a different way. And because of what's happening on the Internet, with Facebook and these other sites, we're leaving a lot of information about ourselves on these sites. A lot of that is public and people can get. There's a lot of interesting information, and there's new ways to contact people.
We're going to have a lot of spend in this election. I think a lot of smart people are going to sit back and say, did we spend it in the right way to really make a difference? No one's going to be able to say, certainly on a Republican side, that we lack money. Now, maybe we'll get overspent this way or that way, but there's plenty of money on the table. Did we do the right things from - with it?
And the other thing that I think the Democrats tend to do a lot better is they share this information. They give it to their coalitional groups. They work with other folks. I hope on my side we do that well. If we don't, we could be, you know, looking in the mirror on November 6th or 7th and being unhappy about things.
CONAN: Matt Schlapp, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
SCHLAPP: Thank you.
CONAN: Our thanks as well to Mark Sullivan, there with us from WBUR, our member station in Boston. Appreciate your time.
SULLIVAN: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Keith Nahigian, thank you for your time today.
NAHIGIAN: Thank you.
CONAN: We're going to stay with Charlie Mahtesian, our guest Political Junkie. And when we come back, we'll be talking with political scientist Jason Johnson, so stay with us. 800-989-8255 if you worked on a campaign. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Right now, we're talking about the final weeks of the 2012 campaign for president with guest Political Junkie Charlie Mahtesian, national politics editor at Politico. If you've worked in a campaign, what were you doing six weeks out? What worked? What didn't? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jason Johnson is a political science professor and scholar in residence at Hiram College in Ohio. He wrote the book "Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell," and he joins us today from a studio at Georgia Public Radio. Nice to have you with us today.
JASON JOHNSON: Glad to be here.
CONAN: And six weeks out, where should campaigns be? We're also one week before the first debate.
JOHNSON: Well, you know, this really depends, and there are certain things that consultants will tell you and journalists will tell you, and then there is what's actually going on in the real world. This campaign is totally going to be dependent on state-by-state, get-out-the-vote efforts. That's what's going to matter. And the reason is because, and this is myth number one, there's no such thing as an undecided voter. There are no undecided voters. Barack Obama has been in office for four years. The only people who really don't know if they're going to vote for Obama or vote for Mitt Romney are first-time voters. And because the campaigns actually know this, even if they won't say it out loud, they've got to focus on getting early voting out, getting people registered, combating voter I.D. if you're a Democrat and making sure that the numbers are already in the bank because Election Day is going to be a bit of a nightmare.
CONAN: So does that suggest that you don't skew towards the middle, trying to win over those undecided independents but rather play to the base and motivate your supporters to get out there?
JOHNSON: Yeah. That's what you have to do. I mean, look. This happens every single election season. You have families with their kids and people who come out and say, I'm undecided. It's a version of political Baron Munchhausen syndrome, OK? You know, most people, if you look at their voting records, you can tell if they're really undecided. They voted for Bush, and they voted for Reagan, and they voted for this person and the other. And in the past, it used to be Republicans have to get out their base and Democrats have to go for the center. That's still the case. It's something I write about in "One Day to Sell." But increasingly, the Democrats realized that if they can get out their base, they don't have to fight for the middle as much as they used to in order to put together a winning coalition.
CONAN: Why is that?
JOHNSON: Well, it's because their base is actually enthusiastic for the first time in about 14 years. It's interesting. As much as people say that there is this sort of enthusiasm gap, you got to remember where this enthusiasm gap comes from. You know, you take the same person to homecoming and prom, it's not as exciting the second time, but it doesn't mean that Obama supporters don't still like him. And what's interesting is if you look at the polls on the Romney side, there is a great deal of enthusiasm to remove Barack Obama, but there is not necessarily a great deal of enthusiasm for a Romney presidency. And that's why the Democrats at least believe if they can still - if they can rekindle that fire, they can win with that base.
CONAN: And, Charlie Mahtesian, the polling data that we've seen suggest that there was an enthusiasm gap. But starting with the Democratic convention, they started to close that, and the Pew poll that was out just, what, last week shows they've closed to within one point.
MAHTESIAN: Right. And that was the big surprise, I think, coming out of convention season, that the enthusiasm gap and the effect that the conventions had on it. And you can really see in the numbers. And this wasn't just the national polls. You can see it in a lot of state polls as well where Democrats were really coming home to the party if they were, you know, maybe sitting it out before or the polling equivalent of that. And it's not only trickled - it's not only apparent in the presidential race, but you see it trickling through Senate races, too, where Democrats have had something of a minor surge in terms of enthusiasm and numbers improving for some of the Democratic Senate candidates.
CONAN: And, Jason Johnson, that goes to show this, again, against the, well, the wisdom of some at least, conventions matter and campaigns matter.
JOHNSON: Yes. Yes, campaigns really do matter. And interestingly enough, it sounds like a contradiction for me to say that there's no undecided voters and yet campaigns matter. They matter because there's a lot of actual structural work in voting. I mean, I think sometimes we diminish that, you know, you have to get to the poll. You have to register. You have to make sure you know you've registered. You have to have buses to take people who can't drive. You have to find out where the locations are. There's a lot of management and mechanics to these campaigns that really matters. It's not just about television and speeches, and that's why these campaigns are going to be so key and have been so key both in 2008 and this year.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We'll go to Beena(ph), Beena with us from Houston.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BEENA: Yes. My question was as for the success of canvassing door to door or by telephone. I know I really hang up on phone calls about, you know, political party canvassing. I do not welcome people at my doorstep. I mean, what kind of success do political parties have when they do that?
CONAN: Jason Johnson, do we have any data on that?
JOHNSON: Yeah. If you ask consultants - and that's what I do for a lot in my book, "One Day to Sell" - consultants actually believe that door-to-door canvassing works better depending on what kind of campaign. On the presidential level, it actually really matters. If you're doing something citywide, it may not be as important, because people are already connected. They know who their mayor is. They know who the councilperson is. They've probably seen him, gone to church with him, ran into them at the grocery store.
But it actually does matter at the presidential level, not because every single person that you talk to matters, but because when you look at who the deciding voters are, when you look at who the influencers are, that one woman's house that you go to, she's going to talk to her friends who aren't home. She's going to talk to her co-workers. She's going to talk to her kids who are 18 and call them up and - at college and say, hey, make sure you're registered to vote. So canvassing door to door does still matter, even in this modern, Internet-social media age that we're in.
BEENA: So you're telling me that you still have the people that are willing to listen, open their doors or answer the telephone?
JOHNSON: Oh, most definitely, most definitely. People will - and it depends. A lot of these campaigns - this has to do with the micro-targeting. It's kind of like your local grocery store knows if you're going to respond better to getting an email ad, or if you're going to respond better to getting something in the mail. These campaigns at the presidential level are so sophisticated, they know - look, is this a door that we can knock on? Did they answer last time? Do they tend to be home at 4 o'clock in the afternoon? Or is this a group of people who'd be better reach by the Internet? Is this a group of people who'd be better reach by one of the ubiquitous Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, you know, Michelle Obama emails? The campaigns know the best way to actually get you to pay attention.
BEENA: Well, thank you. I'm surprised, but thank you.
CONAN: Beena, thanks very much for the phone call.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
CONAN: Charlie Mahtesian, the campaigns certainly believe it works.
MAHTESIAN: Yeah. And what's interesting about it is that for the first - probably more than at any other point in American political history, the campaigns know so much about the people they're targeting. They know almost everything, the reams of data they have about voters. But to me, there's still an element. There - it's still an inexact science when - the science of why voters decide. And I think that sometimes, that's overlooked. It's almost - it's why we don't know everything about politics, and it's what we love about politics.
It's almost like professional sports. You have all the data in the world about the players. You know how they act in third downs. They know when every situation. What you don't know and you can't quantify is who's going to choke the bat too tightly in the ninth inning, who's going to panic, who's going to make a human error, or what's going to generate a reaction from a player that's unexpected. And I think campaigns are very much geared in the same way. There still is an element out there. You don't know how many people will not vote for an African-American, how many people will not vote for a Mormon. And those are questions that I think just can't be quantified. And that, I think, adds to the element of uncertainty here in the final month.
CONAN: And, Jason Johnson, we were talking in the previous part of the program about campaigns that are locked into this arc that they've developed that's going to run until Election Day, and they're not going to get away from their game plan. But that's - that might have been the idea in May or June, but don't people start to panic a little bit when the polls start running in the other guy's favor?
JOHNSON: Well, they panic behind the scenes. They don't panic in public, because the way your run your campaign is how people think you're going to function as the president. So you have to actually appear to be organized. I think what's important is this: From a money standpoint, a lot of campaigns, the really sophisticated ones, they organize themselves. They don't count from the day you get the nomination. They count back from Election Day. So a lot of the money is pre-planned. A lot of the ads are pre-planned. It's sort of like if you script the first seven plays of the football game, regardless of whether you're ahead or you're behind.
So I don't think there's going to be that much panicking yet in public, but, yes, I think the Romney campaign has to be concerned about the fact that Barack Obama seems to be extending the lead, even though the last unemployment numbers were bad, and this is supposed to be a campaign about the economy.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in. We'll go to James, James with us from Richmond.
JAMES: Hi. How are you? Thank you.
CONAN: Good, thanks. Go ahead.
JAMES: I am actually on the campaign trail right now. I pulled over to park to get off the phone for you. But I'm working for Wayne Powell, who's running against Eric Cantor in the seventh district of Virginia.
CONAN: And are you knocking on doors?
JAMES: No. I'm actually - I'm out putting up the big three-by-five signs to increase visibility and increase our name recognition. The polls that we have from Harrison Analytics said that, you know, Eric Cantor's approval rating in the district is about 37 percent, and his reelect is about 41 percent. So the big signs really help. Even though the old adage of yard signs don't vote, they do increase name recognition. And we're relying heavily on Obama and team to get out the vote for us among Democrats, and probably 10 to 12 percent of Romney and George Allen's supporters to lean in our favor in this typically - Republican district.
CONAN: As you - are you putting these signs on people's lawns, or on public thoroughfares?
JAMES: In supporters' lawns and rural properties.
CONAN: And so - and are you also the person who, on November 7th, has to drive around and pick them up?
JAMES: It'll be a team effort, but we have about 200 of the large three-by-five signs out, and we've got Wayne Powell not for sale, and we've got pretty creative ones for sales - a typical yard and garage sale for sale sign, and has Eric Cantor's phone number on it. So, I mean, you can give him a call and ask how much the highest bid is going for.
CONAN: Well, we'll see how you do on November 6th. James, thanks very much.
JAMES: Thank you. Have a good one.
CONAN: And, Jason Johnson, we were talking about ground games. Do buttons, bumper stickers, lawn signs - you know, that sort of ephemera.
JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, it's interesting. That's one of the myths that's become true and not true. First, it was yard signs where everything in the '60s and '70s. And then it was, like, oh, yard signs don't really matter. And then more recently, the attitude has sort of changed. Yard signs don't change anybody's vote, but they may influence how enthusiastic people think they should be.
If I walk down the street - I remember this in 2008. I'm in Ohio. I got so many personal phone calls from Mitt Romney and, you know, from John McCain and Michelle, I thought I knew them personally. And, you know, but I did not see John McCain signs posted on my community until after Sarah Palin came in, and that's when I knew that the level of enthusiasm for McCain's campaign in my part of Ohio had increased. So it's a message to voters. It's not going to change anyone's mind, but it certainly gives you an indicator as to what the passion is in your community.
CONAN: Jason Johnson, a political science professor at Hiram College in Ohio. He's with us from Georgia Public Radio. And guest Political Junkie Charlie Mahtesian is here in studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And Ken's with us, calling from Denver.
KEN: Hi, Neal. How are you today?
CONAN: I'm well. I'm sorry, Ken, the other Ken is not here to be with you, too. But go ahead.
KEN: Yeah, I am too, and you'll have to give him my best. I was the Democratic nominee for Congress in 2000 here in a suburban district in Colorado, which was, as you remember, a presidential election year.
KEN: And I'd be glad to share a little bit of our last six weeks of what we accomplished there.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
KEN: Well, we started out our television advertising in the summer. We started during the 2000 Olympics, because we wanted to be on early and not compete with the presidential campaigns, or the other statewide campaigns. So by this time, we had already been on for over six weeks, which was ahead of the game.
But, you know, in a congressional race, it's really retail. And so we had a fantastic group of volunteers who were calling every day and every night and ID'ing our voters. So when we got our people on the phone, we'd ask them: were you a Toltz voter? And if they were, they got a plus. And we continue to call them up through Election Day to make sure they were going to get out and vote.
But, you know, really, the biggest major effort that we did besides those things that you've mentioned is we coordinated with all the other campaigns within the congressional district - state representatives, state senators, county commissioners and, of course, the presidential campaign for Al Gore that year, which I felt was really important for us to make sure that we were working all in conjunction, mainly turning out the vote.
CONAN: Turning out the vote. That's what we hear consistently. Ken, thanks very much for the phone call.
KEN: You bet. Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And, Jason Johnson, if you're looking to reset in the first debate, which comes up a week from today, what do you do with your candidate? Is he running around, talking to the media? Is he or she available, as visible as possible? You're trying to hold back a little to, you know, I guess, create demand.
JOHNSON: Yeah. You're trying to hold back and raise excitement. And so, you know, you're not going to be giving as many speeches. You're going to kind of lower things down. Now, there's this belief, of course, that both candidates head into the debates lowering expectations. Obama's going to say, oh, Mitt Romney is a really good debater. I don't know if I can beat him. And Mitt Romney will say the same thing. Strategically, I don't think that's wise in a case where you are actually behind.
When you're a candidate who's behind by more than a margin of error, you're not lowering expectations when you go into the debate. You're telling people if you have any doubts about where this race stands, wait until you see me face to face with this candidate, and I'm going to show you why I'm the better person. So I think we're not going to see as much of the candidates, but I don't think we're going to see the lowered -expectations game, at least not on the Romney side, if they're smart.
MAHTESIAN: Jason, I have a stylistic question when it comes to the debates. We hear so much about Mitt Romney's likability gap, that his favorability ratings are not great, that people just don't like him enough. Is there anything that a candidate like Mitt Romney can do? In a debate setting, can you do anything or should you even try to make yourself more likable, to adjust something like that to connect with the voters at home that are watching?
JOHNSON: Yeah, you should. And this fascinates me that, here we are, four years later, and the black guy with the funny name who grew up all over the world is somehow considered more human than the, you know, the white guy who grew up in Michigan. I mean, it's amazing how much people's attitudes about who they can connect with can change in this country. In the debates, what Mitt Romney needs to establish in the first one is just, look, I can answer questions with authenticity, with examples that show I have empathy towards regular people.
But the big one for Mitt Romney is actually the second debate, the town hall where they're going to be in Hofstra. That's where he needs to be able to connect. He can't make any mistakes like George Bush and look at a watch. He needs to look into people's eyes, give stories, give anecdotes and express parts of himself. Is he going to make people love him? No. But can he narrow the gap with Barack Obama? He definitely can, certainly in a town hall.
CONAN: Jason Johnson, thank you so much for your time today.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
CONAN: Jason Johnson, a political science professor at Hiram College and politics editor for The Source magazine. He's the author of the book "Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day To Sell." Charlie Mahtesian, always nice to have you on the program.
MAHTESIAN: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: Charlie Mahtesian, national politics editor at POLITICO, a former editor of National Journal's Almanac of American Politics. Ken Rudin, the Political Junkie, will be back next week. We will be in St. Louis, Missouri, and we'll be hosting a debate listening party in the station that night. So if you're in St. Louis, join us. KWMU will be our host next week for the Political Junkie. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.