Post Politics Hour

Ben Pershing
Ben Pershing (The Washington Post)
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Ben Pershing Congressional Blogger
Friday, October 10, 2008; 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest in politics? Start each day with The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and congressional reporters answers questions about the latest buzz in Washington and The Post's coverage of political news.

Ben Pershing, congressional blogger, was online Friday, Oct. 10 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions about the latest political news.

The transcript follows.

Read the latest post from Capitol Briefing, and also see Pershing's election analysis at The Post's new Political Browser, a collection of the biggest and best campaign stories of the day from across the Web.

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Archive: Post Politics Hour discussion transcripts


Ben Pershing: Good morning. Three-and-a-half weeks to the election and the economy continues to tank (fortunately, I shifted all my money into alpacas last week). So there's lots to talk about. Let's get started.


State College, Pa.: Hi Ben. The way these campaigns are going, it seems to me that whoever loses this election is not going to be very happy about working with the other party in Congress. My sense is that McCain will be less willing to go across party lines, given the enmity that he appears to have for Obama. Any comments from your perspective?

Ben Pershing: I'm not sure I agree with you. It's true that McCain seems to dislike Obama on some level, but if he wins it won't really be Obama he's working with (Obama's not in leadership). Democrats will be in charge, likely with larger majorities, no matter who wins the White House, so McCain would have to work with them -- and he does have a record in the past of reaching across the aisle in the Senate. Just don't expect him to invite Obama over very much. If Obama wins, it will be interesting to see if he tries to be "above politics" by reaching out to work with McCain.


Washington: I'm hearing that things are getting increasingly ugly at McCain/Palin rallies, and there was a good article in The Post yesterday about the anger that is being stoked. Do you think McCain has a responsibility to intercede when people are yelling out things like "terrorist" and "kill him" about Obama at his rallies? At the very least, the Secret Service is there and should be making arrests when someone threatens a candidate. I'm getting increasingly worried that McCain is getting caught up in the anger and it's going to come to a tragic ending, either during the campaign or after an inauguration. Upcoming Discussion: McCain Campaign's Angry Audience (, 3 p.m. ET today)

Ben Pershing: That's a good point about the Secret Service, but the protective detail at a McCain/Palin rally is focused on protecting those two candidates who are present. They probably have neither the time nor the manpower to police the audience for nasty comments. But if someone in the audience makes a really obvious threat against Obama and the Secret Service does hear it, I assume they would act.


Yonkers, N.Y.: Not that it means anything, but I can't ever remember a candidate sending his wife out to do attack speeches. Cindy McCain is telling audiences that Obama voted to deprive her son of equipment in Iraq (so did her husband for that matter, if that's your standard of truth). What's going on here? She's trying to become first lady; she's not Palin. How weird is this getting?

Ben Pershing: It is unusual. Usually First Ladies and candidates for First Lady are used to fire up their own party and reach out to specific constituencies (i.e. women). I can't remember specific examples of this happening before, but I might be wrong. If any of you can remember this happening in past elections, pass those examples along.


Chicago: Thanks for taking my question. Can you give those of us who live in the 38 nonbattleground states an idea of what TV and radio advertising in the battleground states is like? How many ads are people seeing? Is Obama clearly advertising a lot more than McCain, given that he appears to have a lot more money? On a somewhat related vein, what's the scuttlebutt on how much Obama raised in September? If he is buying half-hour time slots on primetime TV, it must be north of $100 million.

Ben Pershing: I live in the District, so the ads I see are different and less frequent than the ones people in, say, Ohio. There's no question that Obama is outspending McCain by a wide margin. I read recently that he spent $3 million in ads on a single day, which McCain can't possibly match. I won't hazard a specific guess on what Obama raised in September, other than I'm sure it was more than $70 million. He's raising more than $70 million per month, and McCain got $84 million in public money to cover the entire period from Sept. 1 to Nov. 4.


Hamilton, Bermuda: What is going on in West Virginia? Obama got blown out by Hillary by what, 41 percent? But a recent poll has Obama up 8 percentage points, and all the maps on all those sites that show you what people think is going on in the electoral college show West Virginia getting lighter and lighter pink (or even white). Is the economic meltdown causing the poor or blue-collar voters in West Virginia to come home to the Democrats?

Ben Pershing: I think you answered your own question. West Virginia is not naturally good turf for Obama -- lots of blue-collar, culturally conservative workers. But the economy really is hitting him there as an issue, as it is everywhere, so more voters there seem to be tipping toward Obama.


Atlanta: Do you think changes in the electoral map in 2010 will allow whichever party does not win a way to unseat the president (i.e., more and more votes are coming to the south from states like New York and California). Kinda how perhaps Clinton won in 1992?

Ben Pershing: Redistricting will have an interesting impact on the 2012 race. It is likely that states in the Northeast and Upper Midwest -- New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio especially -- will lose electoral votes, and states in the South and the Sun Belt will gain. California likely will not lose any votes, and might even gain. In general, these are votes that will shift from Democratic-leaning states to GOP ones, but it's tough to say for sure. After all, Obama is leading in Virginia, and may win Florida and North Carolina too.


Evanston, Ill.: Good morning and thanks for chatting. I assume you saw that utterly bizarre press briefing where Sen. Coleman's press secretary (?) was asked repeatedly whether Sen. Coleman ever received suits from a contributory/supporter and he just kept saying over and over "Sen. Coleman has reported all gifts he has received." Well what's the straight dope? Did Coleman get some suits? Did he violate any rules/laws by getting them and apparently not reporting them? How is "suitgate" impacting his campaign? On top of his sweetheart apartment deal in Washington, I'd think this is pretty damaging stuff. Any chance he actually could finish third? Senator Norm Coleman Gets by with a Little Help From His Friends (Harper's Magazine, Oct. 6)

Ben Pershing: This is a fascinating story. Basically, Coleman is accused of getting lots of free, fancy suits from a donor, and he hasn't given a straight answer to questions about it other than to attack the media and bloggers. I really like this story because it reminds me of legendary ex-Sen. Robert Torricelli, who was accused of the exact same thing. I look for any excuse to relive "the Torch" scandals.

I don't know about Coleman actually finishing third behind Al Franken and Alben Barkley, but I do know that he is in serious danger right now.


Naperville, Ill.: I assume you have sources on both sides of the aisle in Congress. What are they saying about how bad the GOP bloodbath in both houses of Congress will be? What are the odds the Democrats pick up 10 Senate seats?

Ben Pershing: I think a 10-seat pickup in the Senate would be difficult, even in this strong environment for Democrats. But it's definitely possible, which is amazing. "The Fix" wrote this morning that there were eight seats that Democrats had an even-money-or-better shot to pick up. To get two more basically would mean running the table. As for the House, a gain of 20 or more seats looks increasingly likely, and 30 is now a distinct possibility.


Southwest Nebraska: The Republicans surrounding me are enormously buoyed by the ACORN voter registration problems in Ohio. How is that going to get resolved, and will there be blowback on Obama's campaign?

Ben Pershing: ACORN's problems definitely are getting some attention, but it's tough to see those stories breaking through given that there's so much election news and a ton of important economic news. The question is whether there really are a lot of Democrats who end up being unable to vote on Election Day. With millions of voters in Ohio, it seems unlikely there will be enough voter registrations thrown off the rolls to make a difference.

_______________________ The Fix's Friday Line: Sixty in Sight? (, Oct. 10)


Gettysburg, Pa.: Do you see the Obama's connection with Ayers or Rev. Wright coming up at the next debate? Do you think the moderator will ask Obama about it? If so, will he ask an equivalent question to McCain about Keating or someone? If the moderator does not bring it up, do you see McCain doing so on his own? Isn't it tough to sling mud when the target is standing right next to you? I remember that one debate between Hillary and Barack where they had one or two exchanges like that, and they both seemed to pull back instinctively, realizing that they were going somewhere neither wanted to go.

Ben Pershing: Everyone was waiting for McCain to bring up Ayers at the second debate, and he didn't do it. Either that was because they thought the town hall setting was the wrong one for that kind of attack, or because they thought McCain himself shouldn't do it (and that's why Palin has been so aggressive on the issue). But McCain is in trouble now and he may just decide to go for broke in the third debate. I think he'd still prefer not to do it himself, but he may not have a choice.


Monmouth, Ore.: A lot is being written about this election possibly being a Democratic congressional landslide. If many of these endangered Republicans lose in places like New York, Minnesota, Oregon and Pennsylvania, won't the Republicans become a de facto "Southern" party? If that happens, will the few remaining Northern, moderate Republicans such as Snowe, Specter, and Gregg consider jumping ship to the Democrats, where they would seem to have more in common with people like Webb, Warner, Baucus, etc.? It seems no party makes it on such a narrow regional base. Thanks.

Ben Pershing: The demise of Republicans in the Northeast has been pretty stunning. In the House there is only one Republican left in all of New England. Out of 29 House seats in New York state, only six are Republicans, and four of them might lose. It will be tough in the long-term for Republicans to regain the majority with almost no presence in the Northeast. The Senate is a little different -- Snowe is still very popular in Maine. It's hard to see any of those Senate Republicans switching parties, but they're going to get more and more lonely.

_______________________ Across the Northeast, GOP's Hold Lessens (Post, Aug. 18)


Washington: Is Dean Barkley any relation to the late vice president in the Truman Administration, Alben Barkley -- the one who married a young chick and died saying "I'd rather be a servant in the house of the Lord..."?

Ben Pershing: No, they're not related. And good catch -- I wrote "Alben Barkley" in my earlier answer about the Minnesota Senate race, when I meant to say Dean. Obviously I need more coffee.


Alexandria, Va.: Good morning, Ben. How does the McCain camp's decision to pull out of Michigan affect Reps. Walberg and Knollenberg's re-election campaigns?

Ben Pershing: Good question. Both Knollenberg and Walberg were not happy at all at the McCain campaign's decision. Both of them already faced tough races, and now they're in serious danger of losing. The economic problems in Michigan -- just look at the headlines about GM today -- make it very tough for Republicans in that state.


Pennsylvania: To Chicago: We've been getting so many political commercials on TV -- not only for president but also for congressional seats already -- that I automatically hit the mute button during commercial breaks, now even for the ads from the candidates I favor as well as those I oppose. If only our local NPR station weren't in pledge right now (though at least they're not sleazy!)...

Ben Pershing: I suspect a lot of swing-state residents feel the way you do. That raises an interesting question: At what point does a candidate's advertising dollar start to lose its value? Obama can run a gazillion more ads, but if viewers are sick of them and changing the channel, they gradually will be less effective.


Baltimore: You mention that McCain has a history of reaching across the aisle in the Senate, but what isn't mentioned is that he's got a history of not getting along with the House -- either the Republicans or the Democrats. For example, he was completely unable to budge the House Republicans the first time the bailout bill came up. Appointments only have to pass the Senate, but budgets and legislation need both houses of Congress. Will McCain be able to get anything through?

Ben Pershing: It's true that he has a longer history of cutting deals in the Senate than in the House. McCain's problem is that House Republicans on the whole are more conservative than Senate Republicans. The majority of House GOPers disagreed with McCain on campaign finance reform and immigration, two of his big issues. The one place they really agree is on spending and earmark reform, so they probably would be able to cooperate on those issues, at least.


Alexandria, Va.: What's your take on Sen. Stevens's trial so far? Also, if he is convicted and drops out of the Senate race, do Alaskan Republicans have any options to replace him, or is it too late? Thanks.

Ben Pershing: The Stevens trial has been fascinating to watch from afar, and I'm only sorry I haven't been able to attend in person. I know fellow reporters who have been covering it who think that there is at least a chance that Stevens will be acquitted. There's no question he got a lot of stuff he didn't pay for, but has the prosecution proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew he was getting more than he paid for? My understanding is that it's too late to replace Stevens on the ballot before Election Day, unless there's some legal trick the GOP could pull.


Palin Ethics Report: has a link labeled "Palin Ethics Report Set to be Released," but the headline on the linked story said it is "secret for now," and mentions no time or date for release. Which is it? "At their meeting Friday, lawmakers planned to vote to release the estimated 300-page report and some of the 1,000 or more pages of supporting documents." Sensitive Palin ethics report kept secret, for now (Associated Press, Oct. 10)

Ben Pershing: Alaska legislators are voting today on whether to release their report on Palin and Troopergate. The McCain campaign this morning decided to release its own "report" saying that she did nothing wrong -- which was kind of funny. As I wrote on Political Browser this morning, maybe Ted Stevens will acquit himself today.


Chattanooga, Tenn.: When is Bush going to learn to shut his yap? He goes on TV and the market gives up it's mini-rally and tanks again. Wouldn't we (and he) be better off if he just stayed out of sight on his bicycle?

Ben Pershing: Bush has gone on TV almost every day since this crisis began, and it hasn't exactly calmed the markets, has it? There's an argument to be made that the clout and importance that go with a presidential appearance are lessened if the president appears every single day.


Reston, Va.: McCain seems to be running out of time to pull this thing out. My question is, given the way people are fed up with politics, why doesn't he announce a pledge that he and Palin would only serve one term if elected (because America doesn't need a president running for re-election two years down the road) and talk up the virtue of divided government (given that Democrats are going to be in charge of Congress, and that divided government worked under Reagan and Clinton)?

Ben Pershing: That issue came up during the primaries, I believe, and McCain wouldn't commit to only serving one term. And why would he? He's making the case that he should be president, so why say he'd only serve four years?


Minneapolis: Hi Ben -- thank you for taking questions today. There seems to be a general consensus that, other than to whipping up the base, McCain/Palin's attacks on Obama's associations don't seem to be changing the direction of the race at this point. Is there any polling yet to support that? Also, if it isn't working, will McCain drop that line of attack and try something else, or is that all he has now?

Ben Pershing: It's true that there's no evidence yet that the negative stuff is working, but that doesn't mean it won't work eventually. Right now all the polling shows that voters are fixated on the economy, and they give Obama the edge on that issue. The McCain campaign feels that the only way it can win is to plant more seeds of doubt about Obama's character and suitability for the presidency. I doubt they'll stop doing that.


Washington: During the debate, Sen. McCain mentioned a letter he and other senators had signed on the economic situation, noting that Sen. Obama had not signed it. Do we know what letter he was talking about and why Sen. Obama didn't sign it?

Ben Pershing: Another good question. The good folks at ProPublica wrote a story about this yesterday, saying they could not find any such letter signed by McCain warning about the economic crisis. More interestingly, the McCain campaign wouldn't comment or say what letter he was talking about. Was McCain confused, or was it a bill or a report he was referring to, rather than a letter?

_______________________ What Letter Was McCain Referring to? (ProPublica, Oct. 9)


Krauthammer's op-ed: He made a point that any white politician would be cast out of society if they had long-standing relationships with a fiery white preacher delivering sermons that could be considered hateful. Where would a Rev. Hagee fit into this picture? He's said some hateful things (not even getting into his "Support Israel to hasten the Apocalypse" agenda), and that hasn't stopped many a white politician -- including McCain -- from embracing his supports. Is there really a double standard here? The white Christian religious community is full of divisive hate-mongers, but because they preach to a majority who like the message, it's okay? Obama and Friends: Judge Not? (Post, Oct. 10)

Ben Pershing: I definitely have heard McCain supporters complain that Obama is getting a relatively easy ride from the media on the Ayers story. I have not heard many people argue that Obama's getting it easy because he's black. Obviously that's Krauthammer's opinion, but as you say, there are several controversial people McCain has been linked to at some point or another in the past too, and the press hasn't been overly focused on that either (except for a blip of attention on the Keating 5 scandal).


Bethesda, Md.: Once people decide who they are voting for do they generally stick to that? What I am trying to say is that the number of undecideds has to be shrinking every day.

Ben Pershing: Yes, the number of undecideds naturally shrinks every day until Election Day. What pollsters and experts can't always agree on is how many undecideds there are at any given time. When you see a top-line poll number that says, for example, Obama leads McCain 48-42, those numbers typically include both people who say they definitely are voting for one candidate and those who say they are "leaning" toward one candidate. But what does "leaning" mean? 90 percent sure? 51 percent sure? Answer that and you could make a lot of money working in politics.


Ads in Iowa: Inexplicably, Sen. McCain continues to run lots of ads here. Just this morning while watching the morning news shows, I saw three of the black-and-white multiscreen ads showing Obama and Pelosi and Barney Frank with a whispery voice talking about "danger" and "who is Barack Obama?" Yet the local news channel airing the ads reported on their new poll showing Obama up 54-41 over McCain in Iowa.

Ben Pershing: I'm not sure why McCain would pull out of Michigan but keep running ads in Iowa; as you say, the state appears to be heavily tilted to Obama now. My guess is that running ads in Iowa is relatively cheap, so it's not a huge deal to stay on the air, whereas Michigan is more expensive.


Gaithersburg, Md.: I've heard some people talking about the polls being wrong because people would lie to pollsters about voting for a black person when they wouldn't really. If that were the case, wouldn't the robo-dialers be showing very different numbers?

Ben Pershing: You raise a very good point. There have been lots of stories recently about "the Bradley effect," named after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, an African-American who lost a gubernatorial race he was favored to win. It may be true that some voters lie to pollsters, saying they'll vote for black candidates even if they won't. And I also have read interesting analyses arguing that respondents are more honest when they're talking to a computer, or automated poll, than a live person. But there's almost no way to know for sure.


Ben Pershing: Thanks as always for the great questions, everyone. Let's chat again next week.


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