MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, you have no doubt heard about the religious violence that's been plaguing northern Nigeria but you might not have heard about how a new university, led by an American educator, is hoping to play a role in bringing peace to that country as well as other difficult conflicts on the continent. We'll tell you more about it later in the program.
But first we want to talk about the presidential campaign in the United States which is now just days away, but Hurricane Sandy threw a curveball into the campaigns. Both President Obama and Governor Romney were forced to change plans over the weekend because of the storm. Here's the president at a press briefing at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is a serious and big storm. And my first message is to all the people across the Eastern Seaboard, mid-Atlantic going north, that you need to take this very seriously.
MARTIN: We wanted to talk about how the storm could change the campaign and other campaign news so we've called Janice Crouse. She is the senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute. That's a think tank connected with the conservative group Concerned Women for America. Also with us once again Cynthia Tucker. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist as well as a journalism professor at the University of Georgia. We are happy to have them both with us again.
We spoke with them earlier today. Both of you, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.
JANICE CROUSE: Great to be with you.
CYNTHIA TUCKER: Good to be here, Michel.
MARTIN: So Cynthia, let me start with you. I mean, it's kind of part of the annals of American politics that a big weather event can affect a race. I mean, famously, you know, there's the Chicago mayor's race where, you know, slow snow removal is believed to have doomed one mayor's reelection chances.
But how about at the national level? Do you think that the president's handling of this and, conversely, how the challenger behaves through this weather event could have an effect on the race?
TUCKER: Well, I don't think it's going to affect either - the perception of either candidate, quite frankly, Michel. But let me also say in the annals of politics that political journalists always look for the October surprise. Who knew that the October surprise would be an act of nature? I think, though, that President Obama will not be seen slow-stepping on this major event.
The lessons of Hurricane Katrina have been well learned at every level - at the federal level, at the state level. But I do think down at a micro level we could see an effect in two places. I'd look for the vote, the turnout, in states like Maryland and Virginia and New Jersey and New York where the storm is expected to have its major effect. Virginia, of course, is a swing state.
But more to the point for Obama, more and more political prognosticators are talking about the possibility of a split between the Electoral College and the popular vote. Could the storm depress the vote in some blue states like New York? That could affect the popular vote and depress it for Obama.
MARTIN: Janice Crouse, what about you? You know, President Obama has to step off the campaign trail to be president, right, and to function as president where Governor Romney, while his travel plans may be disrupted can still campaign. And you wonder whether this is a plus or a minus for either candidate. What do you think?
CROUSE: I personally don't think it's going to make a huge difference in the campaign, though, in the turnout in the election because I think the intensity on both sides for this election is so intense and is so strong that I don't think it's going to affect voter turnout. So we're hoping for the best, Michel. I think that's the bottom line.
MARTIN: Yes, we all are. We're broadcasting from the Washington D.C. area and we are actually all watching with some anxiety to see what happens. You know, Cynthia, President Obama has been consistently strong in appealing to women voters. Of course, the gender gap goes both ways. That, you know, men have been really for 20 years trending toward the Republican Party. Women for 20 years have been trending toward the Democratic Party.
But a new Associated Press poll shows that Governor Romney has decreased the president's lead when it comes to women voters. Why do you think that is?
TUCKER: It is fascinating that current polling shows that Romney has effectively eliminated the gender gap, that he has almost as much support among women as Obama does, which is fascinating, given the history of this for the last two or three decades, that women voters have favored the Democratic Party significantly.
I think that this is a reminder, however, that this campaign, this race, is now about and has always been about the economy. Over and over and over again in polls for the last two years voters have said that the economy is the most important issue. There are segments of the electorate for whom social issues are more important. That's especially true among college educated women, professional women, social issues such as abortion that would tend to favor Democrats. But the economy is overwhelmingly the most important issue.
But another important factor is how effectively Romney has Etch-a-Sketched himself. He called himself severely conservative at a Republican gathering not a year ago. He has emphasized his stance against gay rights, his opposition to abortion. He has either reversed himself or downplayed all of those issues so that the candidate that women saw in that first debate wasn't a scary, severely conservative figure at all.
MARTIN: If you just tuned in you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. And we're talking about the final days of the race for the White House with Pulitzer Prize winner Cynthia Tucker and with Janice Crouse, senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute. That's connected to the conservative group Concerned Women for America.
Before we let each of you go, I have got to ask about a different Associated Press poll that shows that racial attitudes have not improved in the four years since the U.S. elected its first African-American president. And also, the poll suggests that a slight majority of Americans now express prejudice toward blacks whether they recognize those feelings as prejudicial or not.
I mean, they used a number of tools to get to that conclusion, among them sort of citing whether people associated certain negative attributes with African-Americans like being lazy and, you know, things like that, you know, certain stereotypes. But I wanted to ask each of you what do you make of that?
Do you think that these racial dynamics have been evoked by the campaign or are they just kind of part of the overall environment in the United States? And Janice, I'll ask you this question first. What do you think?
CROUSE: I think this has been the most racially divisive president in my memory. I have been just astounded at the times when President Obama has adopted ebonics, for instance, when he has deliberately chosen to use racially inflammatory language.
MARTIN: Give an example. Give an example, if you would.
CROUSE: Well, Mr. Biden, for instance, when he was at a Virginia meeting talked about people going back in chains. When the president talks to a Southern audience he adopts a Southern accent. It's just - I think what you're seeing is a reflection of that because in the 2008 election only 48 percent of people expressed negative racial attitudes toward blacks and now it's up to 51 percent.
MARTIN: Wait, wait. You don't think George W. Bush did that when he spoke to a Southern audience? When he was back home in Texas you don't think you heard a little bit more of the Texas accent in his delivery?
CROUSE: That might have been the case but that's very different when a white man does that, speaking Southern. I'm from the South and I tend to speak more Southern when I'm there because I pick it up. You know, it's part of my DNA and it does come out then. And I think that's true of...
MARTIN: So it's different when a white person does that?
CROUSE: But it's different when a black person adopts that speaking to a predominantly black audience when he doesn't normally. That seems to me very affecting and I think that is part of the reason that we've seen such a change in racial attitudes and, when you cite examples of specific racism for black from whites in this country, that, of course, is lamentable. It's horrible and I don't approve of it one iota.
However, when you see a change in attitudes from 48 percent in 2008 to 51 now with a black president, I think this country was really relieved when President Obama was elected and thought that we were going to put racial attitudes behind us and that kind of bias and prejudice was a thing of the past. And I think a lot of people are very disappointed that, instead of doing that, this president has exacerbated those attitudes.
MARTIN: OK. Cynthia Tucker, final thought on this?
TUCKER: I have absolutely no idea what Janice is talking about. I have no idea what Janice is talking about. President Obama assiduously avoids any discussion of race. It is one of the things that has most frustrated his black supporters. President Obama speaks about race far less than Bill Clinton did because he knows that he would be accused of stirring up racial animosity.
By contrast, however, his conservative opponents have done nothing but play the race card for the last four years. There is absolutely no great surprise that we have had this something of a backlash because, on the right wing, from Fox News to Rush Limbaugh, there is this continual drumbeat of accusations of racism by Obama, which are absolutely not true, but this is the accusation they make, even...
MARTIN: Well, let me stop you. Let - Cynthia, excuse me. Let me push the...
CROUSE: No. That's...
MARTIN: Janice, let me jump in here. What I think some people would point to is when the president, at a press conference, talked about the Henry Louis Gates arrest, the Harvard, you know, president who was arrested in his own home, and he said that the white police officer acted stupidly there, that may have been his analysis, but again, the president was not there.
When he talked about the Trayvon Martin shooting, when he pointed out that Trayvon would have looked like my son, people point to that and say, why do you feel a need to point out race here when a lot of parents are distraught by this? I think those are some of the things that some people would point to.
TUCKER: Well, those are the only two that anybody can point to where the president has had any mention of race at all. That's the point. Having said that, however, let me say the completely obvious, that racial attitudes are still much better in this country than they were 50 years ago or even 30 years ago, but there is never a straight line of progress here.
MARTIN: And we are going to have to leave this important conversation here today, ladies. Thank you both so much. We will return to this topic. It obviously is an important one and both of you have interesting things to say about it.
That was Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and journalism professor Cynthia Tucker joining us from member station WCLK in Atlanta, Georgia. Also with us, Janice Crouse. She is a senior fellow at the conservative group Concerned Women for America. She's at the Beverly LaHaye Institute, which is the research group connected to the Concerned Women for America. She was kind enough to join us by phone from her home office in the Washington, D.C. area, where we are all hunkered down waiting for Hurricane Sandy.
Thank you all so much for joining us.
CROUSE: My pleasure.
TUCKER: Thank you and good luck with the storm. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.