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Steven Thomma, McClatchy’s chief political correspondent, discusses the election with Paul Jay Pt.1

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to live coverage—The Real News Network in Washington, DC. We’re at the McClatchy offices, and now joining us is, in fact, the McClatchy chief political correspondent, Steve Thomma. Thanks for joining us, Steve.


JAY: So, first of all, tell us what’s happening so far from your perspective and if there’s been any surprises today.

THOMMA: Well, clearly we’re on the verge of calling this election, of knowing who’s going to win. I mean, Barack Obama is on the path to the presidency now. He has held all of the Democratic states that went Democratic in ’04, and he’s now taken away three states from the Republicans. The biggest one is Ohio. No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio, and McCain has now lost it.

JAY: And Pennsylvania.

THOMMA: But Pennsylvania was Democratic to begin with, so, I mean, that just stayed in the blue column.

JAY: But McCain had put so much money and time in Pennsylvania.

THOMMA: Right. That’s the second side. And that’s why we say we’re on the verge of seeing Obama really lock this up, ’cause he has shut down the map for McCain to make up the difference from Ohio. The only two places he thought he could possibly gain were Pennsylvania—take that away from the Democrats—or New Hampshire, and he’s now lost both of them. So, as we move west of the Mississippi and as the polls close in the coming hours, it’s hard to see any states left where McCain can make up and come back from Ohio.

JAY: So is this a vote against Bush/McCain? Is this a vote for Obama? In terms of the message and your own sense of what people are resonating to.

THOMMA: You know, Steve Schmidt, who’s McCain’s senior strategist, came back on the plane today—and it was this afternoon—talked to reporters, including a McClatchy reporter, and was surprisingly candid hours before the polls closed. I mean, he didn’t say they’d lost, but if you read it tomorrow, it’ll sound like he said it after the election. He said this was the most difficult environment for a Republican imaginable, and it got worse when Wall Street collapsed in September. And I think he’s absolutely right. I think, first, the history of the United States is for 60 years we’ve only gone to a party three times in a row in the White House once. We have a natural pendulum that swings. If you add to that a woefully unpopular president and all the bad things about consumer confidence and the mood of the country, it’s hard to imagine a Republican winning in that environment. So there’s a very strong anti-Bush vote.

JAY: And what does it say about race in America? There’s so much talk about whether race would be a factor, and the Bradley factor, and with some of these swing states, would race play a role, and it seems like it hasn’t.

THOMMA: I think that’s going to take a little time to settle out. What we’re seeing so far, midway through the evening, is that Obama has about 50 percent of the popular vote and McCain has 49. And that’s with one-fifth of the popular vote counting. If that holds up, then Obama is under-performing what the polls say, and that might be a Bradley effect.

JAY: ‘Cause the polls were talking about a six, seven, eight, even ten point.

THOMMA: Yeah, and the Obama number being 52 or 53 percent. I mean, that was about the average, including the McClatchy/Ipsos poll. So if he under-performs that, then you have to ask why. Could it be last minute doubts? Could it be the undecideds broke for McCain? And it could be race. So those are all the sort of things—we have to wait and see what his final vote total is and then to try to analyze why.

JAY: So I asked you just off-camera what was the surprise, and you said the surprise was that Obama actually seems to be under-performing.

THOMMA: Right.

JAY: Talk about that a bit.

THOMMA: Well, I mean, by all accounts—polling, our own reporting in the battleground states, talking to voters, talking to the campaigns—we thought Obama, coming out of this last weekend, was going to be around 52 or 53 percent of the popular vote, and right now, as I said, it’s 50 percent. Now, we still haven’t heard from California. A big Obama turnout on the west coast, which is very popular and bigger than the rest of the country, could push that up to 51, 52, 53 percent.

JAY: But still not landslide in terms of popular vote.

THOMMA: Not a landslide. Not a landslide in the electoral college either. You know, it’s funny. Just this afternoon, getting ready to write a roundup story tonight, I was asking colleagues, “How do you define landslide?” ’cause it’s a subjective call—it’s not like a recession, where you can say it’s automatically two quarters in a row negative growth. And I think kind of the conventional wisdom is 10 points, 55-45, for a landslide. But I don’t think we ever thought he was going to get to that. I think a lot of people thought he might get the landslide in the electoral college, maybe 360, 370 electoral votes. Does not look like that’s going to happen.

JAY: Now, one of the things that’s been happening in this election is there’s almost an ignoring of the reality of the financial meltdown. There was a lot of talk about it right at the time of the bailout, and they all kind of went back to message track again. It’s hard to even say there’s that much difference in the campaign rhetoric pre-financial meltdown and post-, except for right around the time of the bailout. But we really are into a whole new world if one’s to believe the more dire predictions. Even the middle-dire predictions are rather dire. So look ahead a little bit. We’re looking at a new world, aren’t we?

THOMMA: Well, I think a key reason, particularly on the Obama side, is for 10 or 12 weeks he has thought, he’s felt, “I’m going to win. I’m going to be president.” And as we saw in the debates, when he was pressed by the moderator, “What will you have to change as a result of this financial meltdown?” he didn’t want to answer. In the end, he usually said, “I’m going to change nothing”—that’s not the words he used, but he said, “I’m still going to buy all these programs, create all this new—.”

JAY: It seemed to lack a recognition of the seriousness of the crisis.

THOMMA: I think it’s a recognition, but I don’t think he wanted to go into the election admitting the obvious, which is it’s going to change his entire priority list.

JAY: It’s going to change everything.

THOMMA: I mean, even Bill Clinton, going in in ’92, by the time he became president, had to change his list. If you remember, his Treasury secretary went in and said, “You know what? You can’t do the stimulus. You can’t do all this other stuff. You’ve got to satisfy the bond market first by cutting the deficit.” And he had to shift his whole budget priorities in the first couple of months, which paid dividends later on.

JAY: But if Obama—.

THOMMA: And Obama’s going to do the same thing.

JAY: Well, if he goes down that road, the disillusionment amongst his young people, amongst his base is going to be so profound. I mean, he does have a choice. I mean, you know, there are economists, including, you know, middle-of-the-road economists, that are talking about money should go directly to people that are losing their houses, directly into the economy, where people can spend it, and you don’t need to bail out Wall Street. So, I mean, there is two very different roads he could go down, but if he goes down the road you’re suggesting, his base and followers are going to be aghast.

THOMMA: I think it’s inevitable he’s going to have conflicts with his political base if his base is the left wing of the Democratic Party, the antiwar wing of the party, the pro-working class part of the party that wants more government programs, expansion of health care. But he also wants to satisfy the bond markets, the Chinese creditors who hold all our bonds, and he wants to do all that. If he wants to stick to the PAYGO rules, which require him to pay for every new tax cut or spending proposal, which he says he’ll stick to. He’s going to have a hard time satisfying both sides.

JAY: There’s going to be a litmus test coming up relatively soon, the Employee Free Choice Act, a piece of legislation that allows, if it’s passed, for a lot more unionization. He said he supports it. The American Chamber of Commerce is spending $30 million to elect Republican senators to defeat it, but a lot of Democrats are probably not for it either. So there are several issues that are going to create real wars within his own party.

THOMMA: Yeah, he says he’s for it, but the fate is in the Senate. It passed the House last time; it didn’t pass the Senate. It’s a kind of thing that he can let the Senate deal with. I mean, he doesn’t have to take a leadership role on that. He’s got a plateful of bigger stuff.

JAY: Well, we’re going to take a quick break. And do you have time to come back for another five, six minutes?


JAY: Okay. We’re going to take a quick break and come back for a second segment. We’ll be right back with Steven—.

THOMMA: [“THO-ma”].

JAY: Thomma.

THOMMA: Yeah. That’s the way my dad pronounced it. My wife doesn’t.

JAY: We’ll be back in a few minutes with Steven Thomma of McClatchy Newspapers.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Steven Thomma is a White House correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, his second assignment since coming to Washington in 1987. He joined what was then the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau as a regional reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and became the bureau's National Political Correspondent in 1994. He was assigned to cover the White House for the first time in 1997 and was named Chief Political Correspondent in 2001. He assumed his current White House duties in November 2008.