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New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza On The Catholic/HHS Flap and The Obama Independent Voter

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

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HH: Joined now by Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker. Ryan, welcome back, always a pleasure to chat with you.

RL: Hey, thanks for having me, Hugh.

HH: My first question, I want to talk about Obama’s Swing Voters, your piece over at the website. But my first question is over at the website, at www.thenewyorker.com, they’ve got a news desk silo, and they pile a bunch of people in there. This is an argument I’ve had for years with Townhall about their Tip Sheet blog, which is they put six, seven different people in there, and I’m looking for Guy Benson, and I can’t find it. Why are they siloing all the writers as opposed to by by-line?

RL: Well, all right, so here’s the way to navigate it. One, if you just want the politics, you can always go to http://politics.newyorker.com, right? So all the political writers will be there. Two, if you want a specific writer, every writer has basically their own silo. So if you click on my name, you’ll get all of my recent pieces. Or if you want Rick Hertzberg’s recent pieces, just click on his name, or whoever it is that you want.

HH: Perfect. Answered my question, because it just makes it much easier to navigate that way. All right, to this piece, this is fascinating. And why don’t you review for the audience the variety of research that you reviewed in coming up with key demo, as we call it, the swing voter par excellence.

RL: Well, a few things. There is a bunch of data coming out right now about who the swing voters are. And the first thing to say, Hugh, as you probably know, is independents are technically the biggest group in America, bigger than self-described Democrats, bigger than self-described Republicans. But that actually is kind of meaningless, because as you and your listeners I’m sure know, most independents aren’t true independents. Most independents actually vote Republican or Democratic. And so if you take all those people out of the independent group, the ones that lean Democrat and lean Republican reliably, you get 45% of the country who are basically Democrats, and 45% who are basically Republicans. And all that leaves in the middle is 10% of voters. So our whole presidential election is over this tiny 10% of the electorate.

HH: And not just that tiny 10%, but the tiny 10% in between 12 and 15 states.

RL: Exactly. And it’s a weird group, because it’s an ideologically somewhat incoherent group. They’re folks that truly do swing back between Republicans and Democrats. You know, there frankly are some pollsters who would tell you these are folks who don’t, low information voters who don’t have fixed views on politics, and ideologically are very difficult to pin down. But we spend an enormous amount of resources trying to study this group and figure them out, and persuade them, like politicians do.

HH: Now I want to quote from…your articles says, “This group which we are likely to hear a lot about in the coming months is disproportionately young, female and secular, and who was hit hard by the recession. One quarter of its members are non-white,” which means that three-quarters of this key demo are white, and they’re in these key states. And so how do they, how do the campaigns go after them?

RL: And for one thing, this is where groups that, a group called Third Way, which is a moderate Democratic group, that they’ve studied them, and they have identified as the key swing vote for Obama. And they call this group the Obama independents. And good question, how do you go out after them? And one thing the pollsters have trouble going after these folks because they’re not always, they’re not uniform in their views, and this Obama independent group swung back, voted for Republican, a big chunk of them voted for Republicans in the mid-term, and voted for Bush in 2004. So it is difficult to grab them. But we do know, and Third Way, the group that studied them, does know that they were hit hard by the recession, so they’re open to an economic message, which might make them very open to the message that Romney’s selling right now. Two, they are, they’re not religious. So they’re actually less religious than your average Democratic voter, at least judging by how much they attend church each week.

HH: Now in elections past, we’ve heard about security moms and soccer moms.

RL: Yes.

HH: You do not mention whether this key Obama independent voter is married or not.

RL: In this data, and the links are on our site, I really recommend reading the whole thing. There’s a lot of good information in it. They did not break it down, unless I’m missing something, by whether they were married or not. There is slight…

HH: How about by children?

RL: They’re slightly more female. 51% female, 48% male. And I did not see anything telling how, whether they were married or had children or not. As you know, you’re more likely to be Republican if you’re married and have children, right?

HH: Yes, and when we come back from break, we’ll talk about that. But it seems to me this is the ideal group for a campaign geared to the vast universe of mommy blogs, which are expanding like the big bang over the last three years as I learned at BlogWorldExpo this past year.

- – – –

HH: Ryan, as I went to the break, I referenced a story that I’ve been covering a lot.

RL: Yeah.

HH: And with Mitt Romney today, and Bishop Olmsted today, and others throughout the last couple of weeks. And it goes back to a phone call that Barack Obama made on January 20th to Archbishop, Cardinal-designate Dolan, telling him that the HHS regs were, with the President’s approval, going to roll the Catholic Church. And the explosion, the anger is intense in Roman Catholic circles. And here, you’ve identified swing voters who are secular. But I wonder if that isn’t a false positive for the Obama administration that has led them to neglect the fact he won a majority of the Catholic vote in 2008. It looks like he’s working to drive it away.

RL: Well look, as you pointed out before the break, obviously Ohio and Pennsylvania have very big Catholic populations. It’s a crucial swing vote in most presidential elections. And it seems like the administration’s really stepped in it here with this decision. Now look, Hugh, I grew up Catholic, and as a lot of Catholics know, the Catholics don’t always abide by every teaching of the Church. And sometimes, what the Church preaches, and what people do in their personal lives don’t always match up. So it’s not a given that because the Church is angry at this decision that every Catholic is going to therefore going to vote against Obama. But on the other hand, nobody likes their church to be offended.

HH: You know, absolutely correct on everything you said. But this is qualitatively different. And it’s because, I think, it is perceived as not just another abortion controversy, but an attempt to, say, to Georgetown and Boston College and Notre Dame, and every Catholic elementary and high school out there, and every Catholic hospital and social service agency, you’re going to offer sterilization and the morning after pills, and you have no way to avoid that. Ryan, that is a, that’s a jam down that is both theological and cultural, and I think the reaction that I have seen, I mean, Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix saying we cannot, we will not comply with this unjust law, direct quote from his letter, have you ever seen anything like that?

RL: No, I mean, it’s really rare to have bishops saying something that directly. And I don’t really see, a lot of people are saying well, this is such a hot issue, this has become so controversial that the Obama administration almost has to reverse it. But I don’t really see the, I don’t see the path for them to reverse it. I mean, this was not something that was decided without some thought, right? This was a long process. They gave it a lot of thought. They knew what the implications were going to be. And I don’t see them, you know, it’s not like the superPAC decision. I don’t see them reversing themselves on this.

HH: I agree, because the President called the Cardinal-designate.

RL: Yeah, I mean, he was deeply involved in this. Obviously, the White House knew that this was a highly controversial issue, and on any highly controversial issue in this administration, the most senior levels of the White House are involved with it.

HH: So I’m wondering, the President himself makes this decision and communicates it to the Cardinal-designate, who is the chairman of the Catholic Conference of Bishops. And I’m wondering if part of this isn’t political, that they have dialed in, perhaps with a little bit of tunnel vision, on their independent secular voter that you’ve identified here, who’s young and just a bit majoritarian female, and decided that the choice issue, the abortion issue matters more than anything else to them.

RL: No, I wouldn’t overemphasize this swing voter thing we were talking about before. I mean, this is, I don’t think that this is some…as far as I can tell from obsession at the White House, this group that I wrote about on the blog is something that Third Way has identified. It’s interesting, but I wouldn’t necessarily take it as the end-all, be-all for the Obama campaign. You know what I mean?

HH: Well, let me pose it to you this way. He vetoed Keystone. That is an insane decision as well in every way except politically, if you have to satisfy your hyper-environmentalists. He approved these HHS regs, which are an insane political decision, unless you have to satisfy your hyper-activists on the choice issue. In other words, he’s going around and doing a base strategy which is so dialed in, proposition, that he’s offending the middle and previous Obama voters.

RL: I think you’ve got to distinguish between the two. On Keystone, I agree with you, lots of pressure from environmentalists after this administration, a lot of environmentalists who care about the future of the planet, who believe in global warming, and were disappointed that the Obama administration didn’t push harder for cap and trade, and that the EPA hasn’t pushed harder to regulation carbon when they have the authority to do it. But the environmental group made it their crusade to stop Keystone, because they genuinely believe that the carbon emissions emanating from opening up those tar sands would be catastrophic. And I do believe you’re right. The administration listens to those voices, listened to those protesters and lobbyists, and it impacted this decision on Keystone. And I don’t, I think the HHS decision was a little more complicated, and less the result of political pressure from the left.

HH: What is the explanation? I honestly…

RL: But the second thing, Hugh, is the Keystone decision is a very hot decision on the right. I know it’s a big thing among conservatives. I don’t think it’s a major issue for the broad middle of the country.

HH: What’s the best…

RL: On the HHS decision, it may have a bigger impact.

HH: What’s the best explanation for the President’s decision on the HHS regs?

RL: I think it was done on the merits. I think they looked at it, and that’s what they believed was the right way to go.

HH: What do you mean by the merits of it? What’s the argument for forcing Catholics to provide morning after pills and sterilization

RL: You know, you’re catching me on an issue I’m not as informed on to either defend or criticize the administration’s decision on that one.

HH: Have you heard, I mean, have you picked up that this is as big an issue as, you know, our networks have immediately identified it as enormous.

RL: Yeah, well, I mean, I’ve been out on the campaign trail the last couple of weeks in Florida and Nevada. And it’s certainly being talked about by Gingrich and Romney and Santorum at their stops. And it’s a very hot, hot issue on the right. And you know, I don’t know where it goes from here. You have liberal Catholics like Michael Sean Winters and E.J. Dionne, both friends of mine, who are obviously deeply concerned about this, and have criticized the White House for this. So it seems like a case where the White House…but it also seems like a case where the White House knew what they were getting into. They didn’t do this haphazardly, right? They thought about it, they had a process, and the highest levels of the White House were involved.

HH: As we in the law would say, they acted with malice and aforethought, Ryan Lizza. Thank you for joining us, Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker. It’s always a pleasure.

RL: Thank you.

End of interview.

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