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Hey, all this is Max, an emergency physician in the U.S. Navy currently deployed in Afghanistan.
This podcast was recorded at 140 p.m. on September 30th, my son's birthday.
Things may have changed by the time you hear this. Won't have changed, though, is how my wife Laura and I connect using podcast just like this one. While I'm away today, we'll listen while we celebrate our third anniversary together. I love you, Laura, and I'll see you soon. OK, here's the show. Oh, that's so nice and thank you for your service and have a great anniversary and happy birthday to your son. Thank you.
Hey, there is the NPR Politics podcast. I'm Mike Tarasco. I cover the White House. I'm Scott Detro. I cover the presidential campaign. And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent. And Scott, I hear you're on real Force One. So is that the Amtrak or is that a special, not the Greyhound. So what are you on? It's it's I am on the official name is the Build Back Better Express, which I don't know if it's the best branding in the world, but this is a old fashioned whistle stop tour today.
Joe Biden is campaigning like it's 1936 and we are on a whistle stop tour from Cleveland, Ohio to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. And I'm going to be honest with you, I'm super excited about it right now. I'm on a moving train through eastern Ohio. The views are great. Scott, are you going to sleep on the train?
No, no, we will I will be back in Wilmington tonight. It's it's actually just a regular Amtrak train that the Biden campaign is chartered. I heard that Joe Biden did speak with you guys. What was he saying? Uh, he he has been giving the stump speech in in Cleveland and then the lines Ohio just now where he took questions. And obviously all of our questions had to do with what exactly happened last night. I asked Biden what he learned from from going one on one with President Trump and whether he would, you know, follow the advice of some people who are saying just these debates are not even worth having the way that last night's win and skip the next two.
He said. To be clear, he does look forward to to the next debates. He thinks the fact that the next one is a town hall where voters will ask the president questions is really important. But Biden said he was trying to do what it was pretty clear he was trying to do is just ignore the president and speak directly to voters. And he said that the way that President Trump attacked him and interrupted him and viciously personalize the race last night just clarified for Biden why he entered the race to begin with.
Last night was, I think, a wake up call for all Americans. Well, I tried to do last night. I tried to speak directly to the camera, to the American people to talk about their concerns, to talk about what's on their mind, to talk about what I would do where I President Trump has has no plans, no ideas. Didn't they didn't express a single plan that he had about how he's going to move forward. And and it made me realize that just how much is at stake.
And we should say that the Commission on Presidential Debates, this is the independent body that organizes debates, actually said on Wednesday that a, quote, additional structure would be needed for the remaining debates after Tuesday night's cluster of an event. I mean, the families, we could add a second word to that, but it's a family. What do we do?
We assume they're talking about giving the moderator a mute button. And it's not clear what additional structure would would help after last night. But it seems like everyone agrees that it was a bit of a mess. I mean, Mara, what are you hearing in the reactions to the debate last night? So much of the debates are usually about trying to drive the discussion by candidates. And this seems to be a lot of talk about just the tone and the tenor of last night.
Well, I think the overall reaction was that the American voters were the losers and that this was such a raucous debate, so much interruptions mostly from the president, so much talking over each other, so many insults. There was very little discussion of policy. What there was got lost in the shuffle and it was just disheartening. Most of the messages I've gotten from people are how depressed they feel today. Yeah. You know, Mara, I'm traveling with Biden.
I ended up standing in the room last night, which is not what I thought we would be off in a side room. And suddenly I was standing there on the set and it was just so personally jarring. You know, I've watched these presidential debates for decades. That Constitution said it's such a formal setting and and it's so familiar. It takes you to these formal moments in presidential history. And it was just jarring and shocking to see that formal setting and be standing in it and see what happened on the stage, especially the way that the president conducted himself in something that everyone is talking about, still talking about today.
We obviously touched on it on the podcast that we did last night right after the debate.
But it's still a big issue today is the way President Trump did not forcefully condemn white supremacy and seemed to say or said, stand by and stand back or stand back and stand by to the proud boys, which is a hate group. People are still reacting to that.
And he's facing some criticism, right, Mara, even from Republicans? Yes, he's several Republican senators said that he should have condemned violence on the right and the left and white supremacy should never be accepted. Remember what he said right after he said, stand back and stand by? He said someone should go after or take care of Antifa and the left. This is a left wing problem, not a right wing problem, which it directly contradicts what his own FBI director said.
But I was surprised at how many Republicans were willing to criticize the president's performance. Brian Kilmeade, a host at Fox, said that, you know, the biggest softball is to just condemn white supremacy. And he doesn't know why the president didn't do that. He thought he missed an opportunity. You have the senators on Capitol Hill. And in terms of his overall performance, you even had Chris Christie, who was one of the people who helped prep the president for the debates, said that he maybe was a little over the top and whatever problems he had were, quote, potentially fixable.
I mean, that was stunning to me. And in Biden was asked about that, that privately that Priebus moment today, asked if he had a message for that group, he said his message is simple, cease and desist. He said that group doesn't represent American values. He then touched on another thing that the president did again last night that has really alarmed a lot of people. The president continuing to to question to undermine the electoral process. Biden said don't get discouraged from voting his supporters.
He said, look, if we show up and vote and I win this election, the American people will not tolerate a president who doesn't accept the result, who doesn't leave office. The American people will decide who the next president, United States will be, period. So I'm urging the American people to go out and vote, show up. You can vote early, vote early, vote whatever way is most convenient for you, but vote. And if you show up in large enough numbers, nothing, nothing is going to change.
I promise you, if in fact, we win this election, this president will step down. So a lot of bravado. He has no alternative. The American people will not stand for it. No agency would stand for that happening.
Yeah. You know, Biden keeps on focusing on that that clear, crystal clear result. He wins. The president won't be able to stay in office. But there's a lot of confusion and chaos that can happen between now and when a winner is declared. It could be months and months. And but I understand what Biden's doing. He doesn't want people to get discouraged by the the chaos and still come out and vote.
Well, and what could be a big deciding factor is undecided voters and where how strongly they swing one way or the other. We will talk more about undecided voters when we get back.
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With the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the president is hoping to fill the seat with a conservative judge. And evangelicals who play an important part in American politics have been waiting for this moment. But how did evangelicals become such a powerful force? Listen now to the history of evangelicals on the Throughline podcast from NPR. And we're back.
And Scott, you're still on the train and you're seeing supporters and all sorts of nice stuff, maybe some deer, some eagles on the fruited plain. Yeah, there are. It's the old timey necessarily, really. I mean, there's people standing and waving at intersections that the train goes through. I think we're close to Pennsylvania because Biden's staff walked through the train, taking down the Ohio specific signs and putting on Pennsylvania signs this this Amtrak is making its way east.
And Mara, so we heard from some undecided voters this morning on Morning Edition. They're like unicorns, but unlike unicorns, they do actually exist, right. To exist. They exist. There's not very many of them.
You know, Frank Luntz, who does focus groups every week with about a thousand people, he estimated that only about six percent of people are truly undecided, meaning they're persuadable and about a third of them live in the competitive states. So that shows you how much of a needle in a haystack they were. But the reactions we're getting from these. Voters who who were in focus groups is really extraordinary, and in one of Frank Luntz groups, voters said that they were so turned off by the debate, it makes them not want to vote at all.
And he also asked the voters in his group to come up with adjectives to apply to each candidate. And here's just an example.
First, the adjectives for Trump cozily Jeremy un-American, Mike unhinged. Nick asked for the confidence.
Joe Classic Trump look forceful Joe from Arizona, unhinged.
Jerry pulling Jennifer arrogant zero.
That was my word. Arrogant saying how that's typical.
And then there were the adjectives for Biden. Better than expected.
Better than expected. Share a word or phrase.
I would say that he was definitely more professional than Trump. And I think he's more a people person. I really do.
Jennifer confident Jerry politician Joe from North Carolina who showed restraint and compassion.
So there you have it. And the, you know, instant polls really don't mean much. People who watched the debate said that Biden won, but winning a debate is a hard thing to measure. What happens over the next couple of days as the debate gets regurgitated and bits of it go viral. We'll see if this has the potential to move any voters at all other than to make them so disgusted. They just stay home.
And we have to say that this is such an unusual environment.
Obviously, we have two unusual candidates in their own ways and President Trump especially unusual as a modern president. The question is like, what's the theory of the case? As you always say, Mara, like what do voters actually want from their president? What the Trump campaign has said that he is forceful, he is strong, and that is what voters want. It seems like what Biden is betting on is that those words like compassion, a people person like that, is what people will vote for today.
Like I mean, what do you think of that as well?
Biden is in such a tricky position here, right? Because if he engages with the president more, he he probably turns off those those voters who are just grossed out by the entire thing. You know, it's that that, you know, whatever the adage you want, there's so many out there. But the idea of somebody is fighting dirty and you try and engage with them. It looks like you're fighting dirty, too. And I think that's why Biden continually just tried to ignore the president and speak directly to people watching on TV.
You know, talking, you know, this is important to you, the president ignoring you. But but certainly, I think those first 15 minutes where where Biden just got steamrolled by Trump didn't look great for him. And I think that's why he clearly went off the debate strategy a little with that moment of will you shut up, man? And for somebody who has such respect for the presidency as Biden does, that was really notable. But I think it sent a message that I'm going to try and ignore this person, but I'm going to stand up for myself a little bit.
You know, the theory of the case for Biden is just keep the focus on Obamacare, on the pandemic, on the things voters care about and on Donald Trump's leadership and performance. And Trump tried really hard last night to change the dynamic of the race from a referendum on him to a binary choice between him and Biden. But that depended on Biden messing up more than Biden did. All right.
Let's leave it there. Today, you can find links to keep up with the show and the episode description on however you listen to this podcast. Amisha Rosko, I cover the White House. I'm Scott to cover the presidential campaign. And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.
And thank you for listening to the NPR Politics podcast.