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Politics In The News: Debate Prep

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will face off again this week in their third and last presidential debate. This time it will be in Las Vegas on Wednesday. Over the weekend, Donald Trump again raised the idea that this election is being rigged against him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: It looks to me like a rigged election. The election is being rigged by corrupt media pushing completely false allegations and outright lies in an effort to elect her president.

GREENE: On Sunday, his running mate, Mike Pence, seemed to be dialing back that talk on NBC's "Meet The Press."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

MIKE PENCE: But as Donald Trump said in that first debate and I'll say to you again today, we're going to accept the will of the American people.

GREENE: All right, all of this comes as Trump continues to defend himself against a series of allegations of sexual assault, which he strenuously denies. And despite the allegations, some polls show this race still very close, within a handful of points. And for more on this week ahead in politics, we're joined, as we are most Mondays, by commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: And with me here in the studio is Mollie Hemingway. She's a senior editor at the conservative news site The Federalist. Mollie, thanks for coming in.

MOLLIE HEMINGWAY: Good morning.

GREENE: So let me start with you, Mollie. Is this election being rigged?

HEMINGWAY: Whenever Republicans would vote against Donald Trump in the primary, he would say that the election was rigged. So sometimes it seems like rigged language is code for, I'm losing or, I have lost. He's also used language at other times, though, most notably after the initial WikiLeaks release showed that Democrats had rigged their primary to benefit Hillary Clinton. He got some mileage out of talking about how that was rigged. And now he seems really to be talking about how the media are putting their hands on the scale of this election. How they are focused on...

GREENE: And that's something you have written about, Mollie. I mean, suggesting the media is putting their hand - what do you mean by that? What is the evidence that the media is doing something here?

HEMINGWAY: Well, I think it's - it would be hard to argue that the media have been impartial in this race. They clearly have - they're very emotional about Donald Trump's candidacy. They are very invested in Hillary Clinton winning. And they're letting that color some of their news judgment in how they talk about the issues at play, not just on policy issues but particularly with the various troubles that Donald Trump has with women.

GREENE: Cokie, do you agree with that?

ROBERTS: Look, it's very - well, hold on, David. It's very, very different to say that the media is biased and - or to say that the Democratic National Committee had a favorite candidate than to say that the election is rigged at the precinct level and that votes are being unfairly counted or unfairly cast. That is a very different charge, and that is the charge that Donald Trump is making. In fact, when Mike Pence tried to pull it back, as you just heard in that clip, Trump then tweeted, the election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary but also at many polling places.

And AP has learned that a third of Republicans - only a third - believes that their votes will be counted fairly. Now, that's really a dangerous situation to be putting forward. You have heard, David, in some of the voter interviews you've done and that Steve has done, of people talking about revolution after this election. This is just - this is revving up a view that the election will not be legitimate. And that is something very foreign to the American political process. And the...

GREENE: But does Mollie have a point that the media seems to be biased in some way?

ROBERTS: It doesn't matter.

GREENE: It doesn't matter.

ROBERTS: I mean, it - that's not the point. That's - the point - when you're talking about a rigged election, you're talking about something that is telling voters that it's all unfair, and that is really a very dangerous thing to do.

HEMINGWAY: Well, both parties have talked about the election being rigged. You had Harry Reid send a letter to the FBI director saying he was concerned that Russia was controlling the election. You had Politico and Washington Post writing stories about how hackers could tip the election. And you remember that the Department of Homeland Security floated the idea that they might need to be in charge of state voting systems because they were worried about this.

So I think sometimes concern about rigging can be overblown. We live in an era of hacking, and we're worried about outsider control. And so I think both - there is concern about electoral security. And, in fact, a third of all voters say that they're worried about electoral security. It is a majority for Donald Trump voters. But it's something that journalists should just report rather than freak out over.

GREENE: Let me move on. Cokie, it's been a terrible time for Donald Trump with many of these allegations, but some of these polls still remain pretty tight. Why do you think that is?

ROBERTS: Because the country is deeply, deeply partisan. And you have essentially half of the people who are going to vote Republican no matter what and half of the people who are going to vote Democratic no matter what. Now, it's not exactly 50 percent. And that's Donald Trump's problem. His ceiling, at the moment, seems to be about 43, 44 percent. And since Hillary Clinton's percentages are running ahead of that, that is not something that is working for him. But his problem continues to be primarily among women. In the NBC poll out yesterday, he was down 20 points among women. And, of course, all of these allegations, which he does deny - it's now nine women who have come forward to say that he has in some way assaulted them - is clearly not helping. And two-thirds of the people in the ABC poll say that this is a legitimate issue.

David, what's really striking to me, though, is the outpouring that this has caused. I mean, there's now the hashtag, #notok of women - thousands and thousands of women - talking about how they have been affected by this kind of behavior and total strangers coming up to me in the airport the other day and telling me their stories. And so I think that this - there's something going on here that is well beyond the political story of women just suddenly feeling free to talk about how this is something that's not OK.

GREENE: Mollie, is Trump basically lost when it comes to picking up women voters as we get close here?

HEMINGWAY: Well, Donald Trump was already struggling with women voters before this latest onslaught of allegations. And it - what's interesting is really that it's not affecting him more. It could be because women aren't already siding with him. But the most recent evidence suggests that most people actually don't care that much about these allegations in terms of it changing their vote.

It does speak to how much of an unlikable candidate Hillary Clinton is that she hasn't been able to put this away by even more. And also I think that people are missing that there are issues that motivate voters this election that are not being covered well. This is a change election. And people are very frustrated with the status quo. And I think that's what's keeping it close.

GREENE: Cokie, look forward to the debate for us. We only have a couple seconds left.

ROBERTS: (Laughter) Well, I think that Mollie's right. If Donald Trump is able to talk about change and the issues of trade and immigration, the places where people like him in this debate, maybe he can pick up some traction again. But so far, he hasn't been able to stick to the issues and just make it clear that he's the candidate people want. Whatever happens in this debate, we know "Saturday Night Live" will have a good time with it (laughter).

GREENE: (Laughter) All right, Cokie Roberts and Mollie Hemingway, thank you both so much.

HEMINGWAY: Thank you.

GREENE: And as we mentioned, the next presidential debate is Wednesday night at 9 Eastern time, live coverage on many NPR stations, and we will be doing live fact-checking at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.