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Diplomacy in Action

Election 2012: State of the Race

Peter Brown, Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute
New York, NY
August 23, 2012

Teleconference Briefing,  1:00 P.M., EDT


MS. HOWARD: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the call. The Foreign Press Centers are pleased to have with us Peter Brown, the Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, one of the most influential and nonpartisan survey organizations in the country. He is a veteran political journalist and has covered 11 national political conventions and presidential campaigns from 1976 to 1996.

Mr. Brown will be discussing results of the latest Quinnipiac swing state poll conducted in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin. He’ll give us a quick overview, and then we’ll open it up for questions. Please remember that Mr. Brown’s statements and comments are his own and are not the policy of or endorsed by the U.S. Government.

And with that, I’ll turn it over to you, Peter, for a quick overview.

MR. BROWN: Thank you. I’ll briefly talk about the latest Quinnipiac/New York Times/CBS poll that was released today. It’s good news for President Obama, and it’s probably, to some degree, good news for Mitt Romney. Unlikely most times that both people can get some good news from a poll, but here’s why. President Obama is still ahead in the key states of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin. That’s good for the President. But his margin has been cut significantly in two of those three states, so I guess that’s good for Mr. Romney. Let’s go over them.

Florida, clearly the biggest swing state in the country, Mr. Obama leads Mr. Romney 49 percent to 46 percent. That three-point margin is half the six-point margin that it was when Quinnipiac polled that state on August 1st. So Mr. Romney has made some progress there; Mr. Obama is still ahead.

In Wisconsin, Mr. Obama has a 49 to 47 percent lead over Mr. Romney. That’s two points. That’s down from six points when Quinnipiac polled Wisconsin on August 8th.

In Ohio, it’s all good news for the President. He’s up six points. He was up six points on August 1st.

So the President’s numbers remain ahead. The race is a little closer in these three key states, and other polls are showing that to be the case recently in some other national and state polls. For Romney, he’s closing the gap. He still has a ways to go.

We found that Paul Ryan is getting a pretty good reception from the American people. More people like him than like Joe Biden, the man he’s running against, in terms of when voters are asked whether they view him favorably or unfavorably and asked about Biden on the same question. When they’re asked about who’s qualified to be president, a larger number of voters say Vice President Biden is. But because Mr. Ryan is unknown to many voters, among those who have an opinion of Mr. Ryan’s suitability to be president, he actually has a better ratio on that question than does Vice President Biden. And that’s pretty significant, given that you have a seven-term congressman running against a sitting Vice President.

But all of that underscores the other thing, which is historically people don’t – in the United States don’t vote for vice president; they vote for president.

On Medicare, voters think it’s worth the money. They like it the way it is. But faced with a tough budget situation, roughly six in ten say they’d be willing to have some changes, most of them minor changes.

From there, I’ll be happy to take your questions.

MS. HOWARD: Okay. So now we’re going to open up the lines for questions.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You’ll hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed in queue, and you may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. And it has been requested that you limit yourself to one question, and for additional questions you will need to queue up again.

And we do have a question from the line of Azim Mian from Geo TV.

QUESTION: Yes. Peter, can you tell me what are the other issues which could be to the advantage of Romney to take lead over the incumbent President Obama? What could be those issues which could be – which could make Obama more vulnerable and lose in the polls?

MR. BROWN: Well, what the Romney campaign needs to do is to focus on the economy. One of the things that is true is that even though the President has a small lead on – in what we call the horserace, when we ask about the economy Mr. Romney does better on the economy than he does in the horserace. Clearly, the economy is the largest issue. In fact, if you combine taxes, unemployment, and healthcare with the economy, almost nine in ten voters say those are the big issues to their decision. And they’re all economic issues.

Here’s a snapshot of what is going on. Mr. Obama is trying to convince voters that Mitt Romney is not their kind of guy, that he’s a rich dilettante who doesn’t share their values. Mr. Romney is trying to convince voters that Mr. Obama has been a poor steward of the economy and that it is his policies that are responsible for the fact that the economy has not really recovered as it traditionally has from deep recessions as the United States experienced in 19 – in – over the last several years.

OPERATOR: We have a question from Marta Torres from La Razon newspaper.

QUESTION: Hello. Good afternoon. Marta Torres from La Razon newspaper from Spain. I would like to know what you are going to be focused on this convention, given you’re an expert at conventions, if you are going to be following Romney or Paul Ryan or you are going to be paying attention on how the rest of politicians of the Republican country are going to embrace Romney. I mean, what is the most interesting thing for you at this convention?

MR. BROWN: Well, the conventions offer – first the Republicans, then the Democrats – essentially a chance to put on a television show for the American people and try to put their candidate, Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama, in the best light. So the Republicans in Tampa will spend all their energy and focus on trying to introduce Mitt Romney to voters who don’t know him and reintroduce him to those voters who may not like him. It means they’re going to try to humanize him. They’re going to talk about his business successes in the context of his life and his being a warm human being. They’re going to try to talk about his policies and the fact that he has what they say is the economic plan to change things in the United States economically.

The President will, at his convention, try to basically convince those people who voted for him last time to vote for him again. He doesn’t need to reach any new voters. He needs to make sure he hangs on to most of what he had four years ago. And so he will talk about what he sees as his record, but he will also spend a lot of time talking, likely, about Mr. Romney and why they don’t – he doesn’t think he’s the kind of guy that the American people will feel comfortable with.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the line of Christina Bergmann. Please announce your media affiliation.

QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you. DW German international broadcasting. I have a question for the upcoming convention in Tampa for the Republicans also. So what kind of shape, if you will, is the Romney-Ryan ticket in going into this convention? And yeah, what are their strengths and their weaknesses?

MR. BROWN: Well, I mean, they clearly go in their convention behind, but not that far behind. Here’s the – here’s something to think about. The real question is: Is this 1980, when you had an unpopular incumbent in Jimmy Carter and a relatively unknown challenger in Ronald Reagan? It’s easy now for us to think of Ronald Reagan as the great communicator, as one of the great presidents in American history, but in 1980 he was a West Coast governor who was not well known outside of the West except as a TV actor, so there was a lot of skepticism about his candidacy. And in fact, he trailed Jimmy Carter in the polls up until the final month of the campaign, until the very end of September.

So the question is: Are we in that situation, or are we in 2004, where a relatively unpopular President George W. Bush was able to get reelected narrowly by holding on to his lead throughout the race. Currently Mr. Obama is ahead, and the question is: Will he be able to nurse it along until November 6th? That’s what this race will be about. Obama’s ahead; Romney’s close, but he’s behind.

There are two big things coming up. The two conventions are a way for both candidates to showcase their wares, so to speak, and say, “I’m your guy, and here’s why.” Obviously, it’s – for the President, virtually every American has a view of the President. They either like him or they don’t like him. Mr. Romney’s different. He’s not that well known. Obviously, to the political class he’s well known and to people who follow politics intimately, but to an awful lot of voters, they have just begun to focus on this campaign. And so they get information from these conventions about the candidates, specifically about Mr. Romney because they know less about him going in. These two conventions are the next to last opportunity for someone like Romney to turn his ship around.

The last opportunity, obviously, will be the presidential debates, which are hugely high-stakes battles and will take place in October.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Vanya Bellinger from Capital Bulgaria.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask you to talk about – more about the impact of negative campaign ads and if they seem to influence the polls. Thank you.

MR. BROWN: Voters say they don’t like negative campaign ads. They may not, but they respond to them. This campaign, perhaps, has reached a new level in negativity, but it’s not different than what we’ve seen in the past, just more of it. Negative campaign ads work. What we find over the years is that campaigns that expose flaws in the candidate made by the other candidate tend to win them voters. Now, the candidate that launches the negative attack sometimes gets some mud on themselves, but overall, negative campaign ads work. Voters say they don’t, but they do.

It’s pretty simple. We’ve seen huge numbers of commercials. You people are in New York, where you don’t see them because neither campaign is wasting their money on New York, New Jersey or Connecticut. But I, for instance, live in Florida, and I see more television commercials than I can possibly want. Same is true in Ohio and Virginia, in Wisconsin. All over in the key states, voters see huge numbers of television commercials, many of them – often most of them – negative about the other guy.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question comes from Joyce Karam from Al Hayat.

QUESTION: I actually wanted to ask you how are the two candidates doing with the independent voters. And if I can just throw another question here, how much does Romney need to win in the Latino vote to actually, like, win in November?

MR. BROWN: Well, there’s an interesting dynamic on the Latino vote. In 2004, the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, got about 60 percent of the Latino vote. In 2008, President Obama got about 70 percent, a little less than 70 percent of the Latino vote. The big question is what happens this time and where they are on that scale. If the President can match or even do better among Latinos than he did four years ago, that’s a big deal.

There are key Latino populations in a significant number of states that are considered key swing battlegrounds. Florida has a fairly significant Latino population, more so than any other swing states, but Virginia has a Latino population; there’s a growing one in Ohio. In many states that traditionally did not have not large Latino populations, you’re seeing an increase in those populations now all over the country, but including swing states like Iowa or Wisconsin, that you’re seeing more Latino people in the electorate – or in the state. The question is what percentage they will be of the electorate. The question is how big their turnout will be, and that’s an open question. But at this point, the President’s doing pretty well among Latinos.

You asked about independents. In this poll, actually Mr. Romney is doing pretty well among independents. But it ebbs and flows. Obviously there are more people who think they’re Democrats than think they’re Republicans, so in order to win, Romney also has to win independents, not just Republicans.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Yashwant Raj from Hindu Times.

QUESTION: Thanks, Peter. You said Mr. Romney is improving his numbers in Wisconsin and Florida. What would you attribute that to? And the second related question would be: Do you think he can sustain this, and for how long? Can he take it right to the polls? Thank you.

MR. BROWN: Well, I mean, that’s – what you’re asking basically is, can he win? Yeah. He could lose, too. Again, he’s behind, but not behind by that much. Sometimes campaigns don’t matter. Fall campaign in this one is going to matter because they’re close enough that Romney could win. Today he would not.

What was your first question? I’m sorry. It went out of my mind. There was the first part of that you asked that I forgot.

QUESTION: Yeah. To what would you attribute the reason for –

MR. BROWN: Oh, right.

QUESTION: -- Romney improving his numbers in Florida and Wisconsin?

MR. BROWN: Well, it’s hard to know exactly, because we don’t ask that of people. When they tell us they’re for, we don’t ask them why. It would be reasonable in Wisconsin to suppose that the selection of Ryan has helped. We asked voters whether they approved of Ryan’s job supporter – job performance. We asked Wisconsin voters – and they did – Ryan rates pretty well not just in Wisconsin but in the other swing states. So I think Ryan is clearly part of it. It’s hard to know exactly and – because the movement’s not that large. But Ryan gets at least some credit for this.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Marta Torres from La Razon newspaper.

QUESTION: Thank you. I would like to ask you what you expect from Marco Rubio’s speech – I think it’s on Thursday – given he was one of the options to be vice president with Romney and he’s going to deliver a speech in his home state.

MR. BROWN: Well, I assume that – one of the things about American politics is that it’s never too early. It’s worth remembering that Bill Clinton gave a key speech at the Democratic Convention in 1988, which actually was panned widely by everybody, but it exposed him more to the American people. And four years later, he got to be the presidential nominee and the President. Barack Obama gave a key speech in the 2004 convention for the Democrats, and that charmed large numbers of voters, especially Democratic activists, and that had a lot to do with his being able to run for President and winning 2008 as he got launched in 2004. Conventions are typically launching pads for politicians for future races, and this might well be the case for Mr. Rubio.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

MR. BROWN: You’re welcome.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, once again, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1 at this time on your touchtone phone.

And we do have a question from Xavier Vila from Catalunya Radio.

QUESTION: Hi. How are you? I would like to know if you share the assessment that it’s been written around in the sense that if Barack Obama wins Ohio, it’s well enough him as to win the general election.

MR. BROWN: It would be very difficult for Mitt Romney to win the White House without Ohio. No Republican has ever be