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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

State of the Race for the Presidency

Kyle Kondike, University of Virginia Center for Politics
Tampa, Florida
August 27, 2012

4:00 P.M. EDT


MODERATOR: I’m pleased to introduce – we have two speakers this afternoon from the University of Virginia Center for Politics. We have Kyle Kondike, who is the communications director, who provides extensive analysis of American campaigns and elections, and Geoff Skelly, who is the media relations coordinator, and he helps manages the Center’s communication and assists in the daily operations of their Center’s Crystal Ball newsletter. So we’re going to ask them to look into their crystal ball and talk about what is going to happen in election 2012.

So Kyle and Geoff, can I invite you to the podium?

PARTICIPANT: Hi there. I just want to thank the State Department for having us today. So I’m going to give a little brief overview of the – what we see in the election right now, talk about the presidential race, the House, and the Senate. I plan to be pretty brief, and then we’ll just open it up to questions.

So the presidential race is extremely close right now, and you probably didn’t need me to tell you that. But a lot of times in American elections you’ll see things, at this point, sort of breaking one way or the other in the election, and that really is not the case in this one so far.

Just one of the things we do at the Center for Politics is we do this newsletter called The Crystal Ball. It comes out every Thursday, and we will sometimes highlight sort of political science models and that sort of thing to try to give us an idea of what’s going on in the election. And then one that we prominently feature is by a professor down at Emory University in Atlanta named Alan Ambramowitz. And Alan’s model shows Obama getting 50.5 percent of the two-party – just Democratic and Republican vote – and 49.5 percent for Mitt Romney. That essentially tells us that the race is a toss up, because the model’s not perfect, and so it could go one way or the other. But we’re looking at an election that’s probable 51, 49, that sort of thing. Now granted, a lot of things can happen that could change that, but for the time being that’s sort of where we’re looking at.

A couple of sort of the numbers I think to look at in gauging what may happen for the presidential race are as follows. One of the things that’s historically important is a president’s approval rating. Typically, if a president is over 50, they’re going to get reelected. Well, the President right now, based on the polling averages, is at 48 percent, I think 47.9 as of a few hours ago. It changes all the time. That means that he’s sort of in the kind of danger zone or getting reelected or not getting reelected. If he was at 45 or below, he probably wouldn’t get reelected. But – so the approval rating can kind of correlate to how he’s going to do in the national vote. Obviously, the economy plays a big role in American elections. And one number for the President is particularly troubling, and that is the second quarter growth in gross domestic product. In that, that was just 1.5 percent in the second quarter, from April through June. However, sometimes this election is compared to 1980, when Jimmy Carter lost overwhelmingly. His second quarter GDP was negative 7.9, which was way, way worse than – obviously way, way worse than what it is today. So I think a president would like to be at 3 percent or so, but he’s not, but he’s also not at a horrible number like Carter was in 1980.

Another number to look at is – it may be that we – political science people generally look at elections as – sometimes as what we call econo-centric, as in the state of the economy determines who wins or who loses. That may not be the case this time, because there may not be any sort of actual issue that determines what happens; it may just be the kind of who shows up at the polls on November 6th.

And so one other important number to look at in the presidential race is 26 percent. What is 26 percent? That is – 26 percent was the participation by nonwhite voters in 2008. The number – and that’s based on the exit polls that are conducted at – during elections. If that number is over 26 percent in this election, Obama’s probably got a pretty good change to win. If it’s under that, Obama probably doesn’t. The reason is is that 80 percent of nonwhite voters will probably vote for Obama. And so for every nonwhite voter that comes out, that’s basically a vote for Obama, and every time that’s a nonwhite voter it’s lesser of a chance that that person will vote for Obama. So a lot of it is just kind of demographics and who shows up.

So those are just a few of the little things that are worth considering as you – if you look at a poll and maybe you look at what the poll – what the composition of the race breakdown was in that poll. If it’s a smaller number it probably is a pro-Romney poll. If it’s a bigger number, it’s probably a pro-Obama poll. And trying to figure out what that number will be on election day may very well help determine or help figure out who’s going to win.

But – so just very briefly, I just wanted to give you those – a few of those numbers, but also to say that we don’t really know what the turnout’s going to look like, and the only thing we really know is that the presidential election is, again, super close.

I wanted to touch briefly on the House and the Senate. Not much to say about the House. The Republicans are, I would say, 90 percent – I’d say with kind of 90 percent confidence that the Republicans would keep control of the U.S. House. They would need to win a net total of 25 seats to capture it. It looks more like – I’m sorry, the Democrats would have to capture 25 net seats to win the House. It looks like the Democrats may pick up five to ten, which obviously would get them a little bit closer, but wouldn’t actually give them control of the U.S. House.

And the U.S. Senate – I think the best bet right now would probably be for the Senate to be split exactly 50-50, with whoever the Vice President is breaking the tie. Could be 51-49 either way, and if there are particular races that you’re interested in, happy to talk about those.

But – so I think what we’re looking at is a pretty close presidential result, probably at the end of the day a very close Senate, maybe even a tied Senate, and probably a Republican House. So that’s sort of where we’re at with the election. And I promised I would be brief so we could take your questions, so --

QUESTION: Thank you. (Inaudible) newspaper. We’re always told that foreign policy is a marginal factor in the U.S. election. How do you assess actually the impact of a possible U.S. intervention, for example, in Syria or anything happening with Israel and Iran on the U.S. election? Thank you.

PARTICIPANT: I think at this point it’s difficult to say how that would play into it. I think, before knowing any of the specifics, almost any foreign policy situation creates an opportunity for President Obama to try to strengthen his position, because obviously he doesn’t want to run on the economy, because it’s not in particularly great shape. A foreign policy disaster or crisis of some kind would give him an opportunity to look presidential, to take the lead on something. Of course, if Americans start dying, if we put boots on the ground in Syria or something like that, that can obviously weigh negatively. But I think a foreign policy – a major foreign policy crisis or situation would – could possibly alter the dynamics.

PARTICIPANT: Let me just add something real quick, and that is that, as you sort of alluded to in your question, foreign policy has been sort of – there’s been no discussion of foreign policy in this campaign, which I think is kind of a shame, because I do think that the two candidates have very different views as to the use of American power abroad, and those are the sorts of thing that I think should be talked about, and I think they will in at least in one of the presidential debates. I think one of them in particular is focused on foreign policy. But the American people aren’t – don’t – also don’t seem to be demanding information on that, but again, I think that that’s kind of – I think that’s sort of a conversation we need to have, because the candidates are not the same on foreign policy questions.

QUESTION: Thank you. (Inaudible) DW German Broadcasting. I have a question about the Tea Party and the Republican Party. How – what kind of influence does the Tea Party have these days? How is the GOP – do they integrate them? Do they ignore them? If you could elaborate a little bit on that. Thank you very much.

PARTICIPANT: When people say the Tea Party, it’s not – it’s a hard thing to define, because there’s not a – it’s not like a third – it’s not like it’s own political party. It’s just a – I would say a conservative wing of the Republican Party. And we have seen, quote, “Tea Party” candidates win primaries in this election cycle. Ted Cruz in Texas is a good example. He won a Senate primary against the lieutenant governor of Texas, David Dewhurst. That was sort of – that was seen as a classic sort of in insider establishment candidate, Dewhurst, versus outsider Tea Party in Cruz. And the, quote, “Tea Party” has had sort of a mixed record this cycle in winning primaries. Cruz was a victory for the Tea Party, the victory about Richard Mourdock in Indiana over Senator Dick Lugar, who’d been in the Senate for a very long time.

But then, for instance, in Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago, we had Tommy Thompson win the primary, and – for – there, and Thompson is a former four-term governor of Wisconsin, a former Bush Administration cabinet official, and he was not liked by the, quote, “Tea Party” or the sort of outsider or anti-establishment wing of the party, and yet he managed to win. Part of it was because it was a four-way primary, and so he only had to get 30-some percent of the vote. But I think we’ll continue to see that sort of insider/outsider dynamic at least in Republican primaries.

But here’s one thing. The presidential candidate Mitt Romney is not a Tea Party person or is not typically identified as a Tea Party person. And so in the biggest contest of all, I would say that the candidate who was most establishment in the Republican Party is the one who actually won. So I would say the record for the Tea Party or the larger anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party – some victories, but some defeats too.

QUESTION: Martin (inaudible) U.S. correspondent for a newspaper in Denmark. You didn’t mention the electoral college at all. You say this is a very close race. Well, it doesn’t really count much 51, 49. I mean, it’s all about the seven, eight, nine, ten swing states.

PARTICIPANT: You are right, technically, in the fact that there’s been a lot of coverage, obviously, of the swing states. And in our system, the electoral college – right now we have eight states as toss-ups, and you’re right, that they will get one or the other candidates to 270 electoral votes to win or a 269-269 tie, which would be interesting, to say the least.

But I th ink, generally speaking, only – was it twice? – I think twice in U.S. history has the candidate that won the popular vote not won the electoral college – well, won a majority or plurality. So I think the odds are that at the end of the day whoever wins the popular vote will probably win the electoral college. Of course, obviously we have the recent example of 2000, and that is going to be on everyone’s minds as we move closer, if the polls remain as close as they seem to be, but the odds of that happening are still small.

PARTICIPANT: Just to give you a run down of what the actual – what we kind of consider the toss-up states to be, we have – on our website, The Crystal Ball website, we have our sort of projection as to what the electoral college looks like right now. And so how we do it is we have 237 electoral votes sort of leaning or safe for Barack Obama; we have 206 in the Romney column; and then we have 95 as toss-up, meaning we’re not ready to lean it one way or the other. Those eight states are Colorado, Florida – where we are right now – Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

And Wisconsin we just – we – our organization just decided to move Wisconsin into the toss-up column. Part of that was because Paul Ryan was selected as vice president, and he, of course, is from Wisconsin, and so that has actually changed the polls in Wisconsin to the point where the President’s only up by a couple of points or so at this point.

So those are the states we think are watching. Other ones that – for instance, North Carolina is very close, but we have that leaning to Romney because historically it’s Republican. Pennsylvania and Michigan are ones that we have leaning toward Obama but could be close, too.

QUESTION: Just out of – Jose Carena (ph) with (inaudible) Newspaper of Mexico. Just out of curiosity, what does – in terms of the electoral college, what does Paul Ryan brings to the formula? And what is the message in terms of – does it means that the Republicans are abandoning efforts to attract minorities? What is the meaning of that?

PARTICIPANT: I would say generally that the Paul Ryan pick was – could be seen more as a governing pick by Mitt Romney. I think it kind of gives us an idea of where he wants to go as president, because if he was looking for someone who would perhaps not be quite as controversial as Ryan, he probably would have picked someone like Tim Pawlenty or Rob Portman of Ohio. So I think his pick was a governing pick, but I also think it was a pick to fire up the base.

And I think the way we look at this election is that there aren’t a lot of persuadable voters out there at this point. Most people have made up their minds whether they’re going to vote for Barack Obama or whether they’re going to vote for Mitt Romney. So with the small number of independent – truly independent – voters that have made up their minds, this elections is about turning out your base. And Paul Ryan really gets conservatives going. They really like him. He definitely energizes them. So I think that was the electoral side of that.

As for how Ryan affects the electoral college, again, I think he just helps turn out the base on election day. He may help in the Midwest. He’s obviously from Wisconsin. So in a place like Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, you can see him – you’ll probably see him spend the most time in places like that on the campaign trail.

So I don’t know if you have anything to add.

PARTICIPANT: There’s kind of limited political science research on what a vice presidential candidate is actually worth in a given state or in a given election. There’s some indication that your average running mate might be worth one, two, three percentage points of the vote in a given state. So maybe Ryan adds a few points in Wisconsin, and in a very close race Wisconsin was decided by less than half a percentage point in the close 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, although it went for Al Gore, the Democrat in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

So Ryan may be worth something in Wisconsin, and if he delivers Wisconsin, I think it would be (a) it would be a surprise, and (b) it would be seen as sort of a political masterstroke by Romney if that actually happened. And I do think that when you sort of look at some of these electoral college scenarios, I think Obama really needs to win Wisconsin, and so I think Wisconsin sort of is still kind of leaning toward Obama, but if Romney can snatch it away, that could be the decisive state on election day.

QUESTION: Yeah. I’m just (inaudible) newspaper. I have a question about the – I would like to know how you look on the issue of mobilization in the clearly red and blue states, because I keep hearing from American citizens that we don’t feel like voting in those states, because their vote doesn’t make any difference. I’m thinking of Texas, of Maryland. How do you look on this issue? Thank you.

PARTICIPANT: So sometimes in these states that don’t matter – I mean, actually really, probably – I mean, they matter, but there’s no question as to which candidate they’re going to support. I mean, I think that on our chart, we have between 35 and 40 states where the outcome is basically already known, and so sometimes, for instance, I can imagine Republicans finding Republicans in Maryland to bus across the border into Virginia to knock on doors. And actually, the parties have technology now where you can go onto a website, and they’ll just give you phone numbers, and you can just make phone calls from your cell phone to voters in some other state as like a mobilization tool. But you’re not going to see television advertisements in most of the states – California or Texas or New York State or what have you. And you’re not going to see field offices in those states either, where you actually have a building where volunteers come and you have paid staffers to go knock on doors, et cetera. But you’re going to see a saturation, obviously, in the 10 to 12 states that matter, of course, Florida being right near the top of the list.

QUESTION: I am (inaudible) from (inaudible) Argentina. How many independents do you think are left, given the polarization that exists today in the United States?

PARTICIPANT: Based on looking at things like the national election survey over the last couple elections, there are probably somewhere between 5 to 8 percent of the population is really, truly independent. At this point – Gallup had a poll in January that showed that 40 percent of the American electorate identified itself as independent, but that’s misleading. Most of those people actually are partisan, but they just – look at Congress. It has like a 9 percent approval rating. Politics in this country at the moment is so divided that people are not necessarily happy to say, “Oh, I’m a Republican,” or “Oh, I’m a Democrat.”

But at the end of the day, sometimes these people they happen to like – oh, I always vote Democratic, but they consider themselves independent. Well, in our lay of the land, you’re a Democrat if you voted for a Democrat three or four – a number of times in a row or always. So really you have 5 to 8 percent probably of the electorate is truly independent. And a problem for both campaigns is that those voters are usually the least informed and the least engaged. So some of that percentage won’t even show up on election day. So again, that’s why we see this as pretty much a base election, because the people who are most engaged are the people who are on either side.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) from Aftenposten Oslo. What can you say about the young voters? In 2008 they voted overwhelmingly for Obama. During the primary campaign, we saw that this young man Ron Paul was the hero for the youngsters. What happens among them? Will they be (inaudible) this election?

PARTICIPANT: I think there’s no question that young voters are less enthusiastic about the election than they were in 2008. We have an economy that’s pretty tepid right now, and unemployment among young people is much higher than just the national average. So there aren’t a lot of reasons for young people to be particularly energized like they were in 2008.

At the same time, polling so far has shown that Obama still leads among young people. The amounts vary. So we can expect Obama to win voters between the ages of 18 and 29. It’s just a question of by how much. And obviously, the more Romney cuts into that, the better it is for him. (Inaudible) could tell you what that percentage is going to be, but I think odds are there won’t be as high a turnout among 18 to 29 year-olds as there was last time, and Obama probably won’t do quite as well.

QUESTION: What was the young person turnout in 2008?


QUESTION: Was it 18?

PARTICIPANT: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

QUESTION: And wasn’t it 17 in 2004?

PARTICIPANT: Yeah. I mean, it’s not like –

PARTICIPANT: One thing to think about with young voters is that exit polling in 2008 – and this is from memory, so I apologize. You might want to check the numbers. The exit polls are all available online. But young voters made up 18 percent of the total voting – the universe of voters in 2008. It was 17 percent in 2004, so it wasn’t – we have the sense, I think, that there was this overwhelming growth in the youth vote in 2008. And there – I mean, there was. There was – certainly, it was a younger electorate than in 2004. But it wasn’t overwhelmingly so. I mean, it’s – it could almost be kind of a rounding error in the exit polling numbers. And so like I said, I’m not saying that the youth vote wasn’t important in 2008, but I think it’s also overstated as to how big the youth vote actually was in 2008 compared to previous years.

One thing to note about turnout, just very quickly, is that in both 2008 and in 2004, turnout among basically – people who are eligible to vote over 18 was over 60 percent. In many number of elections before that, it was below 60. And generally speaking, it seems like turnout – if turnout’s higher, it’s probably better for the Democrats, and so that’s something also to watch on election day.

PARTICIPANT: Oh, and kind of reiterating something he said earlier, I think we’re going to look at young voters and that’s important, but I – the nonwhite vote is actually just – basically, in everything we look at, you can almost – as you said earlier, you can almost guarantee that if Romney’s leading noticeably in a national poll, it’s a much whiter electorate that they’ve polled and – or waited for. And if Obama’s leading noticeably, it’s a much less white. It’s kind of uncanny. So --

PARTICIPANT: Yeah. I mean, there’s a definite racial aspect, I think, to American politics especially now, in which you have – essentially, Romney’s – Mitt Romney’s path to victory is to win a almost historically high percentage of the white vote, and then Obama’s job is essentially to get – is to get minorities to come out at a higher rate. And so you sort of – you’re seeing this very polarized electorate that – I mean, I think American – Americans have always kind of been polarized to a certain extent on racial lines, but it’s becoming more pronounced, I think, as we go forward here with Democrats more solidly attracting not just African Americans who traditionally have voted Democratic, but also Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans, et cetera, all being pretty overwhelmingly Democratic on their – in their presidential voting.

QUESTION: Can you talk about education level?

PARTICIPANT: Oh, sure, yeah. So she asked about education level. Generally speaking, there are a lot of different ways to look at this, but the President’s worst demographic essentially is whites who don’t have a college education, and that – historically, that’s a switch from how it used to be, because Democrats were more of – seen as the kind of blue collar, kind of working person’s party. But now, it’s – now, college-educated folks are more likely to vote Democratic than – or, I’m sorry, white college-educated people are more likely to vote Democratic than white non-college-educated people.

Now of course, minorities of all stripes are voting pretty overwhelming Democratic, but you do see that kind of college divide on the Democratic side. And it sort of suggests problems for both parties in that the Democrats, which is – Democrats are historically the – kind of the party of the working person, and yet they’re sort of losing those voters. And the Republicans are sort of seen as the party of the affluent in a certain – to a certain degree, and yet some of – some subsets of those affluent voters are voting for Democrats. And so it presents problems, I think, for both parties, and also opportunities to try to cut into those different groups. But in particular, just kind of rural white voters just don’t really – generally are not supporting the President. And I think some of that is race, but some of it is also policy-based.

And also, there’s a – kind of a cultural aspect to it too, in that over the past few generations, Democrats have lost a lot of – sort of more conservative white voters who may agree with them on economic policy but don’t agree with liberal positions on abortion rights or on – liberal positions on gay rights. And we don’t – we do and we don’t talk about social issues a lot. Obviously in this election, it’s a lot about the economy, but I think party ID in many ways in this country is sort of driven by if you’re conservative on social issues, you got to be in the Republican Party, and if you’re liberal on social issues, you feel like you’ve got to be in the Democratic Party. And those are important issues in determining which party you’re going to be in.

MODERATOR: Any other questions?

PARTICIPANT: Oh, and just kind of as a related note, just to give you an example of how, like, the education can – of the electorate can matter, if you look at Ohio and Virginia, for instance – two very important swing states – Ohio has a much larger percentage of white voters who have no college education. So if we’re looking at a really close election, perhaps that’s an indication that at the end of the day, maybe Romney will end up winning in a very close election in Ohio because of that factor. Whereas in Virginia, you have a much larger percentage of white college-educated voters, and Obama did noticeably better among them than he did whites with no college education in Virginia in 2008. So perhaps in a very close election, that little point could be the difference-maker for Obama in Virginia.

PARTICIPANT: One other little demographic point, and that is that for as well as President Obama did in the 2008 election – it was the best performance by a Democratic presidential candidate in 40 years since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 – he only won 43 percent of the white vote in 2008. And one of the other numbers – I mentioned the 26 percent number about minority participation in the electorate – another important number is whether Obama can get – he got 43 percent of the white vote last time. Is he at 40 – can he get to 40 percent this time? Or if it’s lower than 40 percent, that might be an indication that he’s losing.

These are things to look at when you – if you get a chance to look at a poll and you – they’ll sometimes break it down into – good polls will do this. They’ll break it down into, okay, what is the poll – what do the white voters in this poll say. And if it’s 35 – if Obama’s only getting 35 percent amongst the white voters, that’s a pretty bad sign for him because he probably needs to get closer to 40 in order to win.

So again, those are – demographics, as we’ve been talking about, are really important in this election, probably more so than – there’s this day-to-day reporting about a candidate will say something stupid about whatever – the President will say, “You didn’t build this,” or Romney’s advisor will say that his positions are an Etch A Sketch or all of these things that you’ve heard about. I don’t think those are the things that move voters. I think that the larger economic questions move voters, but also it may just be a sense that people are very locked in on their beliefs, and it’s just a question of – how many of each group decide to vote could end up determining what the election is. And then it’s not really about issues at all, it’s just about who shows up. So --

MODERATOR: Are there any more questions? (No response.)

All right. With that, please help me thank Kyle Kondike and Geoff Skelley for a very informative presentation. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

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