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Diplomacy in Action

Presidential Matchup Results from Swing State Surveys of Likely Voters in Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin

Peter Brown, Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute
Washington, DC
September 19, 2012

11:00 A.M. EDT


MS. STEVENSON: Okay. For those of you who do not know me, I’m Susan Stevenson, the Director here at the Foreign Press Center, and I’m very pleased and very appreciative for such short notice that we’ve got Peter Brown here with us today, who is the Assistant Director at the Quinnipiac University – or Polling Institute at Quinnipiac University. And they have a new poll hot off the presses, so Peter is straight from the National Press Club, came right down to talk to you today about the polling results.

Andrew, are we going to have the operator, or can we go right into this?

MR. LEWIS: (Off mike.)

MS. STEVENSON: Okay. Well, I’m going to cede the podium to Peter, and we will wait to see.

OPERATOR: (Off mike.)

MR. BROWN: Good morning. Hi. I’m Peter Brown. I’m the Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. We are releasing one of our series of swing state polls today. This involves Virginia, Wisconsin, and Colorado. Quinnipiac does swing state packages. We also do a number of other states.

What we’re finding is the President has a four-point lead in Virginia, he was a one-point lead in Colorado, and a five-point lead, I believe, in Wisconsin – excuse me, a six-point lead in Wisconsin. These are not big changes, for the most part, since the last time Quinnipiac polled these states. In Virginia, the President’s lead is now four instead of two. In Colorado, actually, the President had been behind by five the last time Quinnipiac polled that state. Now he’s up one. And in Wisconsin, he’s up six. He used to be up two the last time we polled, and that was shortly after Paul Ryan’s selection as vice president.


MS. STEVENSON: So we’ll be asking questions in the room, and then we’ll go to the phones. I’m sorry. Can you wait for a microphone?

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Mounzer Sleiman with Al Mayadeen TV based in Beirut, Lebanon. About other swing states too, if there is anything? And what do you attribute this Wisconsin situation? Because Ryan should have provided boost for – you said it was from two points to six points, despite --

MR. BROWN: Right. The implication is that Ryan provided the boost when it was two points and that balances tend to ebb and fade. You can make the argument that Romney got a bounce in Wisconsin out of the selection of Ryan, but that’s old news now. Just as candidly, the President of the United States had a bounce of out his convention, but you’re seeing – not ours, but other national polls now showing his lead coming down. So that – bounces go up and down. Wisconsin’s a leaning Democratic state. Obviously Ryan’s presence on the ticket has given the Republicans hopes that they can make it a competitive state. It’s competitive, but the President still has a lead there and a little bit better lead than he had or bigger lead than he had three weeks ago.

But the problem with trying to figure out where you are in presidential race is how you focus and what you focus on. Because all polls (a) are not created equally, and two, polls are not taken at the same time so that events influence public opinion, for want of a better way of putting it. After the Democratic Convention, the President clearly got a boost in the national polls. There were six or seven percent lead in some places. If you look at Gallup, for instance, it’s now come down to three, I believe, or two so that – but swing states may or may not be more Obama or less Obama than nationally. In some places, he’s doing a little better. I mean, in Virginia, for instance, we have the President up four points, and I saw yesterday the Post has him up eight. Obviously there’s some differences in our polls, in our methodology, but both of us think that the President’s ahead in Virginia, a state that until four years ago hadn’t voted a Republican for president since 1964.

It – in campaigns, the state of the race is a moving target, and it’s hard to make sweeping generalities. Here’s the generality I can make. If the election were today, Barack Obama would win the election. But it’s not today; it’s 45 days from today. And so he’s ahead, not by a lot, but he’s ahead.

QUESTION: (Off mike.)

MR. BROWN: Well, again, we have not polled recently in Ohio and Florida. We – when we did, he had a five or six – I think he had a five or six-point lead in Ohio and a two or three-point lead in Florida. But again, that was August 23rd. That’s almost a month ago. One would think he’s probably still ahead, but that’s the supposition, just based on the fact that the national polls haven’t moved that much so that you’d think it’d be – his lead would be relatively stable. In other words, there’s been no macro event that’s really changed the playing field. The President’s ahead by a little. That’s – it was true before the conventions, it’s true now.

He now only has 45 days to go, however, as opposed to having more than that. At the risk of using an American sports analogy, which may or may not be lost on some of you, it’s the fourth quarter of the football game, and the President has a small lead, and he’s trying to run out the clock, because if the status quo remains, he wins. That’s good strategy. I guess there’s a soccer analogy, but I’m –

MS. STEVENSON: Okay. We’ll take one more question in the room before we go to the telephone.

QUESTION: My name is Fouad Arif for the Moroccan News Agency. We have such a plethora of polls nowadays that it seems to me that we need to have a poll on the reliability of polls themselves. What do you make of the poll that said that no president ever was able to be reelected with an unemployment rate --

MR. BROWN: Well, that’s not a poll. That’s just looking at history.

QUESTION: Yeah. What do you make of that?

MR. BROWN: It’s true, until it’s not. I mean, that’s what history tells us, that no president has been reelected with an unemployment rate over whatever it is, which – and clearly the rate is over that. And history says that what has happened. And we’ll find out. And that is true, and it’ll be true until – if the President does – gets reelected. If he doesn’t get reelected, then it will continue to be accurate. If he does get reelected, obviously there’ll be an exception to that rule, but that’s not really a poll.

Now, you make a good point about the plethora of polls that seem – some complement each other or conflict with each other, and that’s because discrimination is allowed in looking at polls. Not all polls are created equal. And therefore, it’s up to you to decide which ones you think are valid and which ones are not. And by polls, I mean not all polls are being – I mean p-o-l-l-s, not people from the Eastern European country. (Laughter.)

MS. STEVENSON: All right. We’ll go to the – okay, you want to one more and then --

MR. BROWN: I’ll do --

MS. STEVENSON: One more in the room, and then we’ll go to the telephone.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Xavier Vila with public radio in Spain. I would like to know if you could elaborate on where did you poll in Virginia. Here on the other side of the river or down south in Richmond? When did this happen? Because lately, Mr. Romney has (inaudible) and this new video that may change the events. And the last question would be if you think that generally, most folks think that the country’s in the wrong track but they’re going to vote for Obama anyway.

MR. BROWN: When we do a poll, we do a random sample of the residents of the place we’re polling – in this case, the state of Virginia – so that our poll is aimed at replicating a sample of the entire population that is randomly devised. Randomness is what makes polling accurate, so that we – we buy telephone exchange numbers and then the computer generates the last four digits, and that’s how we call people in the state of Virginia.

And different regions are represented by their portion of the population based on the Census data. So that if Northern Virginia is, say, 30 percent of the population that get – then we roughly make 30 percent of our calls to Northern Virginia. This may get a little complicated, but it’s probably worth understanding.

When we call and get results, we weight some results to existing norms. In other words, we know what the black population is in Virginia because it’s based on Census data, so that we will weight our data or refine it to make sure that our sample that determines the results is the same percentage African American that then – what the Census data says is in the state of Virginia. We do that for gender and we do that for age, and here’s why: Those are characteristics that cannot be changed. In other words, if you’re female, you’re female.

We do not weight for what’s called party ID, and there’s a lot of controversy amongst – in some circles about – not us, but just everybody – because a lot of places do not weight for party ID, as we do we not weight for party ID, and here’s why: Party ID is a changing figure. People – when we poll, we ask our respondents, “Do you generally consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or some other party?” And that gets their views on the day we ask them. We don’t do party registration, which is a set number that you register for a party when you register to vote. And in much of the United States, there’s been a transformation over the last generations in parts of the country that used to be Republican and become Democratic and vice versa. So that it’s quite possible, for instance, that somebody registers as a member of one party when they’re 21 years old, and when they’re 50 they’re voting completely different but may not have changed their party registration because that means you have to go into the office and get it changed.

So that when we’re – to get back to your question about Virginia, we represent and call all facets of Virginia equally in terms – to match what the Census Bureau says is the makeup of the state demographically.

What was the second question? I’m sorry, I forget.

QUESTION: If you think generally folks responding to your questions in the polls, you have the sense that most people think the country is in the wrong track but they’re going to vote for Obama anyway.

MR. BROWN: They’re clearly – they’re not all going to vote for Obama, but clearly some say they will at this stage. And that’s because the country thinks it’s – things aren’t going well. But at this stage, they seem to like him better than the other guy. Elections are always about who do you like better, the two candidates, and you’ve got to pick one. So either they’re going to think the country’s not doing well – you may think you like this guy better, and that’s --

MS. STEVENSON: All right. Now we’re going to the telephones, and can I remind the callers to press *1 before asking their question? We’ll take two calls from the telephones.

OPERATOR: The next question (inaudible). Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, Peter. I’d like to ask you (inaudible) on the polls that you’re reviewing today, looking at the battleground states, do you see that Governor Romney has fewer options in terms of a path to victory now? Or how does it compare to the previous rounds of polls that you had?

MR. BROWN: Well, I mean, Wisconsin has always been the more difficult (inaudible) of these three because it’s historically a more Democratic state. Clearly, the White House thinks that Wisconsin is potentially in play because they’ve been spending some money there, is my understanding, on ads.

Romney’s path to winning is really the same that it was a month ago. He’s a little worse off in the states that he needs to win, but he has to win Florida, he has to win Ohio, and he has to win Virginia. If he wins those three, he’s then with – he’s then in pretty good shape. But if he doesn’t win those three, it’s going to be very, very, very difficult for him to win. You can do it, but it would be a tough sell.

To quote a much more prescient speaker and political analyst than I, Karl Rove, Karl Rove at the beginning of this election cycle boiled the whole thing down to a very simple – what he called his 3-2-1 approach. Take every state that McCain carried four years ago and put it over there; Romney’s going to carry it. That’s a pretty sure thing. Then there are three states that historically have been Republican states that voted for Obama, and that is Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia. Today, it’s a pretty good bet that Romney will carry Indiana and probably North Carolina, so that goes over there. But Virginia is a bigger question. So he doesn’t get Virginia, so put Virginia over here.

And then there’s two big swing states, which are Florida and Ohio. If Romney can carry Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, that would give him 266 electoral votes, which is four short of the magic number of 270. At that point, he would need any one other state. Romney basically still has the same challenge. But it’s probably at this stage a little bit more difficult for him to carry Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. Can’t say it won’t happen. He’s behind in each of them, but we have 45 days to go, and I would suggest that the debates especially will be a big deal.

But Obama has a tremendous advantage going into debates. Obama only needs to break even. Again, the football analogy: he just needs to run the clock out; he doesn’t need any more yards, he just needs to keep the clock going. So he needs to just break even; Romney needs to win the debates.

QUESTION: (Off mike.)

MR. BROWN: I’m sorry, what?

QUESTION: (Off mike.)


MS. STEVENSON: Okay. Another question from the telephones.

QUESTION: (Off mike.)

MR. BROWN: If Romney wins the debates, it changes the race. If Romney can be perceived as the winner, it is likely to shake up the race. If he’s perceived as the loser, or just someone who broke even, then that’s less likely to make an impression.

Again, the President’s ahead. He just needs to run the clock out so he can be happy with a tie. Romney has to win.

MS. STEVENSON: Okay, we’ll take a question here in Washington.

QUESTION: Hi, sir, thank you. My name is Fengfeng Wang with Chinese Xinhua News Agency. Recently, we’ve seen both campaigns play the political football regarding trade with China, with Romney putting out new ads and attacking President Obama and also with the White House filing a major trade case with the WTO. And Obama also attacking Romney for outsourcing jobs to China. And how do you see those attacks and those – place – I mean, influencing the status in the swing states, especially places in Ohio and all those (inaudible).

MR. BROWN: They make cars in the South, too. It’s not just --


MR. BROWN: Let me be clear about something. I do polling; I’m a political analyst, not a policy analyst. So my comments about what I’m about to say does not reflect on the wisdom of the policies that the President and Mr. Obama have been advocating towards China and trade. I just want to make that clear. I’m not endorsing their views, nor am I condemning them.

I’m – that being said, there’s no risk in slamming China in an American election. You’re not going to lose. There’s – when you – in politics there’s often an upside and a downside to an action. There’s relatively little downside in American politics to – saying that – making the Chinese and Chinese imports a target. Voters will – you’re not going to lose a lot of votes that way, and you might gain them.

MS. STEVENSON: Let’s give an opportunity for somebody who hasn’t asked a question. Sorry. And then we have to go back to the telephones.

QUESTION: It was in the latest poll, I think NBC, Wall Street Journal – the results were that on who’s handling the economy better – they were even: 43 percent, 43 percent. And up until now, Romney has had the advantage there. How significant is that --

MR. BROWN: Well, it’s another – another indication that the President is slightly ahead. You’re right. He was slightly behind Romney in the consensus of polls in the early and mid part of the campaign. But he has basically come to parity now on that question, and that shows an improvement for him. He all year has done poorer on who can best handle an economy than he’s done on who are you going to vote for.

And that has been Romney’s strong suit – and Obama’s lead that – excuse me – Romney’s lead on that issue has dissipated. It’s now basically even. And again, that’s good news for the President. If he can disarm Romney’s key weapon, so to speak, that’s strategically a good thing for him.

It is worth noting however that we do have 45 days to go and those of you who were here four years ago will remember that in mid-September John McCain was leading. And then Wall Street imploded. And so it created an environment in which Mr. Obama was able to convince the American people that he was better able to handle the problem. So the perceptions can ebb and flow, is all I’m suggesting. But at this point, yeah, he’s doing pretty well.

MS. STEVENSON: Sorry, we’re going to go to the telephones for two questions, and then we’ll come back to Washington.

QUESTION: (Off mike.)

MR. BROWN: I didn’t quite understand all of that. I mean, what I heard was that you wanted to know what does Obama need to do? What does Romney need to do in the debate?

QUESTION: No, the other way around. (Inaudible.)

MR. BROWN: In a general sense, what Mr. Romney needs to do is show voters that he is more adept, has a world view more in tune with their views, and has a way and a view of how to start – restart the American economy that impresses voters as being better than the President’s.

This is the ultimate zero-sum game. It’s not when you’re in kindergarten and play soccer and everybody gets the same medal for participation. Somebody’s going to lose the debate, and somebody’s going to win the debate. Now, it’s possible that Romney will lose by breaking even, and Obama will win by breaking even. But the point is, there is a zero-sum relationship there, and basically Romney needs to convince voters he’s better than they guy they got. And that means perhaps dwelling on inconsistencies in the President’s record, perhaps offering a vision in a way that the voters haven’t seen before that they like. It’s hard to say exactly what he needs to do other than he needs to be perceived as being the better debater and being better on – in the debate.

MS. STEVENSON: All right, one more question from the telephones, and then we’ll come back to Washington.

QUESTION: (Off mike.)

MR. BROWN: Having more money is better than having less money. And candidly, four years ago, President Obama outraised McCain by a lot, and the Republicans complained that the Democrats were abusing the system by raising too much money and spending too much money and weren’t taking public money. And therefore they sought to get political points through that.

This time the Republicans are out-raising the Democrats, so the Democrats are complaining about the fact that the Republicans have too much money. How much money you raise is a function of how you run your campaign and what kind of constituency you have. And that – the rules four years ago has allowed you to do it this way, and the Democrats prospered. The rules now allow you to do it a different way, and the Republicans are doing better at it. But yeah, in the end, this – if someone wins because they outspend the other guy, they still win. And if someone loses because they say that they can’t raise as much money, they still lose.

I mean – that’s how elections are in this country. There’s rules set, and you play by them. Four years ago, the rules were a little different and the Democrats won the money deal. This time the rules are a little different and the Republicans are winning the money deal. We’ll see if the rules change for 2016.

QUESTION: Good morning, my name is Dagmar Benesova, I work with World Business Press Online News Agency. I have a question that I’ve already -- several statistics so please, I would like to ask one more. How do you think how important are the poll numbers on undecided voters? It means just few days or few weeks before the election, if there is a clear lead – for example, Barack Obama – do the undecided voters think, like, “Okay, I don’t need to vote because it’s a clear lead,” or if there are better numbers, that they are equal, so if you mobilize the voters more to come and cast their ballot? Thank you very much.

MR. BROWN: Undecided voters is one of the great mysteries of American politics. Firstly, when you see a poll that says “X percent is undecided,” maybe, maybe not. I mean, the real question in – for us, it’s not just undecided voters, it’s also what you call soft Ds and soft Rs. People who have made tentative decisions on one side or the other. And the – but they are potentially changeable. So that the undecided number’s generally bigger than the number you see, or the potentially undecided number.

Number two, when you see – when you look at undecideds, and they say – let’s say, somewhere around 10 percent will say they’re undecided. Some of them, a substantial number aren’t going to vote. That’s what history tells us.

Your question about, what does it mean if there – if a number – if X number are undecided two weeks out – history tells us in that situation that, again, a substantial number won’t vote, but that history tells us in the case of when there’s a well-known incumbent that the well-known incumbent will get relatively little of the final undecided vote that votes. The theory being that if you’re familiar with the incumbent, you’ve made up your mind about them. You’ve already had your chance to vote for him, if you’re not going to – if you’ve spent four years with him as your President and you haven’t decided you’re going to vote for him, it’s less likely you’ll vote for him in the final week or two.

Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: Thank you. And in general, on mobilization the voters, is better if there is a clear lead of one candidate, or –

MR. BROWN: I’m sorry, can you just repeat that again?

QUESTION: In general, is it better if for mobilizing the voters to come to elections, is it better to clear lead of one candidate, or is it better if the players, as you mentioned (inaudible) several times is equal?

MR. BROWN: It’s always better to be ahead than behind. I’m not a psychologist. (Laughter.) The one rule I know is you’re better off if you’re ahead.

MS. STEVENSON: Can I give an opportunity to the person all the way in the back who hasn’t asked a question yet?

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Haykaram Nahapetyan, I work for Armenian TV. I was wondering if you have any statistics about the ethnic communities, how the ethnic communities may vote during the upcoming elections. For example, the Greek community, the Jewish community, the Armenian community, whether they have any choice --

MR. BROWN: Candidly, I don’t. It’s very hard to get data on those groups because they’re relatively small parts of the electorate. And even Quinnipiac, which tends to do rather large sample sizes, you still can’t get enough members of those various ethnic groups to be – to give you meaningful hold, because the Jewish population, for instance, is about three percent of the country. So if you do a 2,000 person sample – which is very large and we generally don’t do that many, we generally do about 1,000, 1,200 – let’s say a 1,200 person sample, 3 percent is 36 voters, not a large enough sample to draw any conclusions. Same thing’s true about Greeks. What are the other groups you’re interested in?

QUESTION: The Armenian community. I was wondering --

MR. BROWN: The Armenian community’s even smaller.

QUESTION: -- because they have lobby groups or community organizations which may probably provide statistics about their voting.

MR. BROWN: Perhaps. I’m not familiar with the data. Jews traditionally have been a Democratic-leaning constituency. I don’t know about Greeks, to be honest with you.

QUESTION: I appreciate it. Mounzer Sleiman again with Al Mayadeen. In your polling, do you post questions about the candidate foreign policy and how the voters feel about it? And what do you think, from your experience – I know that you’re not analyst, but from your observation with the foreign policy now injecting itself now with the situation happening in the Middle Eastern region, what do you think it’s going to be the impact of foreign policy issue on this election so far? And did you ask in the polling –

MR. BROWN: Hold on a second, I’m about to – I’m looking at some data that I can – if I can find it. Oh, okay. We asked the following question in these three states: In deciding who you will vote – like to see elected president this year, which one of the following issues will be the most important to you? National security, which is kind of foreign policy, although not completely, 6 percent. That’s really the only foreign policy-like area that makes even the top six or seven. Barring an unexpected event in the next 45 days that impinges Americans’ interests in national security, foreign policy is not a big issue in this campaign. It just isn’t.

QUESTION: (Off mike.)

MR. BROWN: Well, again, that was – we asked them about – they said national security 6 percent, but you can relatively – to a degree, that’s foreign policy, although a lot of people would say when they think national security will think terrorism against the United States, which would be a domestic issue. But yeah, it ranks quite low.

Now, I can’t tell you that if we get more U.S. ambassadors killed that it won’t increase, and I can’t tell you that if the Israelis do decide to bomb the Iranians that it won’t increase. But at this stage, it’s – this election is about the economy, and the economy, and the economy.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: We also haven’t mentioned perhaps much elections to the Senate and the Congress. Judging from your data, what about the Senate and the chances for Republicans of at least cutting into the Democrats’ majority there?

MR. BROWN: We don’t poll – we poll a limited number of states, some of which have Senate races, some don’t. If you’re asking me on my data, we have Wisconsin as a toss-up. Virginia, Tim Kaine has a slight lead. And I’m trying to think where else we – we do Ohio. We haven’t done it recently, but Sherrod Brown has a high single-digit lead. Florida, Bill Nelson, depending, has a single-digit lead.

To a large – to a considerable degree – probably not a large degree, to a considerable degree, how the presidential race turns out in some of these states could have some real influence. In a place like Virginia, if the President gets reelected, it’ll give Tim Kaine a bump – if he carries Virginia, that is.

Overall, I think it’s a close call on who controls the U.S. Senate. There are a number of vulnerable Democratic incumbents. But Scott Brown is iffy – among the Republican incumbents, Scott Brown is iffy in Massachusetts. In Maine, an Independent is going to win in all likelihood, and he hasn’t said who he will caucus with, but the smart money says he’s going to caucus with Democrats. I have no insight into that. It’s going to be close. If the presidential race is not close, then that will have a down-ballot effect on the Senate races.

In terms of the House, we don’t do House races. I know that the consensus of those who do thinks that it would be very difficult for the Democrats to take the House.

MS. STEVENSON: Are there any other questions? All right, with that, thank you very much, Mr. Brown.

MR. BROWN: My pleasure.

MS. STEVENSON: And thank you all for coming.

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