Predicting the Political Landscape

With sweeping changes brought about by midterm elections, increasing instability in the Middle East, and an accelerating race for the presidency, seasoned pollsters weigh in on what to expect in 2008. Moderated by John Harwood.


When young Democratic pollster Peter Hart came to speak on the Duke campus more than three decades ago, junior Neil Newhouse '74 was so impressed he decided to go into the business himself. Today, as a partner in Public Opinion Strategies, a national political and public-affairs survey research firm that he helped found, he's a leading pollster for Republican candidates. For its work in the 2002 elections, the firm won the "Pollster of the Year" Campaign Excellence Award from the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC).

Newhouse has helped elect twelve current U.S. representatives, three U.S. senators, and four governors, including Governor Dave Heineman (Neb.), Senator Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Senator Pat Roberts (Kan.), Representative Jim Gerlach (Pa.), and Representative Shelley Moore Capito '75 (W.Va.).

Hart liked Duke enough to send two children there and become a Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy visiting lecturer, while sustaining a career atop the ranks of Democratic survey researchers. Since 1971, Hart has been chair of Peter D. Hart Research Associates. He is also a longtime pollster for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal. Hart has represented more than forty U.S. senators and thirty governors, including Hubert Humphrey, Lloyd Bentsen, Jay Rockefeller, and Bob Graham. Hart has received a lifetime achievement award for Outstanding Contribution to Campaign Consulting from the AAPC.

Newhouse and Hart sat down recently with John Harwood '78, who covers politics for CNBC television and The Wall Street Journal. Harwood, a member of Duke Magazine's Editorial Advisory Board, began his career as a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. He joined the Journal in 1991 as White House correspondent and became its political editor in 1997. Last March, he joined CNBC as chief Washington correspondent, while continuing to write the Journal's Washington Wire political column and to oversee The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. He also delivers political analysis on MSNBC and NBC programs such as Meet the Press. In 2006 he received the Futrell Award for achievement in journalism from the Sanford Institute's DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy.

Harwood met with Hart and Newhouse in the offices of The Wall Street Journal for a conversation exploring the lessons learned from the 2006 elections and their implications for 2008. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

On a shifting electorate

We've become accustomed to thinking of the country as one where the center of political gravity is slightly to the right of center. Is it still correct to think of the country that way?

Hart: Right of center is probably correct. In this election, the Republicans moved off to the right edge of the political spectrum and essentially ceded the middle, which was the Independent vote. Democrats won that vote by three to two.

Newhouse: It's not that Republicans tried to move too far to the right. Iraq colored the entire election. This was perhaps the least ideological election we've had in a while. Independents really rejected the president's continued push for involvement in Iraq.

Hart: Voters were unhappy and disappointed with the performance of the president, and they were saying, "No more, we want a change." Number two, they were unhappy with the culture of Congress. And the culture of Congress had to do, obviously, with corruption, whether it related to [lobbyist Jack] Abramoff, [former Representative Tom] DeLay, or [former Representative] Mark Foley.

How do you separate what is likely to be a transitory effect, like Iraq, versus some shift in the electorate that is durable?

Newhouse: It wasn't that we lost more among Hispanics than other groups, or among younger voters—this was an across-the-board loss.

Hart: Congratulations.

Newhouse: What's more interesting is the regional aspect, the diminishment of the Republican Party in the Northeast—starting with suburban Philadelphia and moving up. The seats we lost in Connecticut, in New Hampshire. It's extraordinarily difficult now to be a moderate Republican in New England.

It's almost as if the Republican Party is becoming more a party of the South and ceding the New England area to the Democrats, and now what's most competitive is the Rocky Mountain West [traditionally conservative states that are growing more hospitable to Democrats]. I look at the future of campaigns, and I think that's where the center of the competitive elections is moving.

Hart: The major change here would be with Hispanic voters. The Republicans played the short-term card of immigration and cost themselves in the long term. And with a growing electoral base of Hispanic voters, I think that's exceptionally important.

New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada are four states that, all of a sudden, will be key battlegrounds in 2008. You look at the Rocky Mountain West, and you can see how the Democrats did in the gubernatorial elections and recognize that there are newfound opportunities.

Harwood: journalist, pundit, moderator

Harwood: journalist, pundit, moderator. Danuta Otfinowski

A meaningful shift, even though Neil made the point that Republicans were basically down with everybody?

Hart: Yes. Because if you look at attitudes among Hispanics toward the Republican Party, they dipped way down. Previously Hispanics were much more open to the Republicans on the basis of values and family and entrepreneurship. The Republicans sent off a very negative message, and it opens things up for the Democrats.

Newhouse: That's still an open question. There's no question that the immigration debate hurt. This presidential election could push it one way or the other significantly. I'm not ready to say that the losses we incurred this year are going to be sustained through '08.

Hart: Can I go back on another point: What's happening in the area of governance? In 2006 the Republicans lost moderates throughout the Northeast. In 1994 the Democrats lost moderates throughout the South. And essentially it pushes the parties to being controlled by the extremes. The question is can we find a middle that is going to be able to govern? Without that, I think that we end up in not only gridlock, but also with an inability to deal with central issues that are facing us now.

Newhouse: The Republican center in Congress has moved somewhat to the right. The center of the Democratic Party in Congress has also moved to the right. The Democratic chairmen are still over there on the left, but the new members are more conservative.

Hart: You go from [outgoing Republican House Energy Committee chair Joe] Barton at an 86 percent conservative voting record to [incoming Democratic chair John] Dingell at 75 percent liberal. From [Republican Judiciary Committee chair James] Sensenbrenner at 62 percent conservative to [Democratic chair John] Conyers at 91 percent liberal. Those are huge shifts.

Newhouse: I had the distinct pleasure this year of working for the only Democrat I've ever worked for in this profession, and it's Joe Lieberman. I got drafted to do that campaign after he lost the primary, then ran as an Independent. His messages of "people not politics" and "running from the middle" were very resonant. There's a real sense that we are too polarized in D.C.

On cross-party appeal

You now also have John McCain, a potential Republican nominee who appeals across party lines. Is it possible that we're seeing the beginnings of the system busting out of that polarization?

Newhouse: Voters would put up with polarization if we were getting results with it. They want something done on some of these key issues. When you asked [2006] voters, either in focus groups or polls, what they most admire about Congress, they couldn't come up with a single thing.

Do you expect, looking forward to 2008, 2012, that we will have a more scrambled picture, and presidential nominees will get 15, 20, 30 percent of the other side's vote?

Hart: I'll tell you how we're going to get scrambled: We're going to have an important third-party candidate, an Independent candidate, in 2008. And I would venture to say that individual will get more than 10 percent of the popular vote.

Are you talking about [New York City Mayor] Mike Bloomberg?

Hart: I can give you six different names. Voters want something different—the ability to be able to talk from beyond the party line.

Newhouse: It depends on who the major-party nominees are.

Hart: If you end up with two Washington insiders running, there will be a market [for an Independent candidate]. If you tell me that it's [outgoing Massachusetts Governor] Mitt Romney and [Illinois Senator] Barack Obama, I would say there is a much smaller possibility.

On what Americans ache for in '08

One of the central elements in the calculus of presidential politics lately has been the question of whether Democrats can compete in the South. Is that the wrong question?

Hart: Elections come down to the Mississippi River—2,350 miles, stretching from the northern part of Minnesota down to the Gulf of Mexico. And those are ten states. Since 1912, whoever has won more of those states has been the president of the United States. But in the end I think what President Bush missed after 9/11, and what America aches for in 2008, is somebody who's going to unify the country and talk to a national purpose and give us a way of moving forward. That person's going to be potent in the Northeast and in the South and along the Mississippi. That doesn't come out of ideology. That comes out of the soul.

Is it a calling card for a Republican candidate to say, "I can win a state or two that counts in the Northeast"?

Newhouse: I'm not sure that's the way to think about it. Mitt Romney's not going to be able to carry Massachusetts. John Edwards wouldn't have carried North Carolina.

Even on top of the ticket?

Newhouse: No.

pollsters Newhouse, left, and Hart

Pollsters Newhouse, left, and Hart. Danuta Otfinowski

On Bush's political capital and issues to watch for in 2008

After 2004 George Bush said, "I earned political capital in this election." We see that in everything from Social Security to social issues to Iraq, it didn't work out that way. What capital do Democrats come out of this election with?

Hart: The capital that they received is the capital of change. And that means change in terms of the way Congress operates and change in terms of the way we're handling our policy in Iraq. This election found the Democrats marginally acceptable to the electorate. It was one that was handed to the Democrats by the Republicans.

Democrats cannot argue that the country moved left?

Hart: No. What they need to do is to look at two different models. One is the model of 1959, 1960, when the Democrats came in after the Eisenhower recession. They talked about issues that really set up the 1960 election for John F. Kennedy. The other model is the 1995-96 model, when Newt Gingrich came in. That was a payback model.

Democrats have the ability to go in either direction. If they choose a Gingrich model, their majorities will be short-lived.

Newhouse: If they believe the election is about ideology, they will overreach. And it'll throw the Republicans back into control.

What issue holds the most potential for them to overreach? Is it taxes? Is it withdrawing all troops from Iraq? Is it oversight hearings and looking vituperative toward the Bush administration?

Hart: There is an appetite among Americans for taking the troops out of Iraq, but they don't want it immediately. They want to be careful with how that's done. They don't believe the Democrats were elected to launch investigations.

What wedge issue will have a lot of power in 2008?

Newhouse: The social issues have changed. Stem-cell research is more important than it was in the past. Immigration remains important. That's clearly an issue of division, and an issue that will be part of 2008.

Hart: It used to be God, guns, abortion. Now you have immigration. Now you have stem-cell research. Now you have gay marriage. These values issues are changing as we go through this kind of social debate in the U.S.

What do you see as the next big issue?

Hart: Getting the basics of society back on track. I think it has to do very much with health-care and education reform. I think it has a lot to do with environment, and I think it has a lot to do with national security. We're going to be digging out from problems that the president has created. Most important are issues that we haven't dealt with.

Newhouse: I'd put it under the umbrella of personal-security issues—personal security being economic security. There is a tremendous economic unease in this country right now. Americans are scared about shipping jobs overseas. They're worried about the stability of their own employment and their spouse's. It's retraining for this global economy, it's revamping the health-care system, it's energy independence, so that we spend more money here on exploration of alternative energy sources.

On identity politics and the next presidential nominees

When we look at the 2008 presidential campaign, some of the most talked-about candidates are a woman, an African-American man, a Mormon, a seventy-year-old man. Are any of those important bugaboos in our politics any more?

Newhouse: That shows more than anything the continued appetite for change. Voters are looking outside the normal bounds of the next person in line.

Of all those identity characteristics I just named, which is the greatest impediment in a national election in 2008?

Hart: Breaking through any barrier, any ceiling is always difficult. But I think that if you look at the world around us, it has changed dramatically. We've become a diverse, different nation, and the way in which we look and relate to people is much different. We're aging, the female work force is breaking through on every level. Americans truly expect to elect an African-American and a woman president in our lifetimes.

People talk about Barack Obama and say, "I'm worried about the racial component." I'd be more worried about experience.

Among the second-tier candidates, which in your view are the most likely to step up and become serious players?

Hart: On the Democratic side, you have to start with Hillary [Clinton]. Then there's the middle circle: Biden, Gore, Kerry, Edwards. All of those people have been around the block, people know them.

Obviously, Obama is the wild card because Barack Obama is the Robert Kennedy of American politics for 2008. Why? Because he generates more passion and more interest and has more of a following than any candidate I've seen over the course of the last two generations. Whether Barack Obama can demonstrate he's got the experience, and he's got the background, and can handle the job, I don't know.

In 1976 or 1992 you could take an outsider, a Jimmy Carter, a Bill Clinton, totally unknown, and thrust them all the way to the presidency. I don't see it happening in 2008. Because of 9/11, I think you have to be seen as having the ability to be commander-in-chief.

Newhouse: What really makes it interesting on the Republican side is there's this vacancy. And that vacancy is a real strong conservative candidate. The two strongest potential conservative candidates were defeated in the U.S. Senate races, George Allen and Rick Santorum.

And then you've got Rudy Giuliani, who is an extraordinarily competent figure, who campaigned like crazy for Republican candidates across the country and did a phenomenal job. But he is so positioned outside the mainstream of the Republican Party on social issues, you have to wonder if Republican primary voters will forgive him enough to support him.

Will the nominees of both parties in 2008 be running against the record of the Bush administration?

Hart: In 2000, Al Gore and George W. Bush wanted the advantages of the Clinton administration without [the misbehavior associated with] the president; in 2008, I don't think the candidates want either the individual or the record of the administration.

Newhouse: The candidates for the Republican nomination will talk about the traits they admire in President Bush, because he is still extraordinarily popular among Republicans. But there will be some separation.

Hart: Deftly put!

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