On the heels of the second round of presidential debates between incumbent President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Doug Usher M.A. ’97, Ph.D. ’99, a pollster and expert on U.S. elections discussed polling, the current campaign climate and voter sentiments in Malott Hall Wednesday evening.
Usher is the founder of the Purple Poll, a monthly analysis of the swing-state electorate, and has been cited by Fox News, MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal, Politico and numerous other news outlets. As managing partner of the research division of Purple Strategies, a bipartisan public affairs firm, he provides analysis of political trends and public opinion.
“When it comes to presidential politics, there’s two things I say: The very worst thing if you want to understand American politics is to follow a presidential campaign, and the second thing is everybody likes a good train wreck,” Usher said.
Campaigns are “completely unpredictable” in regard to what bumps will occur along the proverbial campaign trail, but they can be very predictable in their outcomes through polls and political analysis, according to Usher.
Citing Clint Eastwood’s exchange with an imaginary Obama at the Republican National Convention in August, Romney’s remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who he says don’t pay income taxes and Romney’s statement that he would defund public television — leading to a social media storm of support for Big Bird — Usher said such sensational moments remind us that campaigns are “strange.”
“They call [campaign season] the silly season,” Usher said.
The unpredictability in the presidential election is mounting due to the onslaught of ever-increasing quantities of campaign money that can influence the election, according to Usher.
“Political money is crack. And people that go into politics are addicts. Campaign finance laws help them get crack. Better yet, redistricting laws help them choose their dealers,” he said.
Despite surprises along the campaign trail, Usher said candidates’ strategies going into the 2012 election are fairly predictable.
Romney needed to solidify his Republican base and focus on the economic weaknesses the country faced under the Obama administration, while the president’s strategy included attacking Romney on a regular schedule in addition to solidifying his Democratic base, Usher said.
“[Obama] was definitely dealt a harder hand,” he said, describing Obama’s approach through much of the campaign as waiting for Romney to misstep.
But he noted that this strategy, in which a candidate seeks to develop an unflattering caricature of an opponent, left Obama vulnerable to the possibility that Romney would not appear as that character in the public eye.
“I think what was so dramatic about the first debate was that we had months of Romney [refusing to release tax returns and criticizing the 47 percent] and that the guy that showed up on debate night was not that person at all,” Usher said. “Romney was not the character of the 47 percent video, and Obama didn’t come prepared.”
Noting marginal fluctuations in polling following both the vice presidential and the second presidential debate, in addition to the nature of the undecided voter — ever waiting for “someone to talk to me” — Usher added that campaigns only provide an impetus for limited change.
“Campaigns aren’t great for changing hearts and minds. Campaigns are great for directing hearts and directing minds,” he said.
Such is the nature of positive or negative results at the polls: Campaign staff will try to spin negative poll results in a way that reduces its impact to prevent a downward spiral, according to Usher. Talk of the inaccuracies of polling typically arises when negative polls suggest that a campaign is beginning to sour, he said.
“The only poll that matters is on Election Day” is another such dismissive pronouncement that may indicate that a campaign is “losing,” Usher said.
Still, polls can provide insight into various factors throughout a campaign cycle, he said.
In part due to polling — and pollsters like himself — Usher said that margins of victory in elections have grown increasingly narrow over the years.
“Campaigns are sort of like a football game where there’s no scoreboard. There’s no referee and everybody’s watching … Polling when it’s done right is a lot more than what the score is, it’s the strategy used to win,” Usher said.