“It is an incredibly complicated math problem,” said Doug Usher Ph.D. ’99, during a seminar entitled “Election 2004: An Insider’s Look at the Numbers,” last night.
The seminar was sponsored by Prof. Theodore Lowi, the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions.
Usher is the vice president of the Mellman Group, one of the Kerry-Edwards campaign’s key polling firms. During the 2004 election cycle, he helped to lead the organization’s polling for the Kerry-Edwards campaign and worked for other Democratic congressional campaigns.
“I am not sure exactly what happened, and I don’t claim to know what happened,” Usher said, at the beginning of his talk. “I am going to try to avoid using the words ‘moral values,’ ‘red and blue states,’ and ‘heartland.’ If I can avoid that, maybe we can learn something from this election.”
According to Usher, voters were “not feeling sufficient pain to reject the incumbent.”
He displayed graphs that showed that in 1992, when George H. W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton, 22 percent of those polled said that the country was moving in the right direction, compared to about 50 percent this year.
“George W. Bush was doing worse than every incumbent every reelected, but better than every incumbent every rejected,” Usher said.
In another set of graphs, Usher showed that there seems to be a large difference between what people believe is most important to the country and what they believe is the most important thing on which the president should concentrate.
According to the Mellman Group polls, people were mostly concerned with issues of healthcare and the economy, while people believed that the most important thing for the president to concentrate on was the war on terror. He said that this may have contributed to the Bush victory.
Usher said that he believed that Kerry could have won the Electoral College if he had only trailed by 1.6 percent of the popular vote.
“Could you imagine how angry Republicans would be if we had won the Electoral College while losing the popular vote?” he asked.
Later, Usher showed a list of states formulated by Mellman Group in July, broken down into “Bush,” “Kerry,” and “battleground” categories.
At that point, they still had North Carolina as a battleground state. “We couldn’t tell [Sen.] John Edwards (D-N.C.), ‘thank you for coming to the ticket, now we are going to drop North Carolina,'” Usher said.
Lowi asked whether the Democratic polling organizations know what kind of polling models and methods the Republican organizations use. “Everything is totally private, and there is a lot of incentive to lie,” Usher responded. He added, “I think our models are smarter. We have integrated more into our models.”
Later, Usher spoke about how the Mellman Group formulated its recommendations to the Kerry campaign on how and where to spend campaign money.
He said that they ran computerized election simulations and looked to see which states ended up being pivotal. In 25 percent of the simulated elections, Florida was pivotal, while Ohio was only pivotal 16 percent of the time. He added that nobody seems to know why Florida ended up not being a truly pivotal state.
Prof. Walter Mebane, government, asked whether the four hurricanes that hit the state could be part of the reason. Usher responded that it was possible that the hurricanes had an effect, but asked, “Why wasn’t it in the polls?”
At the end of the talk, Usher spoke about the future of the Democratic Party and what can be deduced from the election results. Kerry did better than Al Gore did in 2000 in eight of the 13 “battleground” states, including Colorado and Nevada.
“People say we have given up the south, but it seems we have everywhere to compete, and Bush has given up the west and the northeast,” Usher said. He also noted that where people live closer together, Kerry — and other Democrats — seem to be more successful. As an example, he said that Kerry won Washington, D.C.
In addition, Kerry won every county surrounding the nation’s capital. “We have the suburbs. It seems that the Republicans are coming outside in [from more rural areas] … the question is, should we begin to move inside out?” Usher asked.
Usher took questions from the audience after finishing his presentation. “How much of your polling was outsourced?” Lowi asked.
“By the end it was a 25-person overworked staff,” Usher said. “We came in at 5 in the morning every day to analyze the national polls during the last five months of the campaign.”
Mebane asked about the use of focus groups in the Mellman Group’s polling. “We use focus groups only as a precursor to quantitative work,” Usher said. “We don’t tell candidates what to say; we tell them what to focus on,” he added. Mebane said, “Polling is inevitable, and because there will be more money, there will be more of it. However, I believe that politicians who take their positions from polls will blow with the wind.”
When asked whether he enjoys his work, Usher responded, “Working in politics is fun because it is the case that nobody knows what is going to happen.”
Archived article by Eric Finkelstein
Sun News Editor