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Barry Kay: Polls and the presidential elections Pt5

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome back to the next segment of our interview with Barry Kay on polling and US elections. Barry, we were just talking in the last segment about the importance for Obama of the US economy being his field of play. So what does polling tell us about that?

BARRY KAY, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, WILFRID LAURIER UNIVERSITY: The general electorate is not the same as the primary electorate. And, indeed, I think the reason I’ve been suggesting that Obama’s strongest calling card into this election is to do well among people who are hurting, particularly people in some of those states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.

JAY: But how do you explain right now McCain apparently is actually ahead on economic issues of Obama?

KAY: Not what I’ve seen. Depends on the wording of the questions. In general, McCain is ahead on foreign policy questions; he isn’t generally ahead on economic questions. The interesting phenomenon about this election is the generic vote, particularly when you’re talking about voting for Democrats or Republicans for Congress: the Democrats are up 10, 12 points. This is without question a Democratic year. And why, in that Democratic year, is Obama not clobbering McCain? That’s an interesting question. And it seems to be, for many people, Obama is still an unknown quantity—they’re still not totally comfortable. And the real essence of the campaign in the remaining two months is going to be the definition and the sort of the unveiling of Barack Obama. I’m not talking about people who are knowledgeable, who are into issues, that have already perhaps participated in the primaries, that are loyal Democrats or loyal Republicans; I’m talking about those swing, those less educated, less interested voters who will still come out to the polls.

JAY: We did work in Indiana, in West Virginia, in Kentucky, and in fact what we found in terms of people understanding and defining Obama, race was really not the major issue. The major issue was that he wasn’t American, that he wasn’t patriotic enough.

KAY: He’s got a funny-sounding name.

JAY: Maybe he’s Muslim. This idea that he’s not American and McCain’s American, what do you see in the polling [inaudible]?

KAY: That’s what Obama’s got to work on. A lot of those are people who may have supported Hillary Clinton during the—people who are certainly prepared to vote Democratic and will vote Democratic for Congress. The real challenge for Obama is to sort of move those people that don’t really know him that are perhaps undecided on that question. There was a parallel in 1980, a Republican year, a Republican year in which the Republicans were doing pretty well in generic voting, but there was a very close campaign. That was between Reagan’s first election and Jimmy Carter, who was then the incumbent. And it wasn’t till the very end of the campaign that it broke. I’m personally fairly optimistic that, in fact, at the end of the day Obama will win not just by a point or two but will win by a larger margin.

JAY: Optimistic meaning you would want it to be.

KAY: Optimistic, yeah. My candidacy would certainly be Obama in this particular race. But the question is that Obama’s still got to be able to sell himself and define himself before the Republicans define Obama as scary and different.

JAY: The media, especially television, allows, it seems, McCain to have re-branded himself. We had, just before we had this roll-out of McCain about three, four months ago, what they literally called the “re-branding,” McCain was talking about very aggressive talk towards Iran. He was in Israel, where he mixed up the issue, but he said Iran was training al-Qaeda people, and then Lieberman had to whisper in his ear. And we had a picture, before the re-branding, of [a] McCain who couldn’t speak very well, who was very militaristic in his language. And then, all of a sudden, he starts to become the more moderate, rational, presidential. And the television news just seems to echo the re-branding of that campaign.

KAY: As Republicans go—and, again, I’m not particularly a Republican—but as Republicans go, McCain has over time been, in fact, somewhat more bipartisan, that he’s been involved, particularly with the senator from Wisconsin, Feingold, with regard to campaign finance reform. There have been a few other issues. He was very much concerned about Republican spending at the same time as they were cutting taxes. Well, actually, more recently he’s moved further to the right in order to sort of win the loyalty of Republicans. A lot of hard-line Republicans, the Rush Limbaugh, you know, stereotype, those people weren’t particularly of McCain at all. It took a year where the incumbent Republican president, George Bush, was in such bad odor to allow a more, relatively, moderate—and I understand that not everyone would see McCain as a moderate, but a lot of people see McCain as moderate within the Republican Party, and to be seen as somebody that could potentially cross over. And, indeed, that certainly is the way that they are pushing it. He’s also somebody who’s not particularly knowledgeable about economic policy, and that’s part of the reason why—.

JAY: But this goes back to this question I was raising before. I think it’s as high as 55, 60 percent of people say the war is wrong, they want out of Iraq.

KAY: My understanding of the polls is they think it was a mistake to go in. That doesn’t necessarily mean the majority of Americans today want to sort of just leave tomorrow. That isn’t the case, and that’s the way it’s being played.

JAY: But McCain was gung-ho pro-war in the beginning. He was critical of the execution of the war. But if the polling shows it was a mistake to go in in the first place and there’s a general negative feeling about the whole war as a—.

KAY: But that polling was only a result of the fact that the war went sour. The first two or three years of the war, Americans weren’t so hostile. And, frankly, my own view of the American public—and you probably would disagree—is that in fact Americans are hostile to the war not because it was a mistake to go in, but the fact that it wasn’t a successful war. If it had been successful from the beginning, as perhaps the early-’90s Gulf War was, then indeed this would have been a popular war. I’m saying that in the context of what the swing American voter, not people who are committed to one side or the other. But the swing American voter I don’t think feels that America should just get out in a hurry, and that that’s part of the reason why McCain’s message, you know, which not everyone agrees with—.

JAY: Now, part of the reason that’s happening is because the idea that the surge has worked has played into McCain’s favor, and many people think the surge, in fact, had very little to do with what’s changed the facts on the ground in Iraq.

KAY: There were a variety of factors, I think.

JAY: But is the surge working? I mean, I assume that’s the reason why McCain seems to be benefiting from this.

KAY: Well, the question of whether America should have gone to war back in 2003 I don’t think is the operative question in the minds of the swing voter. It’s a matter of where do we go and how do we, the Americans, get out in the next year or two. But, in fact, most people are mentioning late 2010 or 2011. I don’t think it hurts, my own view, politically, in terms of trying to win the election; I don’t think it hurts Obama electorally to try to blur the distinction on that question—not the question of whether they should have gotten in, but the question of how they get out. And that’s why I’ve been suggesting to you that it’s the economic issue that’s going to win for Obama, not the foreign-policy issue.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Dr. Barry Kay is a Professor of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University. His research focuses on the topics of elections and public opinion. He is a past member of the Canadian National Election Study team, and recent publications pertain to electoral systems, public opinion polling, and the impact of single-issue interest groups. He has developed a model for projecting parliamentary seat distributions from popular vote or opinion polls, which is updated regularly and can be found at He is also a political analyst with Global Television, for their national election coverage.