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The Analysis of Mark Shields and David Brooks

October 22, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, the presidential race, we sit here 11 days before the election. What is the most important thing that’s happening right now?

MARK SHIELDS: The most important thing, Jim, that makes this race unique is the intensity and the passion of the electorate in this race. Peter Hart, the pollster for the Wall Street Journal/NBC, asked the question: Does this race make a great deal of difference to your family, could you rate it one to ten in base difference; 75 percent of people said this election and its outcome makes a great deal — 10, that’s a maximum difference.

So this is… I mean it’s unlike… I mean this is centuries from 2000. I mean that was a peaceful and prosperous America. It was an election not about major issues, about — drunk driving arrests and whatever else, I mean, this is really – it’s war and peace. It’s, you know, jobs, unemployment rate in 43 states higher than it was when the president came in — all of those things in that mix and under the background of security. That’s what’s driving this race right now and it’s what makes…

JIM LEHRER: 9/11 and Iraq.

MARK SHIELDS: Particularly the president has been able to convince people that security and that he is a safer bet on that than is John Kerry. That’s John Kerry’s task, is to make people feel they will be safe under him, not safer than under George Bush but safe.

JIM LEHRER: Safe. Yes. What do you think is the most important thing going on right now?

DAVID BROOKS: I guess I hate to sound like a French intellectual.

JIM LEHRER: What kind?

DAVID BROOKS: A French intellectual.


DAVID BROOKS: It’s very unlike 2000 but it’s also very like 2000. It’s unlike, as Mark said, in the intensity but if you look at the actual results of the polls, it’s very, very much like 2000. As in 2000, it’s divided straight down the middle. As in 2000 we are looking at states like Florida where it is razor thin margins. You look at some of the demographics, breakdown of the votes of college educated white women and that sort of thing, very similar to 2000.

To me, the biggest mystery of this election is in the past four years we’ve had a terrorist attack, we’ve had the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; we have the “” collapse; we have the tumultuous presidency of George Bush; everything in America changes except politics. So what is the fissure that’s deeper than all things that have just happened to us in four years that has made the country break down exactly as they did four years ago? That’s the big mystery to me.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t have an answer to that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I do have an answer.

JIM LEHRER: What is it?

DAVID BROOKS: My quick answer is, one, partisanship. Once you become a Republican or a Democrat, you stay there because of team tribal loyalty. And you stay like a Red Sox fan —

JIM LEHRER: No matter what the facts are.

DAVID BROOKS: Exactly. That’s very powerful. The second thing is we’re having a fundamental debate about leadership. What qualities do we want in a leader? Some people take a look at George Bush and they see a guy who is a straight talking man of faith. And they say that’s what I want.

Some people take a look at John Kerry and Al Gore, and say, thoughtful, complex, knowledgeable guys, who can see nuances; that’s what I want. And that fundamental debate about leadership is a difference between the two parties that under girds all the other issues that come and go.

JIM LEHRER: Does that make sense to you?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I think David’s dichotomy is a little overdrawn perhaps on his side. I mean, you know, the nuance — one can be strong and wrong is the formulation was in the debate. It is a question of strength versus thoughtfulness, reflectiveness, introspection and paralysis.

DAVID BROOKS: You would put those words paralysis in there.

MARK SHIELDS: I think there is something very deep, Jim. Obviously there are changes. I mean, there are changes you can see, changes on the landscape. I mean that’s the reason George Bush is campaigning in Minnesota and Wisconsin and Iowa, states that he lost, albeit….

JIM LEHRER: Because he has a chance this time….

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right and why he is defending Florida and why he’s defending Ohio, and why he’s defending Colorado, which we just saw in the piece. So I think in that sense there is a different view of the country as well as the leadership.

JIM LEHRER: Starting with you, Mark, help all of us lay folks who look at these every day now there are new polls out, and there’s going to be scads of them between now and Election Day. Give us some guidance on what they mean now. This close to an election, what is their relevance; what should we — how serious should we take them and in what way should we take them?

MARK SHIELDS: If it is a phone-in poll for your weekend shopper, don’t pay much attention to it. I mean, online polls ignore them. Okay. I think there are two things: If it’s a major institution, an ongoing institution that has a stake and a certain professional prestige and pride in it, they’ve got a certain track record.

JIM LEHRER: But that aside, the figures, what do they mean now? What do they mean now?

MARK SHIELDS: What the figures mean at this point, Jim, are when you look at how the vote is, the first thing you have to understand is the difference between registered voters and likely voters. Okay? When people say registered voters, you can find out that’s scientific. I can find out. You’re a registered voter. I’m a registered voter.

JIM LEHRER: You go to the county clerk.

MARK SHIELDS: Likely voter is an art form and it’s subjective. So that’s where the breakdown is. I just look at registered voters at this point. The other thing I’d look at and I think is the key to understand this is any race involving an incumbent, any race involving an incumbent, incumbent president running for reelection, the race is about the president and about the incumbent.

So what he is getting in the polls means more than what his challenger is getting. And 155 elections and over 80 percent of them, the undecideds break overwhelmingly for the challenger.

The exception is when the challenger is as well known as the incumbent — like a governor running for senator. So in this case, if you’re rooting for George Bush, you want him to be 51-52 percent in those polls, 53, 54 even going into the Election Day.

If you are rooting for John Kerry, you want, you know, obviously you’d like to have John Kerry ahead but you want to be sure that George Bush is 47, 48 percent going into Election Day, by averaging those polls, and I think that’s a pretty good rule of thumb.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have rules of thumb —

DAVID BROOKS: That’s possible. If you look at the last nine polls by reputable organizations, Bush has like a 2.8 percent lead, with some small percent still undecided, and so there are two theories of how secure that lead is.

One, Mark’s theory, which is that the undecideds will break late against the president. The other theory is that in times of war, people who are doubting are going to stay a little more with the president than they normally would at other elections.

JIM LEHRER: On the ground – say we’re at war and…

DAVID BROOKS: And know what – and those people point to the 2002 election which is not a perfect analogy where the last days from the last polls to the final results, there was a shift in favor of the Republicans of significance, of six points in many Senate races, because people wanted the side they felt was safer on national security. But we really are in the territory of nobody knows, and there are just various competing theories.

JIM LEHRER: The other question, the conventional wisdom now is that no matter how all of this goes, whatever the polls say, this is going to be a very, very close election and it could end up as close as 2000, and could end up as challenged and as questionable as 2000. Do you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: Not really. I think we should resist over generalizing from 2000, which was a freakish circumstance. Now, if you look at the polls now, it will be close within say a three-point range probably, but that means there is a range, and a statistical range.

Getting where it’s 50-50 where have you lawsuits in state after state, means you have got to be right in the middle. The odds are it is going to be somewhere else on that range. So I think it is unlikely, possible but unlikely that we will be in the horrible mess we were four years ago.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see a horrible mess?

MARK SHIELDS: I hope and pray as a citizen we don’t have it but I’m fearful.

JIM LEHRER: What makes you fearful?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, we’ve got – first of all, we’ve got 13,000 towns, counties where there is brand-new equipment that’s never been tested before that they’re using for the first time. We’ve got lawyers lined up on each side, an array of attorneys. In addition to that, we’ve got electronic voting where there is no paper trail. I mean I go in and vote and I don’t even get a receipt. There is equipment that hasn’t been tested, brand-new equipment.

I mean, there is just – there is an awful lot of opportunities for foul-ups and plus the stakes are so high we’re playing high casino. Just one point I’d add to David. Six of those polls that David cited were a dead heat between Kerry and Bush. There were only two really that were outside of that. And I think if you look at it —

JIM LEHRER: He doesn’t agree with you.

MARK SHIELDS: Margin of error. Only two. Fox and Gallup were the only two. But what I think makes it interesting is that all of them are within this incredibly close race. I mean so, you know, pollsters I know, politicians I’ve never seen people more reluctant to make a prediction on a race.

JIM LEHRER: Is that true to the people you talked to, as well?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, absolutely. I think Mark said the crucial moment – that deciding who is going to turn out to vote is the crucial issue and everybody is just guessing. I think there are – I’d say there are a few more who have significant Bush lead but there are sort of two clumps of polls; one that show them dead even; one that show a Bush lead – in the Washington Post – was six today; so two clumps.

But it’s all based on them guessing who is going to turn out. There are perfectly good reasons for Democrats to be optimistic they’re registering more people and those people are going to turn out.

JIM LEHRER: As a practical matter David, quickly and then to you, Mark, on this as well, is there any single thing that either candidate could do to turn it around at this point or has the train already left the station?

DAVID BROOKS: Unless there is an amazing gaffe, I think the landscape is really very solid. So unless there is an amazing gaffe, I don’t think —

MARK SHIELDS: If the Red Sox win….

JIM LEHRER: Mark, shameless.

DAVID BROOKS: Hell will have frozen over, so….

MARK SHIELDS: Missouri is no longer a battleground state.

JIM LEHRER: So your theory here as a pundit is that if the Red Sox win, Kerry rides on the Red Sox coattails to victory? Is that your theory?

MARK SHIELDS: I have to say I know one Democratic couple where the wife asked the husband who was a Red Sox fan if you had to choose between the Red Sox winning or John Kerry getting elected and the husband answered, you don’t really want to know. So I think in that sense John Kerry doesn’t begin to rise to the level of the intensity and passion of the Red Sox fans.

What John Kerry has to do is get that share of women voters that he didn’t have that Al Gore won in 2000, Jim, and add to that, he has to make people feel safe and secure with him and that he shares their values. I mean, if he does those two things, then it’s up to the gods.

JIM LEHRER: I feel safe and secure with both of you and I share both of your values. Thank you.