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Polls Show Voters Favor Change of Iraq Strategy, Prefer Democrats

November 2, 2006 at 6:09 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: With five days to go before the midterm elections, what the latest polls have to say about the American voters’ state of mind and inclination. Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, is here one again to sort through them for us.

Andy, welcome. The big news seems to be in polls, at least, was today’s New York Times-CBS poll. What was new and significant about it?

ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Center for the People and the Press: Well, what struck me was the size of the Democratic margin. The numbers aren’t getting any smaller. And there’s a 52-to-34 percent margin favoring the Democrats, in terms of voting intentions.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s a generic question and a generic answer?

ANDREW KOHUT: Generic question that asks people, when they go to the polls, are they going to vote for a Republican candidate or Democratic candidate in their district?

Now, that’s a big margin, 18 points, but we’ve collected — and we have a slide showing the last half a dozen polls conducted in the last 10 days. And there it is. And the CBS-New York Times is the biggest margin, but, you know, Newsweek has a 14-point margin, and FOX has one of the smaller ones, as we do, 11 points.

But, you know, these are — to my mind, these are box car numbers. We have not seen that kind of preference for one party, especially the Democrats, since the 1980s or before. There was a four-point margin in the actual popular vote in 2002. In ’98, I think it was only about two points plus Republican. This is new terrain in the modern era.

Polls: can we trust them?

JIM LEHRER: Well, the conventional wisdom -- and you've talked about this before on this program -- is that you have to be careful with these kinds of generic, "I'm for the Democrats," "I'm for the Republicans," because people don't vote that way. They vote for an individual member of the House or an individual candidate for the House or for a Senate candidate. How do you extrapolate this? How does history do it?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, actually, these polls do -- in midterm elections -- do a good job of estimating the popular vote.

JIM LEHRER: Do a good job?

ANDREW KOHUT: The problem is, we don't know what the relationship is now between the popular vote and the number of seats each party will win. Most of the elections since redistricting have had relatively narrow margins, two or four points.

Now, if we get an election that turns out the way these polls suggest, we're not going to know whether this is going to mean 20 seats, 15 seats, or 40 seats. My guess it's probably somewhere in the 20 range. But we don't have the kind of track record that we had for all of those years, from 1946 to 1994.

JIM LEHRER: All right. We're still five days to go. What does the CBS-New York Times poll and all your polls and other polls show about how many people are still undecided at this stage?

ANDREW KOHUT: A relatively small number of people are undecided, probably in the number of 6 to 8 percentage points.

JIM LEHRER: Is that unusual, to have it that small right now?

ANDREW KOHUT: No, the numbers are relatively comparable.

Iraq's role in voter trends

ANDREW KOHUT: I mean, what really comes through in these polls is how much Iraq is the dominating issue. In this CBS-New York Times poll, it towered over all other issues. But what we see is just such a great vote on the part of the public or sentiment on the part of the public for some kind of change. Again...

JIM LEHRER: Yes, we have one here.

ANDREW KOHUT: We have a slide.

JIM LEHRER: And this is from today's poll as well?

ANDREW KOHUT: We have...

JIM LEHRER: Look at that, "Keep current strategy," 8 percent.

ANDREW KOHUT: Quite an endorsement.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes.

ANDREW KOHUT: Sixty-one percent, "Change strategy"; 27 percent, "Removal of troops."

Now, when you break up that 61 percent, you don't really find much of a consensus. You have about as many people saying, "Take the troops out slowly," as say about 25 percent, "Take the troops out all at once." You even get 16 percent in this very poll saying, "We need more troops."

So what people are voting for is, "We want a different strategy. We want something different." But there is no real conviction about what that difference should be, except that the

Democrats are seen as more likely to provide "get troops out of there" more quickly than the Republicans.

Most voters want change in Iraq

JIM LEHRER: All right. We're still five days to go. What does the CBS-New York Times poll and all your polls and other polls show about how many people are still undecided at this stage?

ANDREW KOHUT: A relatively small number of people are undecided, probably in the number of 6 to 8 percentage points.

JIM LEHRER: Is that unusual, to have it that small right now?

ANDREW KOHUT: No, the numbers are relatively comparable.

ANDREW KOHUT: I mean, what really comes through in these polls is how much Iraq is the dominating issue. In this CBS-New York Times poll, it towered over all other issues. But what we see is just such a great vote on the part of the public or sentiment on the part of the public for some kind of change. Again...

JIM LEHRER: Yes, we have one here.

ANDREW KOHUT: We have a slide.

JIM LEHRER: And this is from today's poll as well?

ANDREW KOHUT: We have...

JIM LEHRER: Look at that, "Keep current strategy," 8 percent.

ANDREW KOHUT: Quite an endorsement.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes.

ANDREW KOHUT: Sixty-one percent, "Change strategy"; 27 percent, "Removal of troops."

Now, when you break up that 61 percent, you don't really find much of a consensus. You have about as many people saying, "Take the troops out slowly," as say about 25 percent, "Take the troops out all at once." You even get 16 percent in this very poll saying, "We need more troops."

So what people are voting for is, "We want a different strategy. We want something different." But there is no real conviction about what that difference should be, except that the

Democrats are seen as more likely to provide "get troops out of there" more quickly than the Republicans.

How to read polls in coming days

JIM LEHRER: OK, now what do we know from history about the last two- or three-day polls, how indicative they really are about what the end result are going to be? In other words, give us some advice on how to read these last polls.

ANDREW KOHUT: Some advice is to keep an eye on what's happening with respect to turnout. The Democrats have an unusual advantage, but then we have Karl Rove with this great machine that presses the right buttons for Republicans who are demoralized and more disengaged than we've seen in recent elections. So one thing...

JIM LEHRER: And the polls indicate that, right?

ANDREW KOHUT: The polls should pick this up if it's going to be happening over the weekend and into Monday. Secondly, you know, just practically, we want to know what happened as a consequence of Senator Kerry's unfortunate comment.

We've seen in past elections something at the end makes a small difference. I mean, it's inconceivable to me that Kerry's comment could change the Democratic tide, but it could make a difference in some of these very close elections. We've got a lot of very close Senate elections and congressional elections. And when things are really close, anything can make a difference.

JIM LEHRER: Anything. And people are going to be polling on that question, do you think? Are you going to be asking people about the Kerry comment?

ANDREW KOHUT: We are going to be asking people if they had heard about it, whether it matters to them. And we have comparisons with Bush's DWI -- remember the Bush DWI charge late in the campaign in 2000, which Karl Rove thinks cost him the popular vote. We've always had lots of little things like that that we have a track record on.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Andy, as always, thank you, sir.

ANDREW KOHUT: You're welcome.