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Analyst Discusses Which Voters Showed Up and Why They Cast Their Ballots

November 8, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Leaving the polls, Americans gave different reasons for voting the way they did. Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, is here to give us a little insight into what voters had on their minds.

And, Andy, let’s start with, “Who?” Whose votes gave the Democrats a good day yesterday?

ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Center for the People and the Press: The middle of the electorate. This was an election that wasn’t predicated — a win that wasn’t predicated on the base going one way or the other. It was moderates and independents who went decisively to the Democratic Party, 10 percentage points more for moderates than two years ago, 14 points for independents.

So independents, moderates, the middle of the electorate, the non-politicized people, voted decisively Democratic.

RAY SUAREZ: But Democratic candidates improved their standing among Democrats and Republicans, too, didn’t they?

ANDREW KOHUT: True, but Democrats and Republicans pretty much voted for their own constituencies. What the Democrats did was they failed to blunt — they blunted the usual Republican turnout advantage. We saw the race narrowing at the end of last week because Republicans were beginning to wake up. But in the end, the turnout efforts on the part of the Republicans could not overcome the Democratic enthusiasm advantage.

Important election issues

RAY SUAREZ: What did voters tell researchers were the issues that they viewed as extremely important?

ANDREW KOHUT: I think the number-one issue was President Bush himself. He had a 41 percent approval rating; 37 percent of the voters said they were casting a ballot against him when they voted for a congressional candidate. That was higher than for President Clinton back in 1994.

There was a lot of anger at President Bush predicated on the other big central issue, which is Iraq. And there was anger at the Republicans in Congress, because of anger at President Bush, but also because of corruption. Corruption loomed very large. It loomed as large as Iraq in the percentage of people saying they were taking this issue extremely seriously when they cast their ballot.

RAY SUAREZ: Had corruption been there as an issue all during the season or was this something that popped late in the tide?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I think the cumulative effect was there. And it was a lot -- it was behind a lot of the "throw the bums out, it's time for change." And that's what we've been talking about for some time. But it and the economy were really up there, in terms of issues that favored the Democrats, along with Iraq, of course.

RAY SUAREZ: And yet, at the same time, the Republicans had issues of their own. They decided to put a lot of emphasis during the fall on terrorism, immigration. Did it pay off?

ANDREW KOHUT: Not as much as it has in the past. I mean, there were 5 percentage points, modest margins for the Republicans among voters who were focused on immigration or focused on terrorism.

And terrorism is the interesting one. Because a large majority of people in this exit poll said the war in Iraq is hurting the war on terrorism, we didn't see a great Republican advantage on this issue, as we had seen in '04 and as we had seen in '02.

Immigration, the American public is divided pretty evenly on how to resolve immigration. You know, there wasn't some great groundswell based upon what we should do about immigration that propelled the Republicans to victory in using that issue.

What it resulted in was that the Hispanic vote went, I think, 69 percent to 21 percent for the Democrats. So the Hispanic vote had been going Republican, but there's a good deal of backlash, not so much against President Bush, but against the Republican Party, in how it was dealing with the issue of immigration.

Turnout due to immigration?

RAY SUAREZ: So you have that 69 percent Latino favoring for Democrats; was there also a higher turnout?

ANDREW KOHUT: I think -- that, I can't really answer right now.

RAY SUAREZ: And what about black voters?

ANDREW KOHUT: Black voters voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates in congressional races. We did see some black voters voting for black candidates, Republicans candidates, for example, in Steele, 28 percent of African-Americans voted for Steele. Obviously most of them continued to vote Democratic, but Black voters went home.

RAY SUAREZ: But in Maryland, a 28 percent black vote for a Republican is pretty significant.

ANDREW KOHUT: Pretty significant, but not significant enough, because, of course, Steele lost.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the gender gap? Was it as present in 2006?

ANDREW KOHUT: The gender gap is really interesting. Women voted strongly for Democratic candidates, but men on balance also favored Democratic congressional candidates.

This was the first election in years where both a majority of men and a majority of women voted for the same party. In all previous elections through the '90s, men would go one way, women would go another way. The rates would vary depending upon which party would win, but there was more of a consensus.

Men were upset about the performance of the Republican Party, too, and they voted against their usual instincts, which are more Republican than is the case for women.

The male vote and public opinion

RAY SUAREZ: It wasn't exactly a landslide, but Democrats got 51 percent of the male vote, which I guess is a lot more than they have gotten in some recent years.

ANDREW KOHUT: Right, and we didn't really have a landslide. We don't know exactly what the popular vote for Congress was; it looks to be something like 52 to 45, about a 7 percentage point margin.

And, remember, we've had a lot of discussions about what a relatively narrow margin would mean in terms of seat wins. And it seems like this wave -- not a tsunami, but this Democratic wave -- was strong enough to obviously move a lot of seats and overcome safe-seat redistricting. And that was one of the great questions, at least questions for pollsters and political scientists.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you were one of the public opinion researchers who saw a Republican bump in the final days of the campaign. Did it manifest itself at the ballot box?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, we did see a relatively -- we didn't see box car majorities. We didn't see the 15 and 20 percentage point margins. We saw about a 7 percentage margin. We had, in the end, a little more Republican than the electorate, but Gallup and ABC were right in there. They too narrowed but were in it about 6 percent or 7 percent.

But, again, that 6 percent or 7 percent, the 7 percent, we don't know quite what it is -- it could be 8 percent; it could be 6 percent -- was large enough, even in the safe-seat redistricting era, to move a huge number of seats to the Democrats.

Exit polling

RAY SUAREZ: Quick question on exit polling. It's gotten a lot of attention in recent cycles and been heavily criticized. Was it roughly a good portrait of the electorate this time?

ANDREW KOHUT: It was handled very well. There were some Democratic biases in the early waves of that exit poll. It was showing a bigger Democratic margin than actually turned out to be the case.

I think the way they controlled the dissemination of this, locking these people who are looking at it up until 5:00, minimized the impact of that overstatement of the Democrats. They did a much better job than they did in '04 in that respect. Looking at the data, it suggests they had still had some problems in overstating Democrats.

RAY SUAREZ: Andy Kohut, thanks for being with us.

ANDREW KOHUT: You're welcome.