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Polls Gauge Voter Sentiment Before Primary Season Kicks Off

December 26, 2007 at 6:35 PM EST
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After a holiday break, election campaigns resumed Wednesday as candidates try to sway still-undecided voters before the critical Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary next week. Pollsters from each state examine the latest data in the 2008 presidential race.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, what voters in Iowa and New Hampshire say they’re looking for in a presidential candidate. With the first votes for the party nominations to be cast in just eight days, we’re joined by Andy Smith. He’s professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire and director of the university’s survey center. And Ann Selzer, who directs the Iowa poll for the Des Moines Register newspaper.

Good to see both of you. Thank you. The polls show that pretty much these races are close in both of these first states, the frontrunners bunched up at the top.

Ann Selzer, to you in Iowa, what percentage of the voters there would you say have absolutely made up their minds at this point about whom they’re voting for?

ANN SELZER, Des Moines Register: Well, the races on both sides have been very slippery and the lead changing sort of every time we go into the field and take a poll.

When we really drill down into our data and say, “Well, what do we know for certain?” we know it’s no more than one-in-three who say they are definitely going to the caucuses, they have a first choice, and their mind is made up, they will not change and support another candidate.

And that doesn’t seem like a lot, but this is the time in these last few days that people will be locking in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So two-thirds potentially of likely caucus voters aren’t sure yet?

ANN SELZER: Well, there are many things that sort of keep them taking a look. I mean, I think they’re really trying to now figure out who is going to be the right person.

On the Democratic side, they just don’t want to make a mistake. They want to be sure that the person that they support can win the nomination, and can win the presidency, and then will be successful as a president.

And as you hear them walk through their logic, it’s almost a little bit like Groundhog Day. You keep hearing people say the same thing over and over, but they come to different conclusions. There are people who say, “For that reason, I support Hillary Clinton,” or they will say, “For that reason, I cannot support Hillary Clinton.”

And the Republicans, it’s a little bit different. It’s really finding a candidate they can live with and feel comfortable with. They have concerns about every one of them, and it’s trying to just figure out who to lock in with and take to caucus night.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me turn to New Hampshire and ask Andy Smith, what percentage of voters there have made up their minds?

ANDY SMITH, University of New Hampshire: We’re seeing a very similar thing here in New Hampshire that only about a third of the voters on either the Republican side or the Democratic side have absolutely made up their mind about who they’re going to vote for.

And that fits in what we’ve seen in the past. According to exit polls both in 2000 and 2004, about half of the voters say they make up their minds in the last week. More than a quarter say they make up their mind in the last couple days before the election. So we’re in sort of a typical environment here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So not so different from in the past?

ANDY SMITH: No, not different at all. And I think that we’re looking for an electable candidate, as well.

Different party approaches

Ann Selzer
The Iowa Poll
So people are concerned when they think about her being elected, "This is the candidate the Republicans seem to want. We know that they will come after her."

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about that? Do you see differences? We just heard Ann Selzer in Iowa say Democrats seem to be looking for one thing. They don't want to make a mistake. They want to pick somebody who can go on and win the presidency.

Republicans, she said -- and I think I'm quoting here -- they're looking for a candidate they can live with. Are you seeing anything like that in New Hampshire?

ANDY SMITH: Well, I think on both the Republican and Democratic side they're looking for candidates who can win in November.

Here I think it's very important to point out that the Republican electorate in New Hampshire is quite different than the Republican electorate in Iowa, much more moderate, much more socially moderate. And I think they're looking for a winner, too. They're not so much concerned about a candidate they can live with, because by and large they can live with any of the candidates.

On the Democratic side, I think they definitely want a winner. And I think there are some very specific things that they're looking and trying to judge between Clinton and Obama. Edwards is not doing so well here. They like Clinton's experience, but they like the freshness and the seeming honesty that Obama brings to the race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ann Selzer, when you say among the Democrats they don't want to make a mistake, what exactly are you saying they're looking for, I mean, somebody who can win in November, but what do you mean?

ANN SELZER: Well, I think this really speaks to the concerns people have about both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. On the one hand with Hillary Clinton, they do not want to re-fight the battles that sort of we were mired down with during Bill Clinton's presidency.

So people are concerned when they think about her being elected, "This is the candidate the Republicans seem to want. We know that they will come after her." And they just kind of are saying, "I don't want to have a president that can't be effective because she's under fire."

Of course, there are people who say, "Any president is going to be under fire, so she's the one that's been there before and knows the best how to deal with it."

With Obama, they want to be sure that he doesn't sort of have to do on-the-job training in order to be up to speed and to be effective as a president. So they're trying to weigh that out.

But our last poll showed just a 7-point difference in terms of ability to make effective change, with Hillary Clinton leading that -- I'm sorry, with Barack Obama leading that over Hillary Clinton. And the difference, in terms of experience, Senator Clinton leads by 34 percentage points on that.

So you can imagine that, in these final days, that's what she's going to be touting, that that's going to trump ability to make change.

National electability

Andy Smith
University of New Hampshire
Recently, Mitt Romney has been taking some shots here as seen as a candidate who doesn't necessarily have a core reason for running, and he's seen as vulnerable on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Andy Smith in New Hampshire, to the extent electability is important to voters, what does that mean in New Hampshire?

ANDY SMITH: Well, it means that they want somebody who can win in November, somebody that they feel is both competent and doesn't have the background that's going to hurt them in November. I think we're seeing that both on the Republican and the Democratic side.

Recently, Mitt Romney has been taking some shots here as seen as a candidate who doesn't necessarily have a core reason for running, and he's seen as vulnerable on that.

We see both Clinton and Obama have some weaknesses. Ann mentioned Clinton's advantage on experience. We're seeing here with the lead of 50 percent to 6 percent over Obama as the most experienced candidate.

At the same time, we're seeing Clinton have some real problems with honesty. We're seeing that Obama is leading her 29 percent to 16 percent as the most trustworthy candidate in the race.

So all of these candidates bring in some strengths and weaknesses that they know the other side is going to use against them in November. And they're trying to judge which one of these has the best package of good strengths and weaknesses that aren't so troubling.

Single issues playing smaller role

Ann Selzer
The Iowa Poll
I'm really hearing in this election a lot less insistence on certain issues for the candidate in order to win the vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ann Selzer, in Iowa, how much difference do issues matter in this, I mean, what we classically define as issues?

ANN SELZER: Well, issues have certainly been important in sort of figuring out the field, and getting a lay of the land, and understanding who it is that most identifies with the issues that you're up to.

But I'm really hearing in this election a lot less insistence on certain issues for the candidate in order to win the vote. I was chatting with a young woman who is religiously conservative. In the past, she said all it took was a pro-life stance and an anti-gay marriage stance, and that's really all the thinking she needed to do.

And this year, it sort of struck her: These things have really nothing to do with running the country. And so those issues have really sort of, I think, played a little bit less, as people are really thinking about the complex world that the next president will inherit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To you, Andy Smith in New Hampshire, how much weight are voters giving to race and to gender? And I'm specifically thinking of whether that's going to be a factor as people consider Clinton and Obama.

ANDY SMITH: Race, I don't think it's that big of an issue here in New Hampshire. We've got a very liberal Democratic electorate here. Race hasn't really shown up as a major factor in the race so far. I imagine for some small segment of voters it will be a concern.

We are seeing some interesting things with gender. Male voters are much more strongly supportive of Barack Obama than they are of Hillary Clinton.

And in part, that's the Clinton campaign. They're really trying to attract women voters, particularly working women, to their campaign and, to a certain extent, it's paying off. At the same time, it seems to be alienating some of the male voters.

Weighing intangibles

Andy Smith
University of New Hampshire
We like to think of kind of the political science model or the civics class model, that voters weigh issues and try to align their issues with the positions of the various candidates. But as political scientists, we know that's just not true.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ann Selzer, I guess picking up on that, what do you not know about what the voters are thinking? Are there things they don't share with pollsters?

ANN SELZER: Well, on the Democratic side, please realize that they're going to stand up in their caucus and announce their vote intention. So we don't really have the difference between what you say in public and what you're going to do in the privacy of your voting booth. That will be a very public announcement of your vote.

And my assessment is that, if Obama does not win in Iowa, it won't be because of race. It will be a failure of getting these first-time, young caucusgoers that he has really lined up behind him, a failure to get them to show up if he doesn't win.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Andy Smith, in terms of what you'd like to know from these voters that you can't pick out of the information they give you?

ANDY SMITH: The biggest problem is trying to figure out what are the factors that really determine who they're going to vote for. We like to think of kind of the political science model or the civics class model, that voters weigh issues and try to align their issues with the positions of the various candidates.

But as political scientists, we know that's just not true. However, it's difficult to tell -- to get a voter to tell us that, "No, it's the way this person speaks," or, "I like the way they look," or, "It's the way they carry themselves in public."

We know those things are important, but it's very difficult for us to actually make a reasonable assessment about what the impact of those factors are in a race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quick last question, Ann Selzer. Where are people getting most of their information? Is it TV ads? Is it seeing the candidates in person, reading about them in newspaper?

ANDY SMITH: Well, I think half of caucusgoers have met at least one candidate in person, so they certainly have the luxury of having that. Their demographics: They're older; they're affluent; they're well-educated. Those are good for newspaper readers.

So I'm sure that they're taking in a lot of information there. They're also good demographics for public television. I think they're just going after everything that will help them make a decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Well, we thank both of you, Ann Selzer in Iowa, Andy Smith in New Hampshire. We appreciate it.

And our coverage of Vote 2008 continues online. You may use our interactive map to find reports from the NewsHour, from NPR, and local stations in Iowa, New Hampshire, and elsewhere around the country. Visit us at PBS.org.