TOPICS > Politics

Exit Polls Indicate Key Data On Voters, Campaigns and Candidates

November 5, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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Pollsters Amy Walter of the Hotline and Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center weigh exit poll data from Tuesday's election and discuss who voted for each candidate and why.

JIM LEHRER: And now, who voted for Barack Obama and who voted for John McCain, and why? Gwen Ifill has that story.

GWEN IFILL: For that, I’m joined by Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal’s political daily.

Feels like we just left here last night.

AMY WALTER, editor-in-chief, The Hotline: We never left.

GWEN IFILL: We never left, let’s pretend. So we’ve had a day to digest it, Amy and Andy. What do we know now about how voters voted and why?

AMY WALTER: Well, I think we will still be digesting this for a very long time, but, you know, it’s fun to look at a map that — the electoral map that finally looks different from the one that we had in 2000 and 2004.

You had to be paying very close attention to figure out which map was 2000 and which was 2004 because only three states switched from one to the other.

Now we’re looking at big, big changes, whether it’s Florida or Indiana or Ohio, and Nevada, and Colorado.

We know that — what I thought was interesting, though, was, even as the states switched, when you look closer at these states, look at an Ohio or look at a Pennsylvania, look at Florida, the blue and the red still sort of ended up in the same places, right, that Barack Obama doing well, the blues were showing up around cities and suburban areas, and the reds still in the rural areas.

But what happened was it was these margins that Obama was able to chip away at a little bit at a time. So he got a slightly better in some rural areas, for example, 1 or 2 points better, or McCain underperformed 1 or 2 points.

In Ohio, for example, between Toledo and going all the way to the other border, past Cleveland, you saw that was all blue. Those were places where George Bush had done well, and I think the economy was a big reason for that.

Obama won decisively

GWEN IFILL: What do you think?

ANDREW KOHUT, president, Pew Research Center: Well, I think that Obama did better in a variety of places and almost across the board in almost every demographic group for one simple reason: The economy is bad in all 50 states, and that was a very important element of this.

And the thing that was most significant in this victory was, unlike 2004, independents and moderates made a very decided choice. In '04, they divided about evenly between the two candidates, leaning a little bit to Bush. But in this election, they went pretty decisively to Obama, and the moderates overwhelmingly went to Obama.

GWEN IFILL: So it is still a red and blue America, but that middle part has now shifted?

ANDREW KOHUT: Yes, this was an election where the middle asserted itself. Now, it hasn't gone in some ideological direction. There's no sign in the exit polls and the patterns on vote on referendum and all kinds of things that, you know, this is a movement to the left. This is a vote of discontent with the status quo.

I mean, look at the mixed messages, in terms of issues. California, Arizona, Florida voting against gay marriage. On the other hand, we see in the exit polls more people saying they want an activist government. And there's no clear pattern in the data or in voter behavior to say we're going left.

GWEN IFILL: So it wasn't ideological. But was it demographic?

AMY WALTER: There were some signs that it was demonstrating, in that where Barack Obama did well was among all types of groups. And I think that's what makes this election for Obama such a much better experience, in terms of trying to go forward and working with the American public, as well as the legislature.

This is not an election where we can say, "All right, look, it was one state or one demographic that put him over the edge." It was doing better among white voters than John Kerry had done, doing better among rural voters than John Kerry or even Al Gore had done.

So this was not one of those very, you know, specific demographic elections where we can say, "But for this one group, Barack Obama would not have been elected."

Race, leadership were factors

GWEN IFILL: A lot of ink is going to be spilled, Andy, on the matter of the first African-American president. So as we go back and we look at the voters, did they vote for or against him based on race? Was race a positive, a negative?


I mean, we do see that Barack Obama was helped by race, showing that a big increase in African-American turnout and support for Barack Obama. And on the other hand, there was a small, relatively small number of whites who said they were considering race, and they voted overwhelmingly for McCain.

And the positive race factor did more for Obama than did the negative factor in this 8 percent who were voting on the race issue and largely against him.

So race was surprisingly a positive, something that helped Obama more than hurt him.

GWEN IFILL: He also spent a lot of time this campaign talking about leadership qualities. And there were questions that were raised by the McCain campaign, by the Republicans especially in the waning days, about his leadership skills and whether he had them or not, whether an untested person should be in the White House or not.

Did that resonate in any way that we saw?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, with what I saw, it was just the opposite of what we saw at the beginning of the campaign in September, when McCain had this great advantage on leadership and good judgment, voters gave a 10-point advantage to Barack Obama, 58 percent to 49 percent, as the candidate with the judgment required to be president.

Obama tested during primaries

AMY WALTER: Although I think something that's very interesting, in the polling that we had done before the Democratic convention, we noted that Barack Obama was getting about 58 percent of voters saying they thought he was prepared for the job. Now, more people thought that John McCain was prepared; 74 percent said that about McCain.

But then we went in and polled right up before the election, a couple of weeks before the election, and those numbers hadn't changed, which says to me, really, the fight that Barack Obama had during the primary is what put him, in many voters' minds, to that threshold to say, "He can do this job."

And I think what happened between that convention to the election helped maybe to solidify that. I think, obviously, the economic crisis, John McCain's reaction to that crisis, which was not as resolute as Barack Obama's.

But the fact is, I think the work that Obama had done up through -- I mean, those primaries, we had heard so much that this is going to be bad for the party. We heard Hillary Clinton voters were never going to come home. This was disastrous for the Democratic Party.

Ultimately, though, I think it was very, very good for him.

GWEN IFILL: Amy Walter, Andy Kohut, thank you for your help all election year long.

AMY WALTER: Thank you.