JIM LEHRER: Now a final overview of where we stand tonight on this election ever from NewsHour political editor David Chalian, and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today.
Susan, first, the television ads, is there any way to measure how much influence or how important they have been in this particular election cycle?
SUSAN PAGE, Washington bureau chief, USA Today: You know, it’s important that a candidate in a competitive race have enough TV ads to be competitive, but I think there’s definitely a law of diminishing returns.
In the states I have gone, like Nevada, Florida, Colorado, with close races, there are so many ads on the air, candidate ads, party committee ads, outside groups’ ads, that I’m not sure, if you have a little more than the other guy, that it makes that much difference.
And I would say that I think every ad I have seen, virtually, is a negative ad that’s not making the case for the candidate it’s for. It’s arguing that the candidate they’re against is an unacceptable alternative.
JIM LEHRER: What do you say, David? Are they working?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, I say that there are smart people in politics on both sides. And they wouldn’t pour $3 billion into it if they didn’t work or have some impact. So, television ads do work.
I agree with Susan. You do see so much clutter in these competitive states, that that’s why, when you do have an ad like Joe Manchin firing a gun at the cap-and-trade bill, it breaks through in a way. You get lots of free media coverage, beyond what you’re buying to advertise on television.
All the local press picks it up, and you can break through. So, I think you see more and more ad-makers really trying to do that breakthrough kind of ad that can get through all the clutter.
JIM LEHRER: And is there — are there examples of where it’s worked?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, there are examples where it’s worked and where it hasn’t worked. I mean, Christine O’Donnell, the “I’m not a witch” ad, it was her first television ad of the campaign. And you could watch your numbers fall immediately after that.
JIM LEHRER: After that ad?
DAVID CHALIAN: Right. So, there was an ad that backfired in her face. I do think that there are other ads we saw earlier in the cycle in the primary season. We saw one ad that was very effective in Pennsylvania. Joe Sestak, how he beat Arlen Specter was one of those ads that he used, when, you know, Arlen Specter said, “I changed party to get reelected.” That played over and over again. That kind of thing really had an effect in the Pennsylvania primary.
JIM LEHRER: Now, back to what Tim Kaine and Haley Barbour had to say.
Susan, Haley Barbour confirmed and believes or said that this election really is a referendum on Obama and Obama policies. Does all of your reporting and the polls reflect that to be the case?
SUSAN PAGE: I think, when you look at House races, that’s definitely the case.
We have seen a nationalized election when it comes to House races. And despite the attempts of Democrats and a lot of Democratic candidates to make it a choice between “me and the other person,” I think that’s largely felt.
Republicans have succeeded in large part this year by having a very consistent narrative against the Obama administration, against Nancy Pelosi, against the actions of the Democratic Congress, and have made it a referendum on what they have done. And voters are speaking in a big way that they’re not happy with those — that steps that they have taken.
JIM LEHRER: Barbour and Kaine seem to be agreeing on the reverse of this, that, if there is a big response to the Republicans tomorrow night, that that shouldn’t be read as a mandate, necessarily, a positive mandate for Republicans, per se.
DAVID CHALIAN: I really do think this is one of the most unique things in this election cycle, this notion of — that the Republicans could potentially win in huge numbers tomorrow night, and that the favorability of the party is still so low. Their brand has not rehabilitated in any way.
And, Jim, I think that this is — and Haley Barbour said this as a warning to his own party — this is the danger of potentially misinterpreting these results. And it will be fascinating to watch, if the Republicans do win and ascend in power, how they walk that line of not considering this a mandate for Republicanism, but instead sort of a check on Obama and on the specific issues, like Susan was saying, in their message, spending, taxes, but not for the party as a whole.
They’re going to have to walk that line very carefully.
JIM LEHRER: Is it your reading, Susan, that Barbour is speaking for a majority of the Republican leadership when he says what he is saying, “Hey, wait a minute; let’s not get carried away with these results”?
SUSAN PAGE: You know, I think Haley Barbour is clearly one of the most respected Republicans around among other Republicans, and definitely a leader. And with the weakness of the party chairman, Michael Steele, that’s even more the case.
So, he’s a very respected voice. I think we expect to see him make a presidential bid. So, yes, I think, when he’s speaking, he’s heard — his voice is amplified with some of the Republicans who will be taking over. But, you know, Republicans have this dilemma. I mean, you would like to have this dilemma, I guess, as a party.
But when you win big, you have got very disparate elements in your party. They are going to have Tea Party candidates who are extremely conservative, very uncompromising. And then they’re going to have some independent voters and voters who voted for Obama two years ago who have a different agenda, a different approach to politics. How you hold that together for the next time around, say, for 2012, is a big task.
JIM LEHRER: And another big task — David, correct me if I’m wrong — here, based on what both of them said as well, that President Obama is going to have to decide what he does now. I mean, does he — does he listen to what the voters said, and what did the voters say, and does he adjust and react in ways that get from here to there for him?
DAVID CHALIAN: Right. And we have seen examples in history of this, right? After the ’94 elections, Bill Clinton went out and said, I hear you, right, and then he took on this sort of, I’m going to work with them on some issues, the Republicans, and try to bridge this divide. 2006, George Bush came out. He said, I took a thumping last night. And he fired Don Rumsfeld, his secretary of defense.
So, yes, watching President Obama’s response, how he indicates to the American people that he has heard the results of the election and how his actions going forward sort of reflect that hearing is going to be a key thing to watch. You heard Tim Kaine — that’s President Obama’s handpicked chairman there — who said there will be adjustments. There will be corrections.
I think that’s a sneak peak into what’s coming.
JIM LEHRER: What do you make of Haley Barbour’s final remark that this is the most important election of his lifetime? Now, he says he’s been in electoral politics for 40 years.
SUSAN PAGE: Well, I have to say that every election is the most important election of our lifetimes.
SUSAN PAGE: It’s — you know, I have been covering national politics since 1980, and every one of those has seemed…I have had someone say that.
But I do think that Republicans — there was concern among Republicans two years ago that Democrats had devised a kind of winning durable coalition for a generation, that, you know, Obama won a majority of the vote. No Democrat had done that since — since…
JIM LEHRER: Of the popular vote.
SUSAN PAGE: Of the popular vote.
JIM LEHRER: Right, yes.
SUSAN PAGE: And there — so, there was a lot of concern on the part of Republicans about the future of the party.
Now I think they feel like they have gotten a second chance because the economy is bad and people are unhappy with some of the steps the president has taken.
JIM LEHRER: And that would define the word important, would it not?
DAVID CHALIAN: Oh, it definitely would define the word important.
But I agree with Susan. I have heard, every election cycle, a politician declare this the most important, because they are still trying to get those voters to the polls, so they want them to feel that it’s very important right up until the last moment.
But we are at a volatile moment in our politics, third change election in a row. There’s no doubt that this is an important election.
JIM LEHRER: OK. David, Susan, thank you both very much.
SUSAN PAGE: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: We will see what happens.