GWEN IFILL: Well, ever since this year’s first votes were cast in Iowa, our “NewsHour” political brain trust has joined us here to tell us what to watch for next.
They’re here again: Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call newspaper, Andrew Kohut, president of the PewResearchCenter, and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today.
Andy, I’m going to start with you because you have exciting new poll numbers, or I should say poll numbers which finally end this poll madness. Where have we ended up?
ANDREW KOHUT, PewResearchCenter: At the end of the madness, we have 50 percent saying they’re going to vote for Obama, 47 percent for Romney.
That’s a statistically significant lead, given that the sample is 2,800 likely voters. About a week ago, it was tied 47 to 47. And an important message from the polls that I have been watching, obviously including ours, is that momentum seems to be going to Obama over the course of the past week.
GWEN IFILL: Does this last-minute trending in the direction of one candidate or another, does it traditionally mean something, or can it flip back the other way between the time you get out of the field and the time votes are cast?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, when people’s attitudes are in transition, any — one of a number of things are possible. It could be like 1980, where we’re underestimating the Obama vote. I don’t think so.
I think that there is still probably a fair amount of uncertainty in the electorate. We have 11 percent saying they might change their mind or they’re flat-out undecided. And we know in exit polls, when we ask them — last look at tomorrow night — we will find 8 or 9 percent saying, yes, I just made up my mind in the last couple of days.
So, there’s still the potential for change and there’s still some things in this race that say this is — it ain’t necessarily written.
GWEN IFILL: Susan, we just saw Judy spent her lovely weekend in Ohio. Where else are the final battles being waged?
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Well, we’re looking at Ohio, Florida, of course, Virginia, a very important state.
One good thing about tomorrow night is we have all these East Coast states that are important. So maybe we won’t have an endless 2000 kind of night. The polls will close in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire by 8 o’clock.
So maybe we will have a very close race, and it will go on forever because we will have disputes over provisional ballots. But maybe this will not be such a late night.
And you see that Andy’s poll and also the ABC/Washington Post poll also gives a three-point lead to Barack Obama.
So, after this long campaign, where a lot of voters have been disappointed in President Obama, especially on the economy, we may be seeing, because of Hurricane Sandy and some other factors, people settling on him.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you one other question, Susan. It seems that at some point, we saw that the Romney campaign, they’re spending tomorrow, Election Day, in Pittsburgh and in Cleveland. What is that about? What does that mean?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think, I mean, this is obviously close. In the USA Today/Gallup poll of swing states, we were at 48 percent-48 percent. Cannot get any closer than that.
Obviously, the thing that could save Mitt Romney, that could give this election to him is that we continue to see Republicans being more enthusiastic about the election than Democrats are.
So, maybe that means that turnout will be better for Republicans. And on some of these very close states, that could swing it. And I think that is why you see him going to these states even on Election Day.
GWEN IFILL: Stu, what does a race this close tell you about the electorate?
STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Well, it tells us something actually we have known for a long time, Gwen, I think that the country is roughly evenly divided. They have two very different views of government and of the two parties.
It’s funny you should ask that. We didn’t plan this or anything. But I went through…
GWEN IFILL: You just happened to have this.
STUART ROTHENBERG: I did. Actually, I did.
I went through Andy’s poll earlier when we were in the green room there. And I went through the various demographic groups as to which party or which candidate is winning.
And it’s not shocking, but it’s a reminder about how these divisions have existed for a while.
So, I went through Andy’s poll.
And who is Romney winning? He’s winning whites, both men and women. Let’s be very clear, both men and women. But he’s winning whites. He’s winning older voters, religious voters, self-described conservatives, Republicans, and Southerners.
And who is the president winning? African-Americans, Latinos, younger voters, lower-income, self-described liberals, including white liberals, Democrats, voters in the Northeast and West.
I mean, there are two big party coalitions. And we have had all this fighting for weeks and months. And there has been some movement. And independents have moved back and forth. I don’t want to suggest otherwise.
But we start with two big blocs in what I believe is a close to evenly divided country.
GWEN IFILL: Has that demographic hardened now, that demographic split between the parties?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I think that the demographic split that Stu mentioned, that’s there. That’s obvious.
But we have seen Obama gain among whites over the course of the past week, gain among moderate voters, gain among independents. So those are the contours, but how it plays out within the contours that shape the votes.
There are a number of indicators, though, in these surveys that suggest that Obama has a lot of things going for him. First of all, his support is stronger than Romney’s.
And in the past 12 elections, the president — the candidate who had the stronger support, nine out of the last 12 elections, that candidate won.
He has more positive support than Romney. Most people say they’re voting for Obama, rather than against Romney. The candidate with the positive support typically wins. And we see the public predicting by a very large margin a Obama victory.
GWEN IFILL: Who they think is going to win.
ANDREW KOHUT: Yes. And all of these things in historical — historical references, looking over 12 elections, they all point to an Obama victory.
GWEN IFILL: Hurricane Sandy, you mentioned, Susan, do we have any way of knowing whether that froze the race sufficiently to give the president an edge?
SUSAN PAGE: I think it did a couple things.
For one thing, it showed the president as president, as commander in chief. That’s better for him than being seen as a candidate. It also showed the federal government doing something that I think most people thought, yes, this is an appropriate role for the government. This is something we want the government to be prepared to do if a national disaster strikes our community.
And I think that’s helped, because one of the most fundamental issues in this election is what is the appropriate role of the federal government, with Mitt Romney expressing support for a much smaller role for the federal government and the president for a bigger one.
The third thing it did was it took a couple of days out of the campaign. Mitt Romney was making some gains. And it took a couple days out, interrupted what is that final stretch. And I think that also could have had an effect.
GWEN IFILL: So, tomorrow night, when you sit down and you try to look for the signs, and you have to write your lead early, and you will have figure out what’s going on.
What are you watching for, Stu, for signs of the outcome?
STUART ROTHENBERG: We will obviously be looking at some of these early states. Virginia, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin I think are the big four. We will be looking for independent voters.
We will be looking to see what the makeup of the electorate is. I think that’s most important, how many Republicans, how many Democrats, how many independent voters. That’s what I will be looking for.
Andy is shaking his head, so I think…
ANDREW KOHUT: No, I’m not shaking my head. I’m agreeing with you.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Oh, OK.
ANDREW KOHUT: What I’m going to be looking at is turnout. If Romney is going to pull this thing out or win, it’s going to be because Democrats have wavered in their voting intentions.
GWEN IFILL: And whether his enthusiasm argument plays out in the end and people are actually showing up.
ANDREW KOHUT: That’s right, and whether the young vote, the non-white vote shows up at what we’re predicting now, which is, of course, lower — we’re predicting lower than 2008. But if it falls much lower, that’s problematic, and positive for Romney.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Can I, real quickly?
GWEN IFILL: Sure.
STUART ROTHENBERG: The Republicans, the Romney folks and the Republicans, they have polls. And I think they honestly believe that they’re going to win or that they have a much better chance than Andy’s three points or the Washington Post/ABC.
And they see a different electorate. And while I suspect most of us don’t think that they’re right, they could be. And I think we need to keep that in mind.
GWEN IFILL: Susan, final one — final thought, what you’re watching for tomorrow night.
SUSAN PAGE: So, does this tell us about the course ahead? We’re going to have this close election, two coalitions that have very different views about what the government should do, what course we should take.
Does this election lead us to just a continued situation where we’re at loggerheads in Washington and things just can’t get done?
GWEN IFILL: Susan Page of USA Today, Stu Rothenberg of Roll Call and The Rothenberg Political Report, Andrew Kohut of PewResearchCenter, thank you all very much.