JIM LEHRER: Polling numbers today pointed up the Democrats' dilemma, mostly about the economy. They came with the midterm election campaign in its end game.
The surveys released today offered little for President Obama to cheer about or for Democratic leaders in Congress, with voting day just five days off. A New York Times/CBS News poll found critical blocs that supported the president and his party two years ago are now defecting to Republicans.
Republicans held a 15 percent advantage among independents in the survey. And, among women voters, Republicans led Democrats by 4 percent. If that trend holds, it would be the first time since 1982, when exit polls began tracking the gender gap.
But, at the White House, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said other polls give a different view.
WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: I will say this. I think this overall notion of huge disappointment among Democratic voters is -- it is not matched in any of the empirical data that you guys produce and that we see.
JIM LEHRER: But it's the disappointing data on the economy that's been driving voter sentiment. And there was more today.
A new survey by the Associated Press showed leading economists have lowered their expectations for 2011 -- their new consensus, unemployment is expected to dip from the current 9.6 percent, but only to 9 percent, in the year ahead. The economy as a whole will expand only 2.7 percent.
The Republican National Committee had its own take in an online video released today.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But what is absolutely clear is, we're moving in the right direction. We are headed in the right direction. We are confident that we are moving in the right direction.
JIM LEHRER: The president found it hard to escape the mood of 2010, even during last night's appearance on "The Daily Show" with comedian Jon Stewart.
JON STEWART, host, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart": How did we go -- in two years...
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JON STEWART: ... from hope and change...
BARACK OBAMA: Yes.
JON STEWART: ... we are the people we've been looking for, to, you're not going to give them the keys, are you?
JON STEWART: You know, is it -- are you disappointed in how it's gone? Are you surprised that other people -- even your base -- can be disappointed? Or do you reject that narrative?
BARACK OBAMA: You know, look, when -- when I won, and we started the transition, and we looked at what was happening in the economy, a whole bunch of my political folks came up and said: "You know what? Enjoy this now, because, two years from now, folks are going to be frustrated." And that is, in fact, what's happened.
But, having said that, I look over the last 18 months, and I say, we prevented a second Great Depression. We've stabilized the economy. We have passed historic health care reform, historic financial regulatory reform. We have done things that some folks don't even know about.
JON STEWART: What have you done that we don't know about?
BARACK OBAMA: Well...
BARACK OBAMA: No, no, no, no.
JON STEWART: Are you -- are you -- are you planning a surprise party for us?
JON STEWART: Filled with jobs and health care?
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JIM LEHRER: The president said Democrats should be rewarded for taking tough votes in the last two years. And he urged voters to consider that even incremental progress is good.
JON STEWART: So, you wouldn't -- you wouldn't say you would run this time as a pragmatist. You would not -- it wouldn't be, yes, we can, given certain conditions...
BARACK OBAMA: No, I think -- I think what I would say is, yes, we can, but it is not...
JON STEWART: Yes.
BARACK OBAMA: But it is not going to happen -- it's not going to happen overnight.
JIM LEHRER: The president returns to the campaign trail tomorrow in Virginia.
And now, for an overall polling lay of the election land tonight, Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, and J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Company, an Iowa-based firm that conducted the latest Bloomberg poll.
Ann Selzer, generally speaking, Republicans are doing fairly well, overview, right?
J. ANN SELZER, Selzer & Company, Inc.: That's right. In fact, it looks a bit like a crimson tide is coming to the U.S. House of Representatives. I think the one glimmer of hope for Democratic candidates is that people who are deciding late, and whether they are deciding to actually vote late or are making up their minds late, those voters tend to be breaking for Democrats.
So, the last-minute hustle you have seen on the campaign trail may close that gap a little bit.
JIM LEHRER: How much is this being driven by views on the economy, home foreclosures, unemployment, fear of unemployment, et cetera?
J. ANN SELZER: You know, one of the things we see is a very gloomy view of the economy and no real consensus on who is to blame for the way it is or what should be done in terms of coming out of it.
The thing I really think is happening in this election is voters saying, really, ironically, we want something else, which is what they said in 2008, and they didn't get it. And they are still wishing to see solutions to the problems. They don't see one party in particular as having the mantle that is going to lead toward change. But they want something else.
JIM LEHRER: Something else, but they -- do the polls show an endorsement of what the Republicans have in mind? Or is it more of a rejection of what the Democrats have done?
J. ANN SELZER: Well, there's no strong endorsement for the Republicans. They have made a lot of noise -- the candidates have -- about how they're going to cut the budget. Maybe that's in deference to the Tea Party movement.
But, in our poll, voters are not at all saying that that's the lead thing that needs to happen. And it's just bare majorities that would endorse really any of the initiatives that the Republicans have put forward.
So, there's no mandate that would come with a Republican change in control of the House.
JIM LEHRER: Do you read the polls the same way, Andy?
ANDREW KOHUT, director, Pew Research Center: Pretty much. And what Ann was just talking about is one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen in a midterm election. This is a wave election, that is, there's a Republican trend. We have done four national polls in four months, and they all have Republican leads.
Yet, the image of the Republican Party isn't any better than the image of the Democratic Party, and the confidence in both of the parties is pretty low. So, this Republican wave is predicated upon, we're angry at the people who are in charge, and it's the Democrats who are in charge. But there's no sense that this is a movement toward the Republican Party.
And why? Because this is being -- this change is being driven by the views of independent voters, who favor the -- the Republicans by a 49-to-30 percent margin. Two years ago, they favored the Democrats, and -- and elected Obama, and, two years before that, the Democrats in '06. And the independents have voted against the party in power for what looks like three successive elections, because they don't feel the powers that be are getting it right.
JIM LEHRER: And, Ann, your poll shows the same thing, that the independents are the ones who are swinging toward the Republicans this time, rather than the Democrats?
J. ANN SELZER: Very definitely. And I think one of the striking findings out of our poll was a question about whether, if Republicans were to take control, would they want them to stand on principle, and, even if that meant gridlock, or do they want them to work together, even if it means compromising on principle?
And 80 percent, roughly, said that they want them to work together. They want -- this is the change they want. They want the parties to start cooperating and work together. And it puts Republicans in a bit of an interesting position, in that they have sort of claimed the change as being resistant to what's happening now. So, they're going to have to find a way of making the electorate think they are accomplishing something.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Andy, you used the term anger. Is there -- is it measurable? Can anger be measured in these polls in a way that strikes you?
ANDREW KOHUT: Oh, yes, certainly. We, early on in this year, repeated our surveys about trust in government that we did in the late -- at the beginning of the last decade. And we found then only 10 percent of people saying that they were angry with government. And that had gone up more than 20 percent in the polls that we have done this year. It's doubled.
And we had as many as a third of Americans saying that they feel that the U.S. government threatens their personal freedoms. That's a really harsh attitude. Now, that isn't the view of most people. Most people say, I'm frustrated by government.
JIM LEHRER: That's different than being angry.
ANDREW KOHUT: That's different than being angry. But the percentage of people who are angry has at least doubled over the course of the past decade.
JIM LEHRER: How do you -- how do you read the anger factor in your polls, Ann?
J. ANN SELZER: You know, we asked people -- we gave them, I think, five adjectives, ranging from, I'm optimistic, I'm reasonably hopeful, I'm indifferent, I'm frustrated, or I'm angry, and, really, about three out of four were in the top two categories of being optimistic or reasonably hopeful.
I don't deny that that bottom side, that anger side, may be growing. But I think this is the side of the American electorate that sometimes we don't always remember, which is that people heading into an election are thinking about the outcome and things getting better.
JIM LEHRER: Where does -- Andy, where does feeling -- where do feelings about President Obama fit into this right now?
ANDREW KOHUT: It's kind of a mixed reaction. You know, Obama's approval ratings have stayed pretty stable over a bad year for him. He gets about a...
JIM LEHRER: Just general approval -- approval of him as president?
ANDREW KOHUT: In general, 46 percent approve, 45 disapprove, a little lower than back in January, but not too bad.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
ANDREW KOHUT: And when we ask people, when you're casting a ballot, are you going to be voting for him or against him, that is, for the House, and we get 30 percent saying against, 27 percent saying for. So that's sort of a mixed read as well.
And the other thing that we see is that -- that what President Obama has been unable to do, however, is deliver his base that was so instrumental to his reelection in 2008 on behalf of the Democrats.
We see engagement on the part of the young people, African-Americans way down. So, in a lot of ways, the most important way of looking about President Obama isn't so much, what are attitudes toward him, but what has he been able to do for the Democratic Party? Not that much.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Ann?
J. ANN SELZER: I do, and I think that's really telling is that swing independent voter, who is what swept him into office with a very strong electoral victory. And they are now voting for Republicans, and they're not as favorably inclined toward President Obama as they once were. His ratings dropped a lot among that group.
JIM LEHRER: What about gender? What about women voters, who supported him strongly in 2008? What's happening this time?
J. ANN SELZER: Well, they still support him, just not in the overwhelming numbers that he used to have.
He's -- he's lost -- especially among independent women, he -- he's eroded into that base. Now, more women are Democratic than are independent, so he still looks pretty good when you look at women overall.
JIM LEHRER: Andy, I know you have done some polling on how interested people are in this election. What have you found right up until now?
ANDREW KOHUT: What we find is a lot of interest. This is likely -- we're likely to have as much turnout in 2010 as we had in 2006. And that has been one of the highest midterm -- that was one of the highest midterm election -- turnouts in a long period.
More people say, compared to typical midterm, that they have been paying a lot of attention to the -- giving it a lot of thought, paying attention to the news, and are inclined to vote. So, this -- expect heavy turnout.
But let's clarify for the viewers, heavy turnout means 40 percent of the eligible voters actually casting a ballot. This isn't a majority sport. This isn't like a presidential election, where we get 60 percent of the people voting. This is still a minority effort.
But compared to past elections, because there's anger and there's discontent, the numbers are going to be high.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Ann, this could -- this could -- about turnout?
J. ANN SELZER: Well, I do agree with it. And I tend to think that higher -- the higher the turnout, the better things will be for Democrats, in that the polling that is looking really at that core motivated voter very much trends Republican.
So what's left out there in terms of people who regularly vote, but thought they would sit this one out, are people who be, demographically, would be inclined to more align with the Democrats.
JIM LEHRER: The folks beyond the 40 percent, you mean?
J. ANN SELZER: Exactly.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, any time you can go above 40 percent, the chances are they will be Democrats, rather than Republicans, right? Is that what you're saying?
J. ANN SELZER: That's the way I do the math.
JIM LEHRER: OK. All right. Well, thank you both very much. We will see what happens.