Gwen’s Take: Taking Voters at Their Words

BY Gwen Ifill  January 27, 2012 at 5:40 PM EDT

Pundits. Analysts. Historians. Political scientists. The landscape is lousy with them this election year, and I love talking with them.

But in our PBS NewsHour political coverage this year, we are making a special commitment to seek out the opinions of the people who actually cast the votes. And in each of the contests we have covered so far, we have found they do not disappoint.

“Romney, I mean. He’s a nice guy,” Victoria Nwasike told Judy Woodruff in Iowa. “He’s polished. He’s back for a second time around, you know, but he’s just not the person who I would get up in a snowstorm to vote for.”

That was less than a month ago. Now, as Romney struggles to reclaim the mantle of inevitability that once seemed assured, her words seem prescient.

Time and again, while reviewing the transcripts of conversations Judy and I have held with voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, I have realized that the voters have been a step ahead of us all along.

In New Hampshire, I met Debi Rapson, a disenchanted Obama voter who planned to vote Republican this time. But she worried that Romney seemed out of touch with people like her who see their retirement savings draining away.

“Somebody asked him in one of the town hall meetings about how Middle America is going to get back to having a life,” she told me. “And he said, yes, you know, I’m really worried about my investments too. Hello? Middle America doesn’t have any investments anymore!”

Talking to these voters has added real heft to our coverage this year. I am constantly reminded how darned smart voters are, and how they are almost always ahead of the polls and the predictors.

I was hanging around the edges of a Newt Gingrich rally in Beaufort, S.C. last week on the day the political world was quaking with Rick Perry’s exit, Rick Santorum’s belatedly confirmed Iowa win, and new reports that Marianne Gingrich was unloading on her ex.

The voters I chatted with were well aware that Gingrich had his issues, but they were looking for options. “I think he generates a good bit of chemistry with people, but he’s got a little bit of luggage,” Jerry Wheeles, a Myrtle Beach businessman, told me, adding with a chuckle: “I do too, of course.”

Exit polls three days later showed that most South Carolina voters were like Wheeles. They internalized Gingrich’s shortcomings, evaluated the alternatives, and decided to vote for him anyway.

Most of the engaged voters we’ve talked to, in fact, are actively engaged in weighing the pros and cons of their choices.

“I have got one vote,” New Hampshire Republican Don Byrne told us just before the primary there. “Do I vote strategically for the person who I think could beat the President? Do I vote tactically for the person who I think represents my views?”

“To me, Mitt Romney is the status quo in the Republican party,” Republican B.J. McLaughlin told Judy in Iowa. “And I think a lot of us – I don’t know how many of us are Tea Partiers or libertarians – we’re dissatisfied with the status quo of the Republican party.”

As Florida Republicans prepare to go to the polls Tuesday, the battle-royale between Romney and Gingrich has indeed become a definitional one. Gingrich casts himself as the renegade, the big-thinking outsider who is best suited to take on the status-quo establishment.

Meanwhile, in trying to weaken Gingrich, Romney has embraced his standing as the establishment’s choice – rolling out endorsement after endorsement from elected officials and mainstream Republicans who have been watching the Gingrich surge with dread.

I would tell you what those folks have to say, but you can find that anywhere. Judy and I have been having far more luck talking to folks you’ve probably never heard of – like Ann Ubelis of the Beaufort, S.C., Tea Party.

“No compromise, no surrender,” she told me when I asked if, in the end, she would just choose the most electable candidate. “You go for your true principle. You vote on principle. And what shakes out in the end, then, I’m sorry, you are going to hold your nose and you’re going to vote for the Republican nominee.”

The next test of my voters-in-the-drivers’-seat theory: Florida, Florida, Florida.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.