Tavis: In just four weeks Americans head to the polls for one of the most anticipate non presidential elections in recent memory. For more tonight, pleased to be joined by Amy Walter, former editor-in-chief of “The Hotline” and now political director at “ABC News.” She joins us tonight from Washington. Amy, congrats on your new position, and good to have you back on the program.
Amy Walter: Thank you very much, glad to be here.
Tavis: Is it just me or have I been hearing for weeks and weeks and weeks now that Republicans were going to clean the clocks of Democrats and now of late I see Republicans, John Boehner and others, starting to walk down, back down a bit on these predictions about what we thought they were going to pull off in November. Is that the way – am I reading this wrong?
Walter: I don’t think you’re reading this wrong. Yes, we’ve been hearing for quite some time that this is going to be a big election, a good election for Republicans, all factors are in their favor. When we look at the poll numbers out there, the president’s approval rating is under 50 percent, the enthusiasm gap, right? We’ve heard so much about that. Republicans more motivated this year than Democrats. People frustrated with the direction of the country, frustrated with the way the president’s handling the economy, just tick down the list.
Now, we’ve seen – the Republicans will tell you, well, we’ve never said outright we’re going to take control of Congress, but it’s clear that the expectations game has sort of gotten out of their control. The expectation right now is that Republicans, it’s not enough just to have a good night, they should have a great night, and in the House, that would mean that John Boehner would win over as Speaker.
Now again, that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. That doesn’t mean we’re saying it will happen. It’s just that the expectation now has been built up so high that anything less than that could be seen as a bad night for the Republican Party.
Tavis: So the strategy now is again, to lower those expectations?
Walter: That’s right. Keep those expectations in check, but I read this today but it seems as if the train has already left the station on that one, and that you can keep trying to lower it but until we start to see some empirical evidence that this is really going to be a very different election and it’s been set up to be, it’s going to be hard to change that perception.
Tavis: How do you lower expectations while not at the same time dampening the enthusiasm of the folk in your base?
Walter: Well, there’s actually a good way to do this, though. You don’t want to get your team so convinced that they’re going to win that they stay at home, so in some ways tamping down expectations is a good way to motivate your base.
You say, “If you guys stay home, you think we have it in the bag? We don’t. You’re not out there; we could lose some of these very close elections.” The reality, too, is that it’s not as if it’s hurting them with money. There are certainly a lot of folks giving money to Republican candidates, either directly or we see a lot of these third-party groups now spending a great deal of money on behalf of Republicans.
Tavis: It’s one thing to say that one group versus another is more vocal, that they’re more in your face, that their rhetoric is more – that they’re louder with their rhetoric, but it’s another thing to say that one group is more enthused than another group.
So help me understand why we keep even having this conversation about this enthusiasm gap. Where’s the evidence? Who said that the Republicans, that the right are more energized than the left, than Democrats are this time around – where’s that coming from?
Walter: That’s a great question. When you look at polls, especially as we get later on into the cycle, the pollster oftentimes asks the question how likely is it that you will go and vote? Are you certain that you’re going to vote? Is there a 50-50 change you’re going to vote? Is it not likely that you’re going to vote?
What you do then is you take those folks who say, “I am certain to vote,” these are the people that if their hair were on fire they would make sure to go vote before they went and doused it out, all right?
When we look at that we see that Republicans, by a pretty good margin, say they are more certain to vote than Democrats. What’s also interesting – we’ve seen this in some polls as well – is that even independents say that they’re more enthusiastic or more certain, I’m sorry – more certain to vote, and we turn certain into the enthusiasm gap.
So this isn’t to say that Democrats are unhappy or that they don’t like Democrats or don’t like the president. What it means is that they just, at least right now, are not – they’re telling pollsters that they’re not as certain to come and vote as some Republicans or Independents.
Tavis: So if Democrats stay home, this is not going to be read as a lack of enthusiasm? It won’t be read as a referendum on President Obama?
Walter: It will, because folks will say, “Well, gosh, if Democrats were really so enthusiastic about the president, why wouldn’t they come out and support him?” But the reality as we know is it’s a lot easier to turn out voters using anger than it is to turn out people using love or to turn out people who are just generally content, but not particularly exercised in one way or the other.
Look, it was to Democrats’ benefit in 2006 and 2008 to have a fired-up, energetic base that wanted to change something, and now you have the fired-up, energetic base who wants to change something on the other side.
This Independent number is really important, too, because we’re going to hear so much about well, Democrats, they didn’t turnout, Republicans turned out more, but it’s really that Independent voter, those folks that gave Democrats in 2006 60 percent of the vote, gave Obama the majority in 2008, that are now breaking decidedly toward Republicans this time, and that’s the bigger problem, I think, for Democrats.
Because when you look at the seats that Democrats have to defend this year, especially in the house, those are in districts that are really marginal. They’re not overwhelmingly Democrat, they’re not overwhelming Republican, either, but to win there you have to win over a majority of the independents, and if you’re losing those folks, even turning out Democrats at sort of the traditional midterm level isn’t going to be enough.
Let me ask one or two more overarching questions, then I want to wrap our conversation talking about what the numbers are telling you right now about the House and Senate specifically.
So if the worst scenario falls into place on Election Night, the worst scenario for the White House, that would be, I would think, Republicans taking over the House and the Senate, how does that change the Obama White House strategy for getting anything done over the next two years?
Walter: Right. Well, I think there’s going to have to be a change in strategy regardless of what you call the worst-case scenario. We know going into this Democrats are losing seats, so the president has to wake up the next day knowing that there’s no longer going to be a 59-seat majority or a 40-plus seat majority in the House, and it is going to have to be an agenda that does take into account the fact that Republicans have to be part of this equation.
Now, whether that is okay, we’re on the very next day going to reach across the aisle and say, “Let’s start holding a whole bunch of meetings with Republican leaders over here at the White House,” or whether it is saying, “Let’s find a way to be more entrenched on the things that we really care about, make sure to protect those issues from Republican insurgent attempts to roll them back,” I don’t know.
But it’s clear that if the president and the White House are going to move forward in the next two years, that is, to pass legislation, there has to be something approaching a real outrage to the Republicans.
Tavis: Speaking of moving forward and looking forward to the next two years, again, we’re two years out here, but obviously, all these links are going to be made. So what are you, what’s Amy Walter looking at with regard to what this election says about the perhaps contentious race for the White House come 2012? What are you looking at to draw lines to that race two years from now?
Walter: No, it’s a great question. First of all, we’re going to look at those states that Obama carried in 2008 that were those swing places – Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire. In some places we have big statewide races; we’ll be very curious to see how those Democratic candidates do there and what it may or may not say about Obama’s chances.
How he’s doing among those Independent voters, how he’s doing among those voters where he over-performed in 2008 – college-educated voters, the White women with a college education, folks making over $100,000 a year. Those were the groups where he made some significant inroads in 2008. Be very curious to see how he does there as well as among blue-collar White men. Where are his numbers there?
But Tavis, you know this very well – trying to use 2010 as an indicator of what’s going to happen in 2012 is very dangerous. The off-year elections very rarely tell us what’s going to happen two years from now. If they did, then Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have been reelected and Bill Clinton would have been defeated as well.
Tavis: Which is in part why I asked what people like you are even looking at to try to make those connections, so thanks for answering the question.
So the final question here – so what are you looking at as we speak today? To your brilliant point of 30 seconds ago, this stuff can change like the wind, in a matter of seconds here. But what are the numbers telling you now will, in fact, happen in the House and in the Senate specifically?
Walter: Right. So in the House, it is Democrats playing defense right now, and the question is there are about 45 seats right now that are toss-ups where it’s too close to call. If Democrats are going to hold the majority they’ve got to win a little bit fewer than half of those seats. The Republicans need to win a little bit more than half of those seats.
So I’m going to be paying very close attention as polls start to come out there, as we start to see numbers moving in those states, to see where those are starting to break. I still think we have a couple more weeks to see just whether or not the cement is hardening in some of these races.
As for the Senate, it’s really going to come down to some of these states that we have been paying zero attention to a year ago – West Virginia, Connecticut, Washington state, even Illinois, where this thing has gone back and forth for some time.
These are going to be the real decision-makers in terms of what the Senate looks like, and especially for Republicans, if they’re going to win a majority in the Senate they have to win those races.
Tavis: Well, it’s going to be fascinating to watch between now and November.
Walter: It’s a lot of fun.
Tavis: A lot of fun and as I said, things can change so fast in these kinds of races, we will see. But Amy, “ABC News,” glad to have you on. Thanks for sharing your insights.
Walter: Thank you very much.
[Walmart - Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.