The following is a transcript of the conversation with David Winston.
David Winston is president and founder of the Winston Group, a
Republican polling firm. He’s got a lot experience in Washington
politics, having worked for the House Republican Congress, Speaker of
the House Newt Gingrich, and the Heritage Foundation. I look forward to
our conversation today about the upcoming elections.
So how do you see this election season shaping up, based on the numbers and data you’re looking at?
Well, I think the first thing that’s interesting about this particular
election in terms of Obama versus McCain, is you’re seeing a structural
change in terms of what the election is going to look like. And that
is, unlike previous elections we’ve had recently in 2004 and 2000,
where you had candidates who I would argue have minimal reach in terms
of the electorate, so they can get to 50%, 51%. The actual group of
people being fought over is relatively small. There really isn’t a
middle, not because the middle isn’t big, it’s because neither
candidate had particular reach to get to those voters.
you’re seeing in this particular race is both McCain and Obama have a
large reach, somewhere in the neighborhood of maybe 60%, maybe 65 % for
both, which will take full advantage of the middle.
happen as a result of that is that the political discourse will be
pretty different. When you’re fighting over or 2% or 3% and just
focusing on your base, that’s one sound. When you’re really in an
argument over a large swath of voters, that’s a very different sound.
So I think on a structural basis, the election itself is going to be
It sounds like you’re saying it will be quite different from the past,
where in the past you got your base motivated and that was really the
key thing. Turn out your own troops and get as many of those middle of
the road people as you could. But now the fight is in the middle, and
what does it do to the sides though?
Does that mean that the real partisans are going to sit this one out, or do you think they’ll turn out?
The thing about the base is that they’re the base. Unless you do
something really horrifically wrong, they’re ultimately going to be
there for both sides. What is something really wrong? Back in 1992,
Bush Sr. decided to renege on his one major pledge that was a key
construct of the Republican party, and that was, “Read my lips: no new
taxes.” And then he proceeded to increase taxes.
takes something really of that scale to really impact, and in that
particular case that generated a whole primary challenge from Pat
Buchanan that left Bush somewhat weak. And even so, he got most of the
base vote. It wasn’t that huge of a drop-off, even something of that
But the other thing, too, in terms of contrasting with
2000 and 2004, what people forget is how big margins used to be in
terms of the electoral college. Bush won by about 6.5% in 1988, and
ended up getting somewhere in the neighborhood of 420 — I think he had
426 electoral votes. Clinton won by about by about 5% and got 370
I mean, this closeness in terms of the
electoral college is more of a recent phenomenon, and the one you have
to go back to in terms of it being this close is maybe looking at
something like Nixon in ’68. But there you had a third party with
So typically, candidates have focused on sort of
developing broad coalitions. It’s only been recently in these last two
elections where it’s been sort of ignoring those broad coalitions and
just turning out the base.
Now you mentioned Buchanan perhaps weakening Bush Sr. in ’92. What
dynamic do you see the Clinton-Obama race having here? Does that weaken
Obama? Does it strengthen him? How does it play it that they had such a
It separated off a group of voters from Obama that he has got to figure
out how to go back and reengage. That’s part of the old Reagan
coalition that actually Republicans lost in 2006. That’s Independents,
Catholics, blue-collar working class. That whole group of sort of
McCain sort of has a chance at them in terms of going after them.
Obama’s going to have to clearly do a whole bunch of activities to sort
of nail those folks down. There’s a certain portion of them that will
come back, but there will be a certain portion that are sort of open to
But McCain’s got to do something about it. They’ll take
a look at him, but if he doesn’t do anything active then they’ll
probably default back to Obama.
What do you see him doing that would active? What are the issues that would move those people?
I think that’s where Obama has some difficulty. He’s got his overall
sort of message of change, which people like. The reason people like it
is when you have a right track/wrong track which sort of reflects the
optimism and pessimism of the country, at this point you’ve 80% of the
country thinking the country is headed in the wrong track, which means
they’re really pessimistic. So of course they want change.
don’t like what’s going on. If it was the other way around, and 80%
thought the country was headed in the right direction, why would you
So the overall message of change is a positive
message. The problem Obama has is, in a right-center country, he’s not
merely offering left-center, he is from the left. And so when you
actually get to the substance of what he’s talking about, his appeal is
much more complicated to those voters. Whereas McCain would sort of
have a much more natural appeal to them, being a right-center candidate.
me just define why the country’s right-center for a second. Looking at
the last election, looking at the exit polls from the media, what you
see is that the large percentage identifies themselves as moderates,
45%. Then the next group is conservatives at 32% and then liberals at
20%. Well, that 32/20 conservative to liberal margin of 12 points is
what makes it a center-right country.
And Obama, on the other hand, is clearly the far left, when you take a look at his voting record in the Senate.
Stop here for a second. Is the conservative/liberal split — is that a
label thing? I know there’s been a lot of talk over the years of people
not wanting to self-identify as liberal and being more willing to do it
as conservative. Is it really their mindset or is it just the
willingness to label?
No. Let me give you an example of a center-right additive. I’ve asked
the question in a survey, “Do you think raising taxes will hurt the
economy?” Do you believe or not believe that statement. And what you
see is by a 2-1 margin, people believe that statement. That gives you a
sense of sort of the center-right nature of the country. It’s reflected
in real policy statements.
there’s a difference between that and — I’m sort of doing extreme
right or extreme left statements, where you tend to find that there’s a
large chunk of the country that doesn’t necessarily agree with those.
Again, when you say center-right, the emphasis is on center first and
right second, in terms of that.
But Obama, on the other hand, is
really off to one side. And so Obama’s challenge — and you’re watching
him start to deal with this — is, OK, he’s got this really sort of
positive overall message of change, but when you begin to sort of delve
into what is he actually talking about in terms of what’s his vision of
America, where is he taking it, that things get a little bit more
difficult for him.
How informed does the electorate seem to be as far as where the two
candidates stand on the issues, or is it really much more of a feeling
thing? I mean, Obama, obviously he gives a great speech and people seem
to be drawn to him. Even Republicans seem to enjoy listening to him, at
First off, listening to Obama is very entertaining. He’s a very good
speaker. And that’s really helpful to him. I’m as partisan,
potentially, as they come, and he’s just fun to listen to. Anybody who
can talk like that, you’ll take time.
here’s — and I’m going to give this a slightly different twist — the
American electorate at this point is actually very hungry for very
in-depth issue discussions and information about it. They go online a
lot, they’re watching cable a lot, their awareness of what’s going on
in terms of the selection is significantly larger.
A lot of
media folks a year ago were saying, “Oh, the America public will get
bored by this race.” Clearly they didn’t. I mean, they were really
engaged all the way through the primary process. This is where the
campaigns are really behind the electorate to some degree. And that is
the campaigns don’t have enough content at this point to really feed
the electorate in terms of their issue positions. They’re still making
up this stuff.
You’re watching both Obama and McCain sort of
engage in this economic fight, and having been in involved in politics
before, you can sort of tell that they’re kind of making this up a
little bit as they go along.
So I would suggest that the electorate is actually ahead of the two campaigns in terms of wanting to know positions on issues.
So you think that the public will be truly engaged on issues this time, and it won’t be sort of a surface election.
I think that actually occurred last time, and that’s a problem
Republican candidates ran into. It’s one of their major failings.
Again, last time it was “all politics is local,” and what pork have you
delivered back to your individual district, as though that was going to
solve anything. But let’s not talk about national issues.
Republicans lost independents by 18 points. And part of that was
because we weren’t saying anything to the American people, and the
American people turned around and fired us.
And to some degree,
looking at this election, there are the platitude elements of what you
say as an overall construct to what your issue positions are, but
people want to hear about issues. And the reason they want to hear it
is because they’re going to the gas pump and they’re getting hammered.
They’re looking at their healthcare situation and they’re very nervous.
They’re looking at their property taxes, which are just skyrocketing
out of control. And suddenly their home values have started dropping.
so the American people, this is not, “Gee, who sounds best.” It’s,
“I’ve got a whole menu of things that need to be dealt with and what
are you doing?”
But can this focus on the issues, I guess, is that something that
McCain can use to try to escape Bush’s numbers or is there really just
no avoiding Bush’s current unpopularity?
He has to do two things. One, he wants to get this down to an issue
fight, because again, then he can position as right of center versus,
again, Obama, and really create that contrast that he needs. But he has
to do both. He cannot simply attack Obama, he’s got to have a
when he won over in France, basically succeeding a president of his own
party, had this line, “Propose a future and make it possible.” That’s
the really the same challenge to McCain. But within that Sarkozy also
used a phrase, you had to make a “clean break form the past,” that he
was pretty adamant about.
And it may be uncomfortable for McCain
and a lot of people with him, but they’ve got to make a very tough,
clean break from the previous administration.
How do you see things shaping up beyond the presidential level? Is it
really going to be an election driven from the top of the ticket, or
will the congressional results not necessarily mirror what we’re seeing
at the presidential level?
I think it’s a little hard to determine at this point, because the
shape and nature of the election is just starting to come into view in
terms of the sense of, this is clearly going to be about the economy. I
think you’re seeing, actually, Republicans get out front at least in
terms of the energy problem. You’re seeing, out of the House,
Republicans this sort of focus on drilling and exploration for new oil.
I think you’re just beginning to see that take shape. Having said that,
the overall backdrop at the moment is more favorable to Democrats,
because Republicans are still sort of suffering from the 2006 loss and
the perception of their lack of not doing things when they had the
And so to some degree what Republicans have to do —
and the onus is on them — is to sort of show that they’ve learned the
lesson in terms of what they did when they had the majority, and
they’re ready to earn back the majority and here’s what they’re going
to go do.
So it’s not attacking Democrats, it’s how do you
actually — again, using the Sarkozy line — propose a future. And
Republicans, given the way they have run campaigns, aren’t very good at
that. One of the problems Republicans face at this point it they’re
running 1990-style campaigns, attacking the opponent, using network
television in terms of purchasing ads. They’re going to have to learn
how to run a modern campaign.
Are the Republican problems that you’re seeing now causing more people
to self-identify as Democrats? In other words, are we seeing a party
switch if not an ideological switch?
Now, interestingly enough, ideologically, this is an interesting number
in 2000 — and I gave you that number before where the margin was 32%
to 20 conservative to liberal back in 2006. In 2000, that margin was
30% conservative to 21% liberal, only a nine point margin. So actually
ideologically the environment in 2006 was better, yet we just got
not seeing a party shift at all. What I am seeing is Independents
voting Democratic. Again, we went from minus 2% or 3% in 2004 amongst
Independents to minus 18%. And Republicans have got to figure out how
to go back and grab those Independents.
If this were to extend
for a long period of time, you might begin to see some party shifting,
but right now it’s a short-term situation where you’re seeing some
Independents — or quite a few Independents — some Republicans,
perhaps thinking they may vote differently, but they’re not translating
that into an actual party shift.
What’s surprising you most about the current election environment?
I guess at this point, the biggest item is how dramatically we’ve seen
the way people get their news, and the level of consumption of
political information has just increased at levels that have taken a
lot of campaigns by surprise.
think the whole concept of doing stuff at a micro-level, the campaigns
have been so focused on process for so many years, is very 1990s, late
1980s at this point. People are looking for big ideas, big direction.
They want to know what you’re going to do, what’s the future you’re
And that’s the direction that they’re headed. And to
some degree, particularly on the Republican side, the Republican side
is only good at process, and when it comes to actually pushing ideas,
they haven’t had that experience really since ’94 when Newt did that.
And then prior to that back in 1980, when Reagan did it.
the sort of challenge for these political parties — and I’m going to
steal a David Cameron line now — is I think where the electorate is at
is sort of believing this concept, and that is, “The purpose of
political parties isn’t to win elections, it’s to prove you’re ready to
govern.” And that’s an interesting transition in terms of where the
Is McCain the kind of candidate who can develop and communicate that
kind of a big idea? I mean, obviously he’s driven the discussion in the
past on issues, although they’ve been more center-left type issues:
global warming, campaign finance. But can he come up with the big ideas
that will change this election?
I think to some degree he was. Oddly enough when he sort of ran into
the problem last April — the April before last, sorry — when he sort
of ran out of money and he sort of had to run with just him going and
doing town halls in New Hampshire all by himself. He was actually able
to portray that a lot better than he did when he actually had resources.
think that now that he’s sort of back in with having a lot of
resources, what you’ve seen is a more traditional campaign. And he went
from basically being even to — I think he trails Obama nationally by
about five points at this point.
That’s going to be the challenge to his campaign. Can he create a different kind of campaign than 2000 and in 2004. And in 1996.
And unfortunately that’s going to have to be our last word. While I
know we could go on for quite some time, we’ve hit the end of this
show. My guest today has been Republican pollster David Winston. Thanks
for joining us.