Kohut, Lehrer take the pulse of the American voter

Retired “PBS NewsHour” anchor Jim Lehrer and Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut discuss recent public opinion polls, and what they mean or might mean, Monday morning in the Amphitheater. Photo by Lauren Rock.

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer

The public’s mixed opinions of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act exemplifies the division in today’s politics.

Only 45 percent of Americans agreed with the decision, as opposed to 45 percent who disagreed with it, said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, at Monday’s morning lecture.

Despite the decision, Kohut said he believes the court’s acceptance of the bill will legitimize it to some degree.

“What has clearly happened is that the administration and President Obama really dodged a bullet,” Kohut said, “because if this legislation had been overturned, it would have taken away one of his achievements — and the knock on Obama, even for people who like him, is he hasn’t accomplished much.”

Retired “PBS NewsHour” anchor Jim Lehrer hosted a conversation with Kohut during the first morning lecture of Week Two, themed, “The Lehrer Report: What Informed Voters Need to Know.” The two discussed what the polls say about the Supreme Court’s health-care decision, division between parties and what matters most to people this election season.

The reason for mixed opinion about the Affordable Care Act is partially because people do not understand it. When people are asked about how much they have paid attention to it or how much they know, Kohut said, they admit they know little.

Those who say they know the most about it are the most critical, Kohut said. But it is unclear whether their knowledge is because they want to know about the bill or if it reflects that they have a better sense of what it shows than those who haven’t paid attention, he said.

Specific aspects of the legislation stand out, such as children staying on their parents’ health insurance until they are 26 and forbidding insurance companies from excluding potential buyers based on pre-existing health conditions. But people are concerned about the individual mandate — which requires everyone either to buy insurance or to pay a fine — and the government’s role in people’s lives, Kohut said.

In 2002, about 60 percent of people surveyed said the government has a responsibility to make sure everyone in the country is covered by health insurance. That number has dropped to about 50 percent, Kohut said.

“That reflects the growing concern that we have in this country, especially among Republicans, about the role of government in health care and many other aspects of life,” he said.

But to repeal the bill, as House Speaker John Boehner has vowed to do, will be a difficult task, Kohut said.

The division gap between Republicans and Democrats has increased from 10 percent to 18 percent in the last eight years, Kohut said. Of registered voters surveyed, 32 percent are Democrats, a 4 percent decrease from four years ago; 24 percent are Republicans, one of the lowest numbers for the party; and 38 percent are independents, a 75-year-high percentage, Kohut said.

“Political polarization in terms of values is not only in Washington,” Kohut said. “It’s all around the country.”

Kohut said moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats have not gone away. But rather than calling themselves “moderate,” many of them now refer to themselves as Independents who lean in one direction or the other.

It is important to know that Independents determined who won the last four elections, Kohut said. They voted for President George W. Bush in 2004, for Democrats in the 2006 congressional elections, for President Barack Obama in 2008 and for Republicans in the 2010 congressional elections.

This year, there is a sizable amount of Independents who have not made up their minds. Right now, they lean toward presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney but are not yet committed, Kohut said.

Second-term elections are referendums of what is happening at the time, Kohut said.

“On that basis, the public is thumbs-down on the times,” he said.

Fewer than about 28 percent say conditions are good, and most people think conditions are bad, Kohut said. Only 8 percent of people rate the national economy as good, he said.

“The Republicans should be way ahead of the Democrats because people are unhappy,” Kohut said, “and if they follow the pattern, they’ll vote for change.”

But people are not drawn to the Republican side because they do not find Romney to be trustworthy, Kohut said. Romney has a 40 percent favorable rating compared to other presidential candidates at this stage, who normally are in the 50-percent range whether they win or lose.

The No. 1 concern for voters is the economy, followed by unemployment. During the campaign, Obama will have to focus on how he will reduce unemployment, while Romney must show people he can do something about the issue, Lehrer said.

“That is the crux of the preference patterns that we see right now,” Kohut said

Obama wins all the personal evaluations, Kohut said, but Romney wins by a 49-to-41-percent margin as the candidate who can best improve economic conditions.

Although people know Romney is capable of improving the economy, they do not trust him.

“The levels of distrust of Romney are very high,” Kohut said. “People don’t think he connects to Americans, they don’t think he’s willing to take on the popular stand, they don’t rate him particularly highly as honest and truthful.”

Despite people’s unhappiness with Obama’s performance, regarding the economy and lack of jobs, the election will likely come down to the “Whom do you trust?” question.

Polls show that the public is more comfortable with Obama on most personal dimensions, Kohut said.

“When it comes to understanding your problems, to being consistent, position on issues, sharing your values, it’s Obama, Obama, Obama over Romney.” he said. “People worry about what kind of person Romney is.”

Kohut said the current situation is similar to 1980, when people were unhappy and Jimmy Carter hung in against Ronald Reagan until the last debate before the election.

Kohut does not predict that is what will happen to Romney, but he said the debates would be important during the election.

“When these men get up side by side and people make judgments about the two of them,” Kohut said, “will Obama continue to have such a personal advantage over Romney? Right now, it exists, and that’s why he’s ahead.”

Photo by Lauren Rock.


Q You didn’t get into questions about money, really — I’m curious, Andy, you talk a lot about opinions. I’m less interested in what people’s opinions are about the amount of money that’s spent on campaigns than whether or not you know if that expenditure causes their opinions. Are there studies that you’ve done that tell you the success or failure of the amount of money spent on advertising in campaigns?

AK: Certainly there’s ample evidence in the past primary season that the advertising campaigns of Romney, and initially Gingrich, were highly successful in changing attitudes of an electorate that was very equivocal. On the other hand, and I’m not going to name any names here, there have been many potential candidates who have spent fortunes trying to get elected, and money alone and advertising alone doesn’t guarantee victory. All things being equal, when candidates have potential, in heated races, advertising matters, and it certainly mattered in the Republican primary season.

Q: Jim, this is a question about your opinion. How much does media bias contribute to the current polarization of our government and country?

JL: There is media bias. Some of it’s very open now, particularly on some of the cable television networks, and this is the new world order. There used to be very limited access points for information and opinion. Now there are hundreds, if not thousands, and some of them are very biased. In terms of the major news organizations — and I don’t mean just big ones like The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, NBC, CBS, et cetera — but major news organizations regionally, based on my experience, are still pretty straight. They are hurting for resources, some of their reporting is not of the quality and scope that it used to be, but they have not been inflicted generally. I don’t think the major, what I would call mainstream media, whatever level it is, has been completely — there have been elements of it — but has been completely inflicted by media bias. What you need to do, as a consumer — and we’re all consumers of news of various kinds — you just have to know the source. You just have to be a little more diligent, find out: “Where did that come from? Who is that wah-wah who said that, and what’s the source?” Go back — it’s all available electronically, if not otherwise. As a consumer of the news, the person in America who wants to be informed just has to work a little harder. In terms of the influence of that bias — bias is a pejorative term obviously — let’s say Fox on one side and MSNBC on the other, just to use two examples off the top of my head artificially. What they are mostly doing is preaching to people they already agree with. In other words, they are not converting. They are not like evangelists asking people to come to the front of the stage and say, “Be a Democrat,” “Be a Republican.” They’re only speaking to each other. And what influence they’re having outside their own little boxes, I don’t honestly know. What do you think?

AK: We ask people about where they go for news, and whether they read The New York Times or listen to the “NBC Nightly News,” or go onto Hannity or any of the talk shows on MSNBC, and we found that what people tell us is that when they’re interested in information and news, they go to mainstream news organizations. But when we asked them, “Well, why do you go to the MSNBC shows or the Fox News show?” they say they go because they like the interesting commentary. In short, many of the most politicized people go there for their dose of polarization.

JL: And for some people, shouting is entertainment. But it shouldn’t be confused with journalism.

AK: For many people in the middle, they’re not making that distinction. And that creates an increasing view that the news media is politically biased.

JL: I said to somebody the other day, just as a short measurement of whether or not you’re hearing journalism, just check the volume out. If you’re above a certain level, that ain’t journalism.

Q: Andy, you talked about the relatively benign roles that foreign policy plays in this, unless it imposes itself. What about issues of the perception of the support of Israel in particular? Do polls indicate which candidate would be most supportive of Israel and do you find it a factor?

AK: I can’t think of any polls which ask people about how the candidates stand with respect to Israel. Americans, unlike Western Europeans, have consistently told us for a long time that their sympathies are more with the Israelis than with the Palestinians, but the issue really of Israel hasn’t been joined in this campaign, and it’s not much of a factor. Which isn’t to say that there’s not support for the Israelis, but it’s just not an element to people’s thinking about the election campaign.

Q: What polling data tend to have become apparent in the so-called swing states that will potentially decide the election? Any issues specific to those states?

AK: I think they are the same issues that I mentioned. In some states, the economy or jobs are less of an issue — in Ohio for example — and other issues take precedent, but by and large, our experience has been that, as a group, the swing states generally mirror what we see in national polls. But there’s enough variation within those individual states to say that each state has its own particular set of concerns.

Q: Democrats have tried to paint Republicans as obstructionists. Has the public been measured on this and will perceived Republican tactics impact 2012?

AK: The Republicans, as I said earlier, were hurt by the conduct of the debt-ceiling debate in the summer, and they really haven’t come back in terms of their national image as a consequence. And I’m not saying that voters have fallen in love with the Democrats, but they’re less critical of the Democrats these days than they are of the Republicans.

Q: What do polls say about Medicare, Social Security reform, and comprehensive tax reform? And, if you don’t mind, I’d like to couple this with another question: How astute is the electorate when it declares it doesn’t want government involved in its healthcare?

AK: Well, there is a great consensus in this country that these are important programs — the so-called entitlement programs, the Social Security, Medicare and also even Medicaid — these are programs that are quite important to the American public. Older people and younger people all agree that they’re threatened. Older people are more satisfied, despite their criticism of the government, with the way these programs work, but there’s a consensus that something has to be done to deal with the problems that they face. When we take people through the alternatives, however, we get very little “Yeah, we can do that, we can do that.” It’s mostly people’s unwillingness to see sacrifices with respect to benefits or changes to the system.

For older people, there’s more willingness to see the age of retirement delayed, but for younger people that’s a no-no. For older people, there’s more unwillingness to reign in COLAS (cost-of-living adjustments). We tested the recommendations of Simpson-Bowles two or three years ago. We tested their major recommendations, and relatively few say raising the contribution cap for affluent people gets acceptance among people who say, “Yeah, we really have to do something.” Making these tough decisions and choices is not something that the American public is going to willingly say, “Yeah, let’s do that.” The solution to this problem is one of leadership, and this problem will be solved in spite of public opinion, not in response to public opinion. That’s a pretty tough thing for a pollster to say, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about this.

Q: Do opinions reflect belief back to the issues of race, for example, and can you anticipate a difference in voting action?

AK: I think that opinions do tie in to basic beliefs, and from my market research days, I can tell you that behaviors are more or less linked to the kinds of opinions that people express about a whole range of things. That’s a very tough question, I don’t quite get it. In terms of margin of error, there are two things to recognize. One, margin of error is only about sampling error — that is, how much chance error is there, because this is not a census of the American public, but a sample. And we can calculate that, we can draw samples so large that there’s almost no effective margin of error. You get about five or six thousand interviews, there’s no effective margin of error. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no error, because there’s another kind of error, called measurement error, and that’s the error that is contributed to by the questions. That is not an imponderable, but a much more difficult thing, to calculate. There are ways of calculating on questions that you’ve seen, that you have some experience with, but it’s a fallacy to say that the margin of error on a survey is this. It’s really the margin of sampling error, and that’s only one part of it. It’s only one of the contributions to the error of a survey when you’re trying to estimate support for this, that or the other thing. As to race — race was a factor in the ’08 election and one that we took into account when we did our analyses, we knew that the white people who had the most ethnocentric attitudes were disproportionately low in their levels of support for Obama, we made adjustments to our sample to take that into account. When we looked at our outcome of the election, Sen. McCain polled better than President Bush did in many white, lower-middle class areas where you would expect that the greatest issues of race are apparent. So race is a factor. I don’t think it’s a factor in the way we’ve seen Obama’s numbers come down. Many of the white people who voted for him are not supporting him on the basis of his race, but on the basis of his perceived performance. Race will be as much of a factor in this election as it was in ’08, but certainly discontent with Obama over his term isn’t a matter of a racial response, it’s more a matter of attitudes toward him. Which isn’t to say that race doesn’t animate some of the intensity of opinions among his critics, but those critics never voted for him in ’08, and they’re not going to vote for him in ’12.

Q: Jim, presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s recent bus tour used Trailways buses. How did the Trailways driver call out the stops on the Romney bus tour? Can you do a Mitt Romney bus tour callout?

JL: Well, Tom, yes I can. Let’s assume, for discussion purposes, that Mitt Romney’s bus has just pulled in to the bus depot in Victoria, Texas. Romney’s on a bus tour, he started in El Paso, he’s coming west, along the coast now, and he went to the Valley, went to Corpus Christi, and then he went up to Victoria — he’s on his way to Houston. They’ve taken a rest stop at the Victoria bus depot, which is halfway between Houston and Corpus Christi. People are told they can go get a sandwich, have a cup of coffee and then we will call the bus when it is time for all you press people to get back on the bus. Hey, I’m not doing badly here, Tom. And then they would point to a young ticket agent who would be at the PA system, and he would say: “May I have your attention please. Those on the Mitt Romney press bus, now board the bus next to the building, lane one, for Inez, Edna, Ganado, Louise, El Campo, Pierce, Wharton, Hungerford, Pendleton, Beasley, Rosenberg, Richmond, Sugarland, Stafford, Missouri City and Houston. All aboard! Don’t forget your baggage, please!”

—Transcribed by
Joanna Hamer

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