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Pollster Peter Hart on the convention so far

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Michael Barone

One of the speakers at an Atlantic/National Journal event this morning was Democratic pollster Peter Hart, for whom I worked between 1974 and 1981, and who with Republican pollster Bill McInturff conducts the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Back when he polled for candidates, Peter felt he had a responsibility to deliver bad news; he once began a presentation to an incumbent senator or governor by saying, “If the election were held today, you would lose and you would deserve to lose.” He had better news for Democrat this morning—but perhaps not as much good news as they would like.

 “The king was in the house last night,” he said of Bill Clinton’s speech, “and he broke alive this convention. I saw apprehension coming in. The question is how do you turn people on.” He said Democrats needed three things to come out of the convention: (1) “a sense of joy”; (2) to reach beyond the Democratic constituency and (3) to provide an example of the next four years. “Voters need to learn that the second term is better than the first term, and only one person can do it.” By implication he was saying that Clinton’s argument that no other president, not even Clinton himself, could produce better economic results than Obama has. And I think it’s a fair inference that he was saying that, as I argued in my Wednesday Examiner column, that Obama has not yet pivoted from his first term goals to any second term goals. Voters have learned the downside of Obama, he said, but the upside is enthusiasm, and Clinton did this for the Democrats. “Voters don’t need detail, they need reassurance,” he said, comparing them to people in a rowboat halfway across a lake. They want to know what is over on the other side.

Looking back, he said the Republican convention “came out flat, didn’t go beyond the hall. Michelle Obama talked beyond the hall. And Clinton is the best prosecutor” for Obama’s case. The Obama campaign came into the Democratic convention “on the defensive” and went “on the offensive” in the first two nights. Wednesday “for the first time we heard, ‘Fired up, ready to go,” an Obama campaign chant from 2008.

On the basic question of whether government should do more or less, Hart said voters have mostly been about evenly divided, tilting toward less government in the 1995 heyday of the Gingrich Congress and moving a little more toward government doing more recently—more so on specific issues than as a general proposition.  

Politics has become “a $2 billion food fight,” he said, and negative ads and superPAC ads turn voters off. “If you were watching television in Cleveland, Ohio, from April to August, you would see 176 political spots a day.”

Where will the race be after both conventions? “Where it is, dead even or very close. The difference is enthusiasm.” If young voters and Hispanics get a sense from Obama of “where I want to go,” he suggests that Obama will be a little ahead. Will they? Peter seems to think so; I’m not sure.

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