Inside Washington's Headlines

by Ken Feltman

Radnor Inc.

November 2008


Legislative insight

Political intelligence










Ken Feltman is Chairman of Radnor Inc., a political consulting and legislative relations firm in Washington, D.C. He is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists.




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Millions of unsure voters

I believe that the capacity that any organization needs is for leadership to appear anywhere it is needed, when it is needed.

- Margaret J. Wheatley

If only Meg Wheatley were able to make sure-handed leadership emerge from this election. The need is there. But millions of voters are not convinced that either candidate is a good fit for the job.

This impression emerges after the longest and most expensive presidential campaign in U.S. history. Neither candidate has been able to convince voters that he will make a good president. Neither has closed the sale. The voters are still not sure. Today's unsure voters will become tomorrow's critical observers of the new president. Even if they vote for him, they will tether him on a very short line.

Rank-and-file voters are much less enthusiastic about the presidential candidates than the media suggest. That is the key finding of research commissioned by Radnor in several battleground states.

A surprising percentage of Obama voters are still not sure they know enough about him. They are much more certain about their choices for governor, U.S. Senate, House and local offices.

Expect the Democrats to gain 20 to 30 House seats and six to nine Senate seats. Several key GOP Senators are vulnerable not because of their records but because of the strong tide, intensified by the financial meltdown.

Note: Because of the nature of the sample and the questions asked, this research cannot claim the accuracy of traditional polls.

Many voters remained undecided into the last weekend of the campaign. An Associated Press poll reports that one of every seven voters is still undecided, about the same figure reported in June. Many of these "persuadables" are former Hillary Clinton supporters. But these undecided voters are going to the polls. They will vote despite that uneasy feeling.

Radnor arranged to have early voters in keys states interviewed as they waited in line or finished voting. Here are some startling facts:

  • 30% of the early voters in Florida who said that they supported Barack Obama also expressed dissatisfaction with Obama. That is six times the percentage who were unsure about Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004. In Ohio, 22% of Obama voters are not satisfied, compared with 4% who were not satisfied with Kerry.

    Where do they stand on the issues?

  • 24% of Obama supporters in Florida (16% in Ohio) said that they were uncertain about where Obama stood on key issues.

  • 28% of Obama supporters in Florida (25% in Ohio) agreed that Obama might promote policies and programs that were "more liberal" than the supporter wanted.

  • 69% in Florida (49% in Ohio) believed that problems from Obama's past may hurt him as president. Many compared Obama to former President Clinton in this regard.

  • 7% of white Florida voters (6% of Ohio voters) said they were voting for Obama at least partly because of his race, or to compensate Obama for votes he might lose due to racism, or because of the historic nature of his candidacy. Most black voters avoided answering that question. Often, they said that they were Democrats voting for their party's candidate.

  • 3% in both states admitted they were voting for McCain because of race. All were men or women accompanied by men who said the same thing.

  • 55% of Florida McCain supporters (38% in Ohio) said McCain had run a poor campaign.

    In Florida a black woman said: "I admit it. I'm voting my race. I'm also a Democrat but I voted for Bush last time. I won't make that mistake again. Many of these white folks are voting their race, too. They may not admit it. I also admit that I wish I knew more about where Obama plans to take us. That hasn't been clear to me. He ran a better campaign and made me proud, all the young people and such."

    Said one white man in Florida: "We still don't know enough about Obama. I'm usually a Republican but I'll vote for Obama and hope he can do it. His people skills are impressive."

    An act of faith?

    A black man said: "Obama is an act of faith. I hope this stuff doesn't come back to haunt us later when he's president." A white woman said: "He's an unfinished picture. But I'm a Democrat."

  • 8% in Florida (11% in Ohio) said they might not have voted at all but became convinced that they should support their party. One Ohio woman said, "They (the Democrats) have all these new people voting. Who knows where they've come from? I think I need to show up even though McCain has demonstrated poor judgment. What kind of manager would he be? I guess he'd be better than Obama."

    The campaigns touched the voters

  • 81% of early voters report being contacted and asked which candidate they supported. Eighty-one percent! Think of the money spent to ask people which way they were leaning. Now here's the bad news for polling companies and candidates: One-third of that 81% (about one-quarter of all early voters) said they gave a wrong answer or refused to answer even when they were firmly decided. White voters especially said they were undecided when they were in fact for McCain. Perhaps we have some misleading polls out there. The interviewers report that some early voters seemed to take devilish pride in misleading the pollsters. My observation of the polling companies leads me to conclude that the pollsters have factored that into their projections.

    Winter for the Republican Party?

    More than once this election season, in the states I visited and worked, I was impressed with the ability of the Obama campaign to absorb all kinds of volunteers, with all sorts of talents, and make them productive and enthusiastic for their candidate. The Obama people took over the Democratic party. This is going to boost Obama's totals - and also boost the vote for other Democrats on the ticket.

    Where were the Republicans? I was impressed with the lack of party structure and cohesiveness shown by Republicans almost everyplace I visited. It is as if the party functionaries have died off. In fact, maybe they have. In parts of Southeastern Ohio and Southwestern Pennsylvania, there are quite literally fewer Republicans not because they have become Democrats - they have not - but because the older generation is dying off and their children and grandchildren are moving away.

    As the GOP got smaller and more isolated, in state after state the tendency was to enforce orthodoxy upon newcomers and potential candidates. The newcomers were too moderate for the old guard. They were kept out. To see what that has done - and will continue to do - to the Republican party, look at the election results in Virginia. The Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate is headed to a humiliating defeat and Obama is expected to win with suburban votes from former (and current) Republicans who find the GOP to be out of step today.

    Life-long Southern Democrats realized 30 to 40 years ago that the Democrats were "too liberal" for them. That is happening now in reverse as suburban Republicans find their party "too conservative."

    Can we draw some general conclusion? Yes, but because of the lack of conviction of many voters, all conclusions must be tentative.

    Obama supporters seem to be unconvinced but hopeful. McCain supporters were thrown off by the reaction to Sarah Palin and McCain's reaction to the financial meltdown. They are trying to rationalize McCain's erratic behavior and inconsistencies. Uncommitted voters are trying to reach a decision, still searching for anything that will convince them one way or the other. They are most susceptible to negative information about a candidate.

    Voting for uncertainty

    As one man in Nevada said, "First the trouble was the bad news about McCain. Now all this about Obama's friends and I still feel that he has not come clean with us on where he stands."

    In some elections, voters seem to believe that they have two good choices. In other elections, voters seem to suggest that they must vote for the "lesser of two evils." In this election voters seem to have a choice between two candidates who raise valid questions about how they will perform as president. As a man in Pennsylvania said: "We're all voting for uncertainty. None of us are comfortable with that. We're flying a little bit blind."

    Whose fault is that? The early voters have an answer: The media. The big losers in this campaign are the media. Over and over again, Radnor got the message that the media favored Obama (even from Obama supporters) and did not probe deeply into possibly unfavorable or unsavory aspects of Obama's connections to his church, domestic terrorists, etc. People concluded that McCain's management skills were lacking but at least Obama demonstrated that he could run a good campaign.

    So in the end, some voters made a decision not on issues or leadership but on how well the candidates managed their campaigns. Obama had a clear lead there.

    He also leads in another area: 42% of the early voters expect that, if elected, Obama may disappoint them in office, mostly because of his past or inexperience. Only 13% think McCain might disappoint. As one woman (an Obama voter) said, "We know McCain's downside. We'll learn about Obama's." That is hardly a strong endorsement.

    If this election were a meal, many voters would be leaving the table hungry - and worried that the cook would serve up some inedible meals in the future.


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