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Pollster Nate Silver and Author Ari Berman on “Third Straight Anti-Incumbent Election”

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Candidates are entering the final few days of campaigning in what may turn out to be one of the more interesting midterm elections in recent decades. Most polls are forecasting Republicans will take control of the House, while Democrats are expected to hold on to the Senate, which would result in a rare split Congress. We speak to New York Times pollster and FiveThirtyEight.com founder Nate Silver, and Ari Berman, political correspondent for The Nation magazine and the author of the new book Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Election Day is less than a week away. Candidates across the country are entering the final few days of campaigning. This year may turn out to be one of the more interesting midterm elections in recent decades. New campaign finance data shows House and Senate candidates are on pace to spend close to $2 billion by next Tuesday, a record high. Meanwhile, most polls are forecasting the Democrats will lose control of the House. And while Republicans are expected to pick up a number of seats in the Senate, Democrats are expected to hold on to the majority, which would result in a rare split Congress.

For more on the latest numbers and for analysis of the midterm elections, we’re joined by two guests. Nate Silver is a leading pollster and the founder of the polling analyst site fivethirtyeight.com, which is on the New York Times website. And Ari Berman is a political correspondent for The Nation magazine. He’s author of the new book Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics.

Welcome, both, to Democracy Now!

ARI BERMAN: Thanks a lot.

AMY GOODMAN: Nate, let’s begin with you. Why don’t you give us an overview of where we stand now less than a week out, Nate Silver?

NATE SILVER: Well, you know, it looks pretty bad for the Democrats overall. In the House, you know, our view is that they’re most likely to lose about fifty seats, which would mean losing control of the chamber. We think there’s a big margin of error on that forecast, where, you know, pollsters have trouble getting people on the phone sometimes and different techniques. It’s going to play out different ways —

AMY GOODMAN: What are the techniques that pollsters use?

NATE SILVER: Well, you know, the old thing is everyone used to have their kind of rotary telephone, and you kind of called them, and the first person picked up, and it was all very kind of, you know, traditional, right? But now people screen phone calls, right? People have cell phones, which some pollsters call, but some do not. You know, some people don’t —

AMY GOODMAN: How do they have records of cell phone numbers?

NATE SILVER: You can buy a list of cell phone numbers, and that’s actually fairly easy to do, but it’s a little bit more expensive. You kind of have to compensate people for their air time. Sometimes you might have higher refusal rates. People hang up on you. And so, you know, pollsters who try to be — get polling out as quickly as possible and just kind of get their poll out in the media and get kind of free media time out of that, sometimes won’t bother to include cell phone voters in their polls, which in some places is — you know, is 25 percent or 30 percent or half the population even.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the picture for the Senate, as well.

NATE SILVER: So, the Senate is a little bit more favorable to Democrats, just because, you know, there are only so many seats that are in play, and Republicans would have to win almost all of them to take control of the Senate. You know, right now we think that they’re going to do very well in the Midwest and in much of the country, but fall a little bit short in California and Washington, where you have Democratic incumbents. And because of that, they would get up to forty-nine or maybe fifty Senate seats, but not get a fifty-first. But there is uncertainty there, too. If you have this kind of enthusiasm gap, so-called, which is manifest in other parts of the country, also present in California, they could — you know, they could still win that race potentially or Washington state.

But it does look like Democrats are going to hold enough seats to maintain at least kind of nominal, kind of provisional control of the Senate. And then you can have, you know, big fights once the Congress reconvenes in January, where they’re trying to recruit a Joe Lieberman or a Ben Nelson. You know, you could also have the — so you could have a case where they keep control of the Senate officially on Election Day, but lose it, you know, sometime between then and when the Congress convenes or just after it does in January.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of polls, in general. The corporate media focuses almost exclusively on polls, not talking as much about issues, which we are also going to talk about today, issues.


AMY GOODMAN: But I want to look at, for example, in New York, when Mayor Bloomberg ran against Bill Thompson, it was predicted that Bill Thompson was going to lose big-time.


AMY GOODMAN: Obama did not come in to help him. They said he would lose in the major double digits. I don’t know what they said, maybe 20 percent. He lost by the narrowest of margins in a case where Mayor Bloomberg spent more money than any candidate in history. And if the polls had been talked about in a different way, I think what they mainly did is they immobilized people. People thought, well, there’s not a prayer —


AMY GOODMAN: — for Bill Thompson. So, how you avoid this?

NATE SILVER: Well, you know, what we’re trying to do is put as much context around the polls as possible and kind of reward the pollsters that do go to more lengths to kind of properly survey public opinion and not kind of get too caught up in the spin and, you know, talk about them in an educated way. But, you know, it is a question: how do polls and the interpretation of polls affect behavior? You know, I mean, I think in that Bloomberg race, for example, last year, you can almost argue that, in some ways, it helped Thompson, being a little bit behind in the polls, because Bloomberg is a guy who had a 70 percent approval rating at the time, and people didn’t like what he did to run for a third term. They didn’t like having to see all those commercials day after day, when, you know, here in New York you get the New Jersey commercials, too, and the Connecticut commercials. You get way too much campaign advertising, right? So I thought, oh, you know, he’s not going to lose, so I’ll kind of cast my protest vote, right? I’m annoyed by him. I don’t dislike him, but I’m annoyed by him, and, you know, Thompson seems like a nice guy. And lo and behold, if a few more people had done that, he would have lost. You know, I think —

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, but two, three percentage points —

NATE SILVER: Yeah, I think —

AMY GOODMAN: — that would have made the difference. But I think many, many people just didn’t come out, because they didn’t think there was a prayer.

NATE SILVER: You had very — you had very low turnout. One thing that’s clear is that when the polls are tighter, that does motivate turnout. I mean, in some countries, you know, in France, for example, you can’t issue a poll within, I think it is, forty-eight or seventy-two hours of the election. They don’t want to do anything to deter people from coming out. They want to create some mystery, I suppose. And I don’t know. You know, I think — you know, I think certainly, in terms of polls, we have too much of an emphasis now on quantity instead of quality, you know, and it kind of gives maybe too much influence to people who aren’t really serious about trying to get the pulse public opinion, but just trying to put numbers out there as fast as possible to get more traffic to their websites and so forth.

AMY GOODMAN: Governors’ races?

NATE SILVER: So, this is an area where Democrats are also doing fairly poorly, but they’ll probably win a couple of large states. It looks like in California Jerry Brown has actually, you know, a fairly meaningful lead now over Meg Whitman, maybe about seven or eight points. You know, Andrew Cuomo here in New York is certainly very likely to win. The race in Florida seems to be a toss-up, but maybe slightly leaning for the Democrats. But in the Midwest, it’s Republicans in almost every state, save perhaps Minnesota. You know, where the economy is poor, where you often have Democratic incumbents — I mean, Ted Strickland looks like he’ll lose in Ohio. Chet Culver in Iowa. The GOP is favored in Michigan, as well. So that’s where you’re going to see, you know, a big kind of splotch of red on the map. And that will be impactful, because we’re redistricting in the Congress before the next — before 2012.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is very significant, right? The Census —


AMY GOODMAN: — and what redistricting means.

NATE SILVER: Right. So, you know, basically, what happens in a state like Michigan, for example, which is losing population relative to the rest of the country — right? — it will lose one or two seats in Congress. Now, the governor and the state legislature has a lot of power over kind of basically which incumbent loses the game of musical chairs and kind of has his seat yanked and has to go fight for some other seat where there’s another incumbent. And if you have Snyder, the Republican, winning the governorship of Michigan by fifteen or twenty points — and that probably also means they’ll win a lot of seats in the state legislature — that means they’ll probably get essentially a bonus seat in Congress in 2012. So it’s another thing that might kind of have reverberations for a couple more election cycles from this one.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, now not from the polling point of view, but from the party point of view, the landscape we’re seeing today in these midterm elections?

ARI BERMAN: Well, the landscape is not good for the Democrats, as Nate pointed out. I mean, you have this sky-high Republican enthusiasm, a very energized Republican base that I think Democrats did not believe that the turnaround of the Republican Party would occur so quickly. It looked, after the 2008 election, like the Republican Party was headed towards an extended civil war with negative electoral ramifications, but it’s turned out that they’re in a bit of a civil war, but it hasn’t hurt the party. If anything, it’s helped it, because now there’s all this grassroots enthusiasm on the right, backed by, as you’ve talked a lot about on this program, a huge infusion of corporate money, so those two things combined, and a sour mood on the public. I mean, we’re basically in the third straight anti-incumbent election — 2006, 2008, now 2010, are a lot of the same dynamics, when people are really unhappy with the government in Washington.

And Barack Obama’s election, I think — and this is what I talk about a lot in the book — was really supposed to change that mood, that Barack Obama was supposed to be a unique, outside-the-Beltway reformer who would come in and really shake up what was viewed as a dysfunctional, corrupt Washington system. That hasn’t happened. Obama, I think, looks like he’s playing by the rules instead of changing them. People are still unhappy with Democratic governance. And I think, you know, a bad economy is weighing the President and his party down, and not only weighing the President and his party down, but I think disproportionately affecting key segments of the President’s base — African Americans, Latinos, young people, single women. I mean, these were really the core of Obama’s constituency. And if they’re not — you know, if they’re struggling and if they’re losing their home, if they’re losing their job, if they can’t pay the bills, then that’s going to make it a lot more difficult for them to go out and vote and volunteer and feel that hope that they felt in 2008.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of not being able to pay the bills, I wanted to talk about the issue of rent, because that became a big issue in the New York governor’s race. One of the most unusual debates we have seen is the New York governor’s race. You know, everyone — I mean, in the country, people may have heard of the Republican Carl Paladino versus Andrew Cuomo, the Democrat, but they decided to allow in the many different parties, and they had the Green Party, the Libertarian Party in the debates. I mean, in other cases, Laura Wells, the Green Party candidate for governor, was arrested in California when she tried to attend a debate.


AMY GOODMAN: And we see very little coverage of progressive third parties, though we see a tremendous amount of coverage, from the beginning, of the Tea Party. But when you have a debate like this, the response to people outside the Democratic and Republican Party, that are not necessarily Tea Party, has been phenomenal. One of the most popular YouTube clips of this election cycle is of a little-known third party candidate here in New York running for governor, Jimmy McMillan of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party. He appeared last week in this seven-way debate for New York governor. The debate was hosted by NY1.

JIMMY McMILLAN: I represent the Rent Is Too Damn High Party. People are working eight hours a day and forty hours a week, or some, a third job. Women can’t afford to take care of their children, feed their children breakfast, lunch and dinner. My main job is to provide a roof over your head, food on the table, and money in your pocket. This is politics as usual, playing the silly game. But it’s not going to happen in the Rent Too Damn High movement. The people I’m here to represent can’t afford to pay their rent. They’re being laid off right now as I speak. They can’t eat breakfast, lunch or dinner. Listen, someone’s stomach, child’s stomach, just growled. Did you hear it? You’ve got to listen like me.

MODERATOR: OK, Mr. McMillan.

JIMMY McMILLAN: Let’s talk about the issue. People can’t afford to pay their rent. They’re starving.

MODERATOR: Mr. Cuomo, thirty seconds for you, sir.

JIMMY McMILLAN: Rent is too damn high.

AMY GOODMAN: Which was repeated over and over and soon being repeated by the major candidates like Andrew Cuomo, “The rent is too damn high.” I mean, this really rang a bell. But speaking of that, I wanted to ask you, Nate Silver, even polling determines — gives people information about who’s running.

NATE SILVER: Right. And pollsters sometimes are kind of arbitrary about whether to include a third party candidate or third party candidates or not. You know, for a while, Rick Lazio here was running on the Conservative Party line in New York, and some pollsters didn’t include him. That helped Paladino’s numbers in the polls, and then, lo and behold, you know, Lazio dropped out, because it looked like Paladino was viable. He’s turned out probably not to be. But you have dynamics like that that are a little bit frightening sometimes, the amount of kind of power, really, that kind of pollsters have, and I guess kind of me as an interpreter and aggregator of polling, indirectly to kind of influence the narrative. And so, you have to, I think, you know, try and apply rigorous kind of standards and be kind of a good journalist, you know, and think about the impact you’re having on the public, at the same time, you know —

AMY GOODMAN: Would you have advice for pollsters? I mean, for example, on the Weather Channel, when one of the leading newscasters said people have to start talking about global warming, the weathermen and women on TV, not just talk about, you know, the extreme weather in India or Ohio. What about that for pollsters?

NATE SILVER: Well, you know, I think you talk about third parties, for example. I think pollsters should try and replicate the ballot, right? At least for their first question, right? I mean, sometimes they fear like, oh, if you give people too many choices, then, you know, they’ll drift off; even though they really have a Democratic preference or Republican one, right, they’ll say Green Party or Libertarian Party, and so on and so forth. But, you know, I think your job is not to shape public opinion, but to reflect it, if you’re a pollster. And —

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, don’t pollsters often shape it by the questions they ask?

NATE SILVER: I’m sure they do, you know, and sometimes there are poor incentives, as well, where, for example, you know, it’s a bigger story if, for example, you show Carl Paladino having closed the race to eight points instead of twenty or something, you know. And maybe — I don’t even think it’s conscious, for the most part, I think. But maybe, you know, pollsters have to make decisions about kind of what kind of turnout model they use, about what assumptions they make about demographics. And I think maybe, you know, you might put your finger on the scale toward making the race tighter or more dramatic. Some polls are notorious for bouncing up and down, because that creates better kind of headlines, right? Then it kind of settles in on the right number. So one thing we do now is not just look at the final poll, but also the ones kind of leading up to it, right? If a poster has the numbers bouncing all over, it often means that, you know, they don’t have a very good model, and they’re just trying to kind of create drama.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion. We’re talking to Nate Silver and Ari Berman. Ari Berman, author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Coming up, my conversation with Arundhati Roy, the great Indian writer, author of God of Small Things. But right now we’re sticking with the elections in this country. Nate Silver, founder of fivethirtyeight.com, now working with the New York Times, and Ari Berman, author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics.

So, Ari, talk more about President Obama’s — I should say Senator Obama or presidential candidate Obama’s grassroots movements two years ago and what they have morphed into today, and the races you’re most particularly looking at in this country now.

ARI BERMAN: Yeah, well, the book Herding Donkeys is all about President Obama’s grassroots political movement, or candidate Obama into President Obama, and really the evolution of that movement, which I believe really started with Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, which I argue in the book was really the first campaign of the twenty-first century, that looked a lot different than the Bush campaign or the Gore campaign in 2000. And I look at how Obama was really able to drastically expand what Dean tried to do, in terms of lowering the barriers for entry and getting people back involved in the political process. And that catapulted Obama to the presidency and allowed him to have an alternate model to the Clintons and get so many different people involved in so many different places and really have a big impact in terms of reshaping the electoral map.

But I think what’s happened since 2008 is that that grassroots movement hasn’t really translated into the White House, that in fact a lot of Obama supporters after the election said, “OK, we’re done. We did our job. We trust Obama now to do it,” whereas the same time, you know, Obama relied, probably because of all the problems he felt like he faced, on a much more conventional Washington team than he necessarily had in the campaign. And people like Rahm Emanuel, for example, play a very prominent role in the administration, so Obama has a much more top-down insider White House than I think people expected. And that whole space for grassroots organizing doesn’t really exist now. The Obama model was that the grassroots organizing would change the Washington sausage making, right? But that hasn’t really happened. And he has Organizing for America, and they’ve tried to blend it, but the grassroots people just don’t have the ownership in the White House that they had during the campaign. And maybe it was naive to expect that they would have it, but Obama’s campaign was premised on the idea that they would. So, in fact, I think that that is partially what’s motivating some of the disaffection in the Democratic base, because they really felt like, you know, they were going to be represented by Obama in the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, one of the things that certainly motivated people, millions of people, was the issue of the war, and perhaps why President Obama is president today. He beat Clinton on that issue. He was against the war in Iraq. And on the issue of polls, talking about what’s important to you — and the lack of reporters and people on television talking about the war, now this huge WikiLeaks document leak, biggest in history, the Sunday talk shows that set the agenda, no substantial discussion of the WikiLeaks exposé of 400,000 documents that’s come right out of the Pentagon on any of these shows this past Sunday. And Nate, on the issue of how the conversation is shaped, it also goes to polling. I mean, war relates to the economy, it relates to the deficit, spending trillions of dollars, and yet it’s not mentioned almost at all in the debates raised by reporters questioning the candidates.

NATE SILVER: Well, you know, I think that sometimes the headlines want to have a simple story, where, “Oh, it’s all about the economy,” which it is, in part, right? In large part, I think, right? But there are other issues —

AMY GOODMAN: But the economy is directly related —

NATE SILVER: Sure, right.

AMY GOODMAN: — to war.

NATE SILVER: People say, “Oh, you know, healthcare is unpopular,” right? But that’s related to the economy, as well. You know, if you had the healthcare bill passed the same time you had unemployment dropping to 6.5 percent or something, it would be viewed kind of very differently. You know, so I think sometimes —- you know, the worst manifestation of polls is when they’re kind of used for this kind of, you know, over-caffeinated kind of news cycle, where it’s like, oh, let’s kind of win the morning and kind of, you know, be the first out with new numbers in Connecticut or some other state. You know, I think -—

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, the issue of war?

ARI BERMAN: Yeah, well, I mean, I think, as you say —

AMY GOODMAN: Very brief.

ARI BERMAN: — it is related to the economy. And, you know, Republicans aren’t talking about, when they’re talking about cutting the deficit, cutting back on the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, but Democrats aren’t talking about it a lot, either. And I think increasingly, you know, even if Democrats are in the minority now, they’re going to start, I think, raising the issue of Afghanistan a lot more sharply, and probably Iraq, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Two seconds, Nate Silver, Nevada, Reid or Angle, what do you have it at now?

NATE SILVER: If you make me pick, Angle.

AMY GOODMAN: And Wisconsin, Lieberman or Johnson — I’m sorry, Feingold or Johnson?

NATE SILVER: Johnson, but watch a comeback by Feingold, because you can register and vote on the same day in Wisconsin, which you can’t do in almost any other state.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you both for being with us, Nate Silver, founder of fivethirtyeight.com, Ari Berman of The Nation, his book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics.

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