Presidential Election a Toss-Up, Says Pollster Rasmussen, but Trend is Public Disgust

Public Enthusiasm for Throwing the Bums Out is Big Development of the Last Two Decades -- Rasmussen Addresses Annual Policy Center Dinner

By Erik Smith
Washington State Wire

Scott Rasmussen addresses Policy Center dinner in Bellevue Monday night.

BELLEVUE, Oct. 16.—Pollster Scott Rasmussen says you can’t make any guesses about this year’s presidential race, but you can definitely see why it’s going to be close.

Americans are searching for a pure, back-to-basics approach to government that neither President Barack Obama nor Republican challenger Mitt Romney seem capable of delivering, Rasmussen said Monday night at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner in Bellevue. Voters are giving up hope. You can see it in low approval ratings and the way congressional control has flipped back and forth between parties over the last 20 years. You can see the movement surging on both extremes, with last year’s Occupy movement on the left and the Tea Party on the right. The common thread is a sense that government is out of control. And ultimately you can be sure that change will come – from the ground up, not the top down. “Public opinion drives the process and it is only a matter of time before the politicians catch up,” he said.

Rasmussen spoke before a crowd of 1,100 at the Bellevue Hyatt at the Policy Center’s annual affair, which over the last two decades has become one of the best-attended events of the year on the right side of the political spectrum. Another 500 watched via closed-circuit TV from Spokane. Washington State Wire today presents the full text of Rasmussen’s address.

Too Close to Call

Rasmussen is a nationally prominent pollster and bestselling author who puts on the pundit hat from time to time, with appearances on Fox News and his own syndicated TV show. In his speech he offered a description of the public mood similar to that which he offered in speaking engagements in this state during the 2010 election cycle, yet one that has been colored and amplified by more recent events. Rasmussen offered no comment on Washington state’s hot race for governor, in which his firm last month indicated Democrat Jay Inslee had a slight advantage over Republican Rob McKenna, 46-45. Right now his latest presidential poll also indicates a one-point spread, with Romney up one point over Obama, 49-48. But with three weeks to go, a one-point difference really doesn’t predict a thing, he said.

What really counts is the big picture, he says. The Rs and the Ds have scored wins over the last 20 years whenever they present a vision of reform. Then they fail to deliver, and the other guys take over. Now Americans are getting fed up with it all. “When voters elect people to do one thing that never happens, there is a growing level of distrust, and that is what the election we are facing today is all about,” he said.

Today two out of three Americans say the best thing government can do is to rein in spending.  “If Barack Obama wins, they don’t expect spending to go down. If Mitt Romney wins, they don’t expect spending to go down.” So now they are looking for a latter-day Cincinnatus — someone who can restore the fundamentals. Eventually the political system will catch up with the public’s demands, he predicts. Ever the optimist, he says the American system has a way of renewing itself.

Rasmussen began his speech by pointing out his father Bill was in the audience, celebrating his 80th birthday, then continued:

No One to Root For

1100 attended dinner at the Bellevue Hyatt, and 500 more watched on closed circuit TV.

“When I became a father, my wife and I decided that it was important to pass on a deeply held sense of values. So when my boys were both very young, we explained to them that there are only two football teams in America the New York Giants and the bad guys. And as our younger son got more and more into this, he got a little confused. Who do you root for when the bad guys play each other? So I explained that there is a special group of bad guys — the Eagles, the Redskins and Cowboys. You always root against them, and then the question became what you do when the Redskins play the Cowboys? Well as a Giants fan we want them both to lose. I note that is not intellectually possible, but that is what we are rooting for.

“The reason I bring this up right now is that in the world of politics, when the Republicans play the Democrats, there are an awful lot of Americans who want them both to lose. This is something that pollsters often forget. What we see in the election returns is the result of this frustration. In 2006, 2008, and 2010 voters didn’t vote for Republicans on the one hand or the Democrats on the other, they voted against whoever was in charge. And this trend is something that goes back to 1992. Bill Clinton was elected with a majority of Democrats in Congress. He lost control of Congress. Then George Bush came in in control with the Republicans but he lost control. That had never before happened in back-to-back presidencies in American history. And Then Obama made it three in a row. This is a fundamental rejection of both political parties as they behave from Washington. The other Washington.

“And I hear people say that Americans are too cynical, but you know what? Six out of 10 insiders in a National Journal poll said the American people are not informed enough for us to consider their opinions seriously. That is their attitude. A couple of years ago David Klopfer and I said the American people don’t want to be governed from the left or the right or the center. They want to govern themselves and the speaker, who is a charter member of the political class, said well, that is all well and good, but it is too soon to do it. That is the attitude that comes from our national capital that frustrates so many people.

Sense of Corruption

“The number one issue in this election is the economy. Everybody knows that. But the number two issue that nobody talks about is government ethics and corruption, and that has been true for many, many years. What we see is a really deep skepticism. It is no longer just about Congress in general. A majority of Americans believe their own representative in Congress trades votes for cash. And it is not just about official corruption. It is about concerns on policy issues.

“Two out of three Americans say the best thing the federal government can do to help the U.S. economy is to reduce spending. If Barack Obama wins, they don’t expect spending to go down. If Mitt Romney wins they don’t expect spending to go down. There is a sense that things have gotten out of control. By the way, there is a rational reason why people believe spending won’t head down anytime soon. The last time government spending went down in America from one year to the next was two years before I was born. And since my father was 80 today, yes, it was a very long time ago. It was the same year that Elvis Presley recorded his first single. For 58 consecutive years spending has gone up, even though voters have voted for candidates who promise to cut spending and taxes.

“Regardless of the policy implications, when voters elect people to do one thing that never happens, there is a growing level of distrust, and that is what the election we are facing today is all about.

Too Close to Call

“We talk about this election. The first thing as a pollster I have to tell you that if anybody tonight, 22 days before the election, tells you they know who’s going to win, they are either lying to you or deluding themselves. Our new tracking poll nationally as of this morning shows 49 percent of Americans planning to vote for Mitt Romney. 48 percent plan to vote for Barack Obama. I guess that means the thing’s in process.

“In the Electoral College things are just as close. You can look at all kinds of permutations about who might win what state, and there is even one that I guess would be good for a laugh. If there is an Electoral College tie, the House of Representatives picks the president and the Senate picks the vice president. So we could have Mitt Romney president and Joe Biden vice president. And certainly that would solve that problem.

“But more realistically there are three states that will pick the next president, Florida, Virginia and Ohio. The latest polling in Florida shows that Mitt Romney is up by four points. That’s a state he should win because senior citizens more than anybody else want to see the president’s health care law repealed, and seniors have obviously been part of the electorate in Florida. And in Virginia, another state Barack Obama won in 2008, he was the first Democrat to win that state since the Beatles were a brand-new act in America. Right now Mitt Romney is barely ahead by two points in   Virginia. Romney really needs to win all three if he wants to win the White House and President Obama is ahead by single points in Ohio.

“Those three states are being bombarded with all kinds of electioneering and campaign activity. They were actually shocked when I told them recently, I went to one of the swing states and I told them that I managed to watch an entire football game without seeing a single campaign commercial. They just couldn’t believe it. Because everything that is happening in those states right now is all about political battles going on.

Neither Side Addresses Fundamentals

Larger than life.

“We do not know who is going to win. What we do know is why it is close. The reason it is close is that elections are not about campaign strategies and commercials and brilliant consultants who want to put somebody in the White House. They are about fundamentals. When a president is running for reelection, the most important fundamental is his job approval rating. In 2004, George W. Bush on Election Day had a job approval rating of just over 50 percent. He got just over 50 percent of the vote and 51 percent of Americans thought we were winning the war on terror. That was the big issue of that campaign. Coming into 2012, president Obama has gotten a job approval rating of 47 or 48 percent for more than two years. Sometimes you will see it will bounce up temporarily, sometimes during the debt ceiling debacle it slipped a little bit, but essentially it was at that same 47 or 48 percent level. That meant it was good enough for him to be competitive, but not good enough that he could be confident in victory.

“The reason his job approval is up there is because the day President Obama took office, 35 percent of Americans said their finances were in good shape. Today, almost 4 years later, that number is only 38 percent. So people aren’t feeling better off than they were four years ago but they really aren’t feeling any worse off either. There is this fear among the uncommitted voters that neither guy is it. In fact when we combine all of our polls and look at the uncommitted voters, the people who can’t decide between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, a very small group, only 14 percent of them think the economy will get better if President Obama is reelected, but not many think it will be better if Mitt Romney wins.

“They have given up; they have lost hope. That is part of the concern that needs to be addressed. Two years ago people thought our economy was in a typical recession. We go through business cycles all the time. Now we are at a point where people wonder if our nation will ever get out of the mess we are in. Only 23 percent of Americans today believe our children will be better off than their parents, and I want to put that number in context. In the midst of the Great Depression in the 1930s, 37 percent of Americans thought the next generation would be better off. So we are more pessimistic about our future today than our grandparents were during the Great Depression.

No Mandate

“That is a fairly discouraging place to start, and the next discouragement comes from the fact that whoever wins three weeks from tomorrow will stand up somewhere and say I just received a concession call from my opponent. We had a great national debate, we talked about all the big issues and my team won — we have a mandate.

“And whether Barack Obama says that or Mitt Romney, they are both wrong. There will be no mandate coming out of this election. You don’t get mandates by winning elections. You do it by governing. What is actually going to happen this year is a little like a comparison to World War I, that is, trench warfare, both sides now getting out their mortars. And at the end of World War I they said it was a war to end all wars. But all it really did was to set the stage for a bigger battle, World War II.

“Whatever happens on Election Day – it doesn’t matter where the battle lines are drawn, where the trenches are dug is not important, but the real battle is going to begin November 7. Let me give you a sense of scale. Imagine we are back in 1992 and you are a bunch of newspaper executives and I was explaining to you about this brand-new thing called the Internet that is coming that is going to put the newspaper industry out of business. You laugh at me. In fact, I talked to some people in the newspaper industry in the 90s. I offered them a deal. I said I will give you a free poll and all you have to do is when you publish this story on your website, provide a link to my website. And the newspaper industry association said they wouldn’t do that because newspapers are the only trusted local source of news. They would never provide links to anybody else. It didn’t work out too well.

Change Will Come From Bottom

“In the next 10 or 20 years the change in the relationship between the American people and their government in every area, in healthcare and education, in the way we deal with the economy, is going to change every bit as much as the newspaper industry has in the last 20 years. I don’t know where it is going, by the way. I know the change will come, because the American people want to stem that continuous growth of government and the people of Washington don’t like the idea of giving up power and money. There is a conflict coming.

“The reason it is hard for us to sit here and predict is because in America we have a notion that change begins from the top. And that is not really the way it works. In our country, always, public opinion goes first. Something happens to bring it to the leadership’s attention and sooner or later the politicians catch up.

Takes a While to Capture Public Imagination

“Let me give you a quick example of that. Back on December 1, 1955 a young woman refused to get off her seat on the bus in Montgomery County, Alabama. Some people say that Rosa Parks started the civil rights movement. I have great respect for what she did, but she didn’t start it. It had begun a few years before. Rosa Parks in her moment became the catalyst, and after that Martin Luther King came and gave voice to the movement. And he didn’t attack America’s ideals; he challenged a nation to live up to them.

“The reason we know that public opinion changed before this change could take place in our political structure is because in 1943, 12 years before the famous incident, Rosa Parks did exactly the same thing on exactly the same bus line and she even faced exactly the same driver. And nothing happened. The Negro community, as they called it then, thought that she is a troublemaker. The white community didn’t want to deal with it. Nothing happened. A 12 year gap? Well, that was plenty of time for public opinion to shift. One part of it was that African-American soldiers came back from World War II. Another part of it was some [inaudible] had gone to school up north; some of them came back and [inaudible]. There was also Jackie Robinson playing major league baseball there were changes in the culture so by the time Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955, public opinion was ready for the change. It took nine more years for Congress to take action, but by the time they did public support for the Civil Rights Act was near 70 percent.

“It is hard to picture how individuals can change policy. But an organization like the Washington Policy Center, getting ideas out, shaping the conversation, is laying the groundwork for the type of change that is coming in this next decade or so.

Nature of Change Unclear

“When we talk about this change, and we talk about what it really will mean, it is impossible to say what the moment will be that will push us over the edge. The bailouts of four years ago might be a catalyst. They created the Tea Party movement, they created an occupy movement. But they haven’t yet brought about a fundamental change. We know this because four men on the national stage this year, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Joe Biden and Barack Obama, all four of them supported the bailouts.

“So for the 75 percent of Americans who thought the bailouts were wrong, there is nobody representing them. The change will come. When we start talking about who will bring about the change the nation needs to find a leader who can truly express the views, the frustrations of the American people.

“How many people here ever saw the movie City Slickers? All right, it’s a good movie — if you didn’t see it, Billy Crystal played a guy having a midlife crisis. His wife tells him to go find himself out on a dude ranch. Jack Palance played a cowboy who didn’t like the Billy Crystal character. They end up alone and Billy Crystal thinks he is going to get knifed. And instead the old cowboy says, son there is only one thing that matters in this world. And now Billy Crystal thinks he’s going to give the meaning of life. He asks what it is, and the old man says try to figure that out for yourself.

Looking for a New Reagan

“Presidents generally have only one thing that matters. There was a president long ago who every morning had two hard-boiled eggs brought to him in bed. After he finished his first egg, his aides would come in and get around a table and make policy decisions. and when everything was done the president of the United States would set the price of gold. Now that sounds strange to us because we make it a market function. Well, one day the president said I’m going to raise the price of gold 21 cents. The Treasury Secretary asked him why? And he said, well, seven is a lucky number and this will be three times as lucky. The Treasury Secretary said that if the American people knew what we were doing they would be terribly frightened. But in fact this was one of the most reassuring presidents of all time. His name was Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“It wasn’t gold pricing or economic policy that the nation was looking for. They were looking for something to reassure Americans that they would get through this together. He set in motion a view of the role of government that was so successful it lasted up until some crazy guy from out West came out and said the most frightening words in the English language are ‘I am from the government and I’m here to help.’ And the Republicans in Washington, D.C. said Ronald Reagan is unelectable.

“Of course, not only did he get elected and many people revere him today, but he said something in his inaugural address. He said government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem. There are two things that I want you to be aware of about that. Number one, 6 out of 10 Americans still agree. That attitude is still part of the fabric of America. But this next part is even more remarkable. When the president of the United States was dissing the role of government, trust went up for almost the first time in the postwar era. It was because the guy at the top got it. He was skeptical like  all Americans were.

“America is looking for someone who can step into that role today, who can articulate the hopes and fears of a nation and give voice to that and find a way to translate that into policy. Voters are ready for it.

“The American people are ready for a change. In fact the scariest outcome from the election of 2012 would be for Mitt Romney to win the election, the Republicans to win both houses of Congress and then do absolutely nothing. If that were to happen you would have three or four major presidential candidates the next time around. And it is a very important election. We hear about numbers and we hear about the races and campaign strategies. Let me give you folks some really depressing news. You have been told that our government is $16 trillion in debt. If you count the unfunded liabilities, the total debt of our government is actually just over $100 trillion. The good news? The voters are ready to make changes. They are not looking for austerity next year. They are looking for long-term fundamental changes in the relationship between the American people and their government.

Media Breakdown Accelerates Change

“It will come about because the reason our government grew so big, the reason it had become so centralized was because the media became more centralized. In the 1960s and 70s there were just three television networks. That’s where you got all of your information. Government grew along with that and now it is likely to grow in the opposite direction, because in the iPad era you can’t possibly have that much concentration of power.

“Let me give you a political sense. After Pearl Harbor 90 million Americans listened to Franklin Roosevelt talk on the radio, 90 million in a nation that then had 130 million people. When Jimmy Carter was president, if you wanted to watch, say, Charlie’s Angels, you had to wait until after the president was done speaking, because there were three networks and he was on all of them. So we had a centralized structure that focused attention on the government.

“Today when Barack Obama gives a speech he has about 30 million people watch, mostly partisan Democrats. When George W. Bush was president, only Republicans watched. When President Obama speaks today, his message is simultaneously translated by Sean Hannity. You cannot get a message out the way that you used to. This is the reason change will come from the American people. We do not know what that change will look like. We know this is the way things happen in the United States.

Politicians Will Catch Up

“I want to give you one more example, because if you remember nothing that I have said tonight, I really hope that you will appreciate the message that public opinion drives the process and it is only a matter of time before the politicians catch up. We were all taught that April 19, 1775, there was a shot heard round the world that began the American Revolution. And it is a nice story, but it is not true. In the 1750s and the 1760s and the early 1770s, Congress began to have different ideas about their relationship with the mother country. There were all kinds of events that could have been a catalyst. There were the Stamp Acts and the Intolerable Acts and the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre. we don’t know why the shot heard round the world became the catalyst to start the revolution. What we do know is that there were 77 Minutemen standing at Lexington when that shot was fired. We know that the British were professionals. In the first volley of the Revolutionary War 18 of the 77 minutemen were killed. We kind of skip over that part in our fairytale version. The other 59 didn’t think wow, we just started a revolution. They fled into the woods. they thought we just picked a fight with the mightiest military power on earth. It took six years before the revolution was done, six more years before the Constitution was ratified, and all of that began without a politician around making calls. It wasn’t until 15 months after the shot was fired at Lexington that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson himself said all he was doing was acting as a cipher for the American people. Public attitudes changed. It was a catalyst and the politicians caught up a bit later.

“Now that is a scary proposition. When we go through the change is after the 2012 election. We don’t know if it will wind up in a positive direction or a negative direction. I happen to be an optimist. I believe that America’s best days are still ahead of us. I also believe that it might get a little bit worse before it gets better. But what will get us through is my confidence in the American people. Very simply any of us who sense America’s divinity still believe that we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. Second, I believe that governments derive their only just authority from the consent of the governed. I continue to believe that if we live up to our ideals America is the last best hope of mankind.

“You can put the numbers together any way that you want, but the attitude is very simple. Americans today are looking for the exact same thing that they were looking for at the end of the most famous presidential speech of all time. What the American people want today is for our nation to have a new birth of freedom so the government of the people and by the people and for the people shall not perish from this earth. Thank you very much.”

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  • Edward Agazarm

    Did he mean “toss-up” or “toss-out”.