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Archive: Geoffrey Garin

Democratic pollster and political consultant Geoffrey Garin has the answers to your questions. Garin is president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates, one the country’s leading survey firms in the field of politics and political affairs. He has directed the polling and created winning campaign strategies for numerous Democrats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Veteran CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante brings a top political expert into the Smoke-Filled Room each week to answer your questions.

Plante: Our first viewer, Tamar Mikaelian asks, “Why is there such a negative spin on George Bush’s lack of foreign policy experience? After all, Bill Clinton didn’t have any experience either before being elected President.”

Garin: Three points are important here. First, the economy was such an overwhelmingly dominant issue in 1992 that other considerations – including foreign policy experience – paled in comparison. Second, the fact that Operation Desert Storm left Saddam Hussein in power dampened some of the enthusiasm voters’ might otherwise have felt about President Bush’s foreign policy advantage. Third, Bill Clinton always seemed well informed and sure-footed in answering questions about foreign policy as a candidate in 1992. That certainly has not been the case with Governor Bush.

Plante: ”How can polls that only question three or four hundred people be accurate?” questions Faythe Miller. “My views never seem to be reflected in the polls I’ve seen.”

Garin: Assuming that the pollster does everything right, polls conducted with a representative random sample have a mathematically calculable “margin of error” that varies with the size of the sample. The margin of error for a sample of 300 respondents is approximately 5.8% - which means that there is 95% probability that results yielded by the sample would not differ by more than 5.8% in either direction (plus or minus) from the results you would get if you interviewed the entire population. The margin of error for a sample of 1000 respondents (the sample size used by most large media polls) is approximately 3%. There are other factors (such as respondent cooperation rates) that can affect the accuracy of a survey, and factors that can bias the results (such as questionnaire wording and the order in which the questions are asked). Most of the respected national polls are generally accurate – but if you are going to put a lot of stock in poll results you need to be a careful consumer and understand how they were done.

Plante: ”The Libertarian party has more elected officials than the Reform and Green parties put together. So why is it that their presidential candidates (Buchanan and Nader) are included in the national polls, while the Lbertarian candidate, Harry Brown, is not?” Jay McIntyre is curious.

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Garin: On the presidential level, independent candidates who already have some significant name recognition are more likely to get a noteworthy share of the vote than other third-party candidates. The short answer to your question is that Buchanan and Nader are better known than Harry Brown, and thus are more likely to evoke a response in a poll question. It might be more accurate to list all of the third-party candidates, but it certainly would make the question unwieldy and would not contribute much to measuring the dynamics of the race.

Plante: “Could you please explain the origin and meaning of “yellow dog” and “blue dog” Democrats?” asks Jay Dagostari.

Garin: The term "Yellow Dog Democrat" was used by Southern Democrats who claimed they would rather vote for a yellow dog than vote for a Republican.

According to Congressman John Tanner of Tennessee, Blue Dogs are really "yellow dogs that have been choked by extremes in both political parties to the point that they have turned blue." The Blue Dog Coalition is a group of moderate-to-conservative Democrats in Congress that regularly break with their caucus on fiscal and social issues. In 1994, they began meeting in the offices of then-Democrats Billy Tauzin and Jimmy Hayes. Both were from Louisiana and had offices decorated with artwork by George Rodrigue, a Cajun known for his paintings of blue dogs.

Plante: Joan Riley writes “Why is Vice President Gore so far behind in recent polls? The economy is in good shape – shouldn’t Gore be doing better?”

Garin: The polls vary on how far behind Gore actually is, but all the recent polls suggest he has suffered some slippage since Mrch. A couple of factors are at work here.

First, we are in a part of the campaign where the playing field is better suited to Bush than to Gore. What Bush does well is be charming and articulate broad themes. Judging from the primary season, Bush is much less adept at dealing with specifics and operating under pressure. Gore is at his best when he can debate differences with his opponent on the issues, and the key issue differences between Gore and Bush largely play to Gore’s favor. Unfortunately for Gore, we are in a period when most voters (and the news media, for that fact) are unwilling to pay close attention to the details of how candidates differ on issues.

Second, the good economy is not working to Gore’s advantage as much as it should (or as much as he needs it to). Part of the reason is that the economy is so good voters don’t think that Bush can mess it up. One of the key challenges for Gore is to make the election more of a choice between building on the economic progress of the past eight years and risking that progress with Bush’s irresponsible budget schemes.

Plante: ”Will Al Gore’s loyalty to the President hurt, or help, his campaign?” questions AlitoRAF.

Garin: Vice President Gore’s association with the policy direction of the Clinton Administration will be a plus for him; polls clearly show that the voters would much prefer continuing Clinton’s direction than moving off in a more conservative direction.

However, loyalty per se is not a quality voters reward in electing a president. They want to elect leaders who can stand on their own two feet, and vice presidents always have had to meet a special burden of proof in this regard.

Plante: ”What are the chances of Gore selecting Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) for his running mate? If not Feingold, then who?” wonders Rob Severson.

Garin: I’m biased on this question, because Senator Feingold is a client of mine and someone who I admire tremendously. I’m sure Russ will be an important spokesperson for Gore on issues like campaign finance reform (Gore has promised to make the Feingold-McCain bill the first legislative proposal of the Gore Administration), but Dick Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, Bob Graham, and George Mitchell each are more probable choices for vice president than Senator Feingold.
Plante: Ted Armstrong asks “Do you perceive demographic changes in the west as causing permanent political realignment? That is, with the increasing Hispanic influence and migration in California, the state which traditionally has been Republican is turning more Democratic. And Nevada, which used to have a strong labor force and was considered Democratic, is now turning more and Republican due to the exodus of many middle class people from California.”

Garin: In 22 years in this business, I’ve learnd that nothing is very permanent in politics – because each party eventually learns to adjust to changing demographic realities. For example, Democrats have made major gains in the South in recent years (including taking over governorships in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and even winning over a few party switchers in state legislatures), despite the view that the South had been permanently realigned as Republican turf.

The rise of the Hispanic vote in California obviously is very important. Democrats have done well with those voters recently because they have been stronger in advocating the economic interests of people who are working hard to rise into the middle class, and because Pete Wilson alienated so many Latino voters with his divisive policies. But we can’t always count on Republicans to be so dumb.

Nevada is very much up for grabs. Many of the new voters there do not have strong partisan or ideological roots, and can swing back and forth from election to election. One key for Democrats is to register and turn out new voters from the huge pool of potential base voters there. The AFL-CIO did a great job in that regard for the 1998 elections – saving Harry Reid’s seat for him.

Plante: Tom wants to know “What advice would you give to Hillary Clinton about her senate campaign?”

Garin: The more New Yorkers see Mrs. Clinton and come to know her as her own person, the more they will like her. They will like her long-standing commitment to the cause of families and children, her intelligence and compassion, and her values. (I speak here as a New York native.)

It’s clear that Hillary Clinton would be a far better senator than Rick Lazio in fighting for the things New Yorkers care about – better health care, better schools, secure retirement – and she can’t let Lazio’s negative personal attacks against her move the focus from those central issues.

Plante: “What are the chances of Democrats claiming majorities in the Senate and House in this year’s elections?” inquires Emily.

Garin: I think the Democrats have at least a 50-50 chance of winning back the House. The distribution of open seats strongly favors the Democrats, and as a result of the past few elections there are now more Republican incumbents in Democratic-leaning district than there are Democratic incumbents in Republican districts. Moreover, the predominant issue agenda of education, health, and Social Security favors the Democrats.

The final outcome depends a great deal on the extent to which the Republicans “cry uncle” on the Democratic issues and pass proposals like the Patients’ Bill of Rights, prescription drug coverage under Medicare, sensible gun safety measures.

The odds are less favorable for the Democrats actually winning a majority in the Senate, but they can make a large enough net gain to ake a majority a strong possibility in a few years.

About Bill Plante
Bill Plante is a three-time Emmy Award winner who joined the CBS News Washington Bureau in 1976. He has been covering national elections since 1968. In 1984, he was part of a CBS News team that captured an Emmy for coverage of Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign. Plante is one of the most knowledgeable and respected political correspondents in Washington. (He'll do just about anything, including bungee jumping, to get a good story.)