Work on message, messenger

Here are a couple of lessons can we take away from one of the most bitterly fought presidential campaigns in memory.

First, tracking and exit polls have lost credibility.

All afternoon, as exit-poll numbers dribbled in from both campaigns, networks and independent pollsters, the numbers pointed to a John Kerry win. We’ve all learned that exit polls change throughout the day, that some voters refuse to say how they voted and that campaigns always spin their numbers. Still, by the end of the day, a pattern usually develops.Here are a couple of lessons can we take away from one of the most bitterly fought presidential campaigns in memory.

First, tracking and exit polls have lost credibility.

All afternoon, as exit-poll numbers dribbled in from both campaigns, networks and independent pollsters, the numbers pointed to a John Kerry win. We’ve all learned that exit polls change throughout the day, that some voters refuse to say how they voted and that campaigns always spin their numbers. Still, by the end of the day, a pattern usually develops.

As one Republican pollster said just before sundown Tuesday, “If the polls are still saying Kerry, it is going to be Kerry.” Well they were … and it wasn’t.

This has not been a good year for pollsters. I can’t recall a single national poll since September that was outside the margin of error. That has not been limited to presidential polling. My firm hasn’t done candidate campaigns since 1990, but we do a lot of ballot issues. Our tracking surveys in seven initiative and referendum campaigns this year have been all over the ballpark. In a couple of states, we resorted to putting two pollsters on the case and often got widely divergent results on the tracking on any given nights.

I’ve been a fervent believer in polling through nearly three decades in politics, but this year something has changed. Cell phones, the Internet and public frustration with anyone who calls asking questions or pitching products have greatly decreased response rates and, thus, reliability.

I don’t have an answer to the technological challenges we face in this new environment, but the pollster who comes up with a new paradigm is going to make a lot of money in the next few election cycles. We need to know what voters are thinking, what arguments are working and which way the tides of opinion are flowing. But we also need to have confidence in the information we’re getting. With the exception of one pollster we worked with this year, that confidence was pretty shaky by Election Day … and even he was projecting Kerry the winner late Tuesday afternoon.

But the most important lesson from this election is that politics matters again. If President Bush has done nothing else, he has gotten millions of new people engaged in the political process, driving a turnout of at least 112 million voters.

He did that by polarizing the country. Arguably, that is not a good thing, but it is also arguably how political participation has always been stimulated. If the issues aren’t important on a personal level, millions of Americans find more interesting things to do than go to rallies, put up yard signs and stand in long lines on Election Day.

Millions of Bush supporters turned out as a simple act of faith. Polls (assuming we can still trust them) show that at least a third of the president’s supporters believe there were or are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Similar numbers think Saddam Hussein was aiding and abetting Osama bin Laden. No matter that blue-ribbon commissions have determined both claims to be false, these are items of faith for a large segment of Bush voters.

Faith, in fact, may well be the secret to Republican success in this election. What the intellectual elites on both coasts call the “flyover” states make up a huge red chunk of the electoral map. Many people in those states go to church, organize bake sales and take their children to Sunday school before settling down with an afternoon beer and a football game. Bush and the Republican Party have figured out how to talk to those folks. Kerry and the Democrats have not.

Despite Howard Dean’s unfortunate reference to the Confederate flag a year ago, he was right about one thing. Democrats were not going to win the presidency without making a connection with those voters. The most intense registration and get-out-the-vote effort ever mounted by progressive groups and the Democratic Party could not overcome the simplistic strategy of the Bush campaign: Build a mythology and they will come.

Bush did that. He didn’t get hung up with facts and nuance. He drew his line in the sand and called on the people of middle America to stand with him. It appears they did, in record numbers.

That leaves one important lesson for Democrats to learn from this campaign. To take back the White House, they need to find a message and a messenger that more of those voters in the middle will have faith in.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com