President Obama’s polling and focus-group chief offers rare public perspective on state of race
Pete Souza/The White House
As head of polling and focus group research for President Obama, David Simas of Taunton says he’s “like a human nerve-ending” because of the dizzying array of numbers and videotape he constantly scans.
The work also keeps him isolated at Obama’s reelection headquarters in Chicago, most often speaking with the campaign’s senior management.
But last week Simas made several public appearances during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., including one at a breakfast meeting of the Massachusetts delegation.
It provided rare - if assuredly optimistic - insight to the campaign’s private perspective on the state of Obama’s race with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
While the presentation was before the release of a CNN poll on Monday that showed the president receiving a post-convention bounce, Simas told the delegates the fundamentals of the race have been stable for the past six months.
Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said in the opening sentence of his own poll analysis memorandum on Monday, “Don’t get too worked up about the latest polling. While some voters will feel a bit of a sugar-high from the conventions, the basic structure of the race has not changed significantly.”
Newhouse added in a pointed aside: “The reality of the Obama economy will reassert itself as the ultimate downfall of the Obama presidency, and Mitt Romney will win this race.
Nonetheless, in his delegate speech, Simas provided his view of the overall context for the match-up, before discussing polling and focus group research for eight swing states (presumably forgetting a ninth, North Carolina) targeted by both the Obama and Romney campaigns.
“This election is 2004,” Simas said, recalling the close race between then-President George W. Bush and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry.
“In 2008, Barack Obama won 365 electoral votes, but I want everyone to remember what percentage of the popular vote he got: Barack Obama received 53 percent of the popular vote. That means 47 percent of Americans voted for someone else,” he added.
Pointing around a hotel function room, Simas urged his listeners to envision it cut in half, and then one table on one side of the room cut in half again.
“That’s the margin of error,” he said. “That’s what we’re going into.”
Simas said both public and private polling showing Obama leading Romney among Democrats by a margin of 95 percent to 5 percent.
By contrast, surveys show Romney leading Obama among Republicans by the same 95 percent-to-5 percent margin.
When it comes to independents, Simas sees three kinds: Democratic-leaning, 80 percent of whom support Obama; Republican-leaning, 80 percent of whom support Romney; and 5 percent to 7 percent who are truly independent.
“Among that group of voters, the president leads by 5,” said Simas. “That is our present margin. That is the margin we have had for the past six months. … This is 2004, this is 2000. We all remember Florida in 2000, where 537 votes changed the course of history. We all remember Ohio in 2004, where 100,000 votes changed the course of history.”
Growing more passionate, he added: “I don’t want anyone in this room to wake up on the morning after the election and think about ‘what I could have done differently.’ Because this is person to person, neighbor to neighbor, co-worker to co-worker, people you pray with and people you play with. That is what this election is all about. We win this on the ground.”
In that context, Simas said, the electoral map is expansive, with multiple states in play and little likelihood the outcome will hinge on just one or two of them.
He said those numerous variables leave Obama with 43 paths to victory and Romney “far fewer.”
Simas said campaign studies show the president leading among women and Hispanic voters, especially because of Obama’s support for the children of illegal immigrants.
Obama leads among women there, in part, because of their opposition to ultrasound bills pushed by anti-abortion governors and lawmakers across the country, the adviser said.
Simas labeled it the “the quintessential swing state” because families in rural communities “just want my son or my daughter be able to work in this community they love and not have to go someplace else for work.” The president has helped them, he said, by supporting wind energy that could provide a new vocation for farm children.
The Obama campaign believes it is benefitting from its support for the auto industry, which not only supports workers in Michigan, but one of eight workers in Ohio, says Simas.
“This generation of American soldier has been at war longer than any generation of American soldier in our nation’s history,” Simas said. They will tilt to the president, he said, because the administration is following through on its pledge to end the war in Iraq, draw down US forces in Afghanistan, and also because it authorized the military raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
“Florida looks like this country,” said Simas. “It is a combination of people of all different people, races, and ages, with the vitality of who we are as Americans.”
He said senior citizens are concerned about proposed changes in Social Security and Medicare - even though they will not apply to them - because they feel like they paid into the programs.
Simas said that when he speaks of 43 different paths for Obama to win reelection, few states are in as many of the combinations as New Hampshire.
He said its electorate - roughly 25 percent Democrats, 25 percent Republicans, and 50 percent independents - is full of people swayed by a simple description of what candidates can do to improve their lives.
They need to hear a persuasive argument from the president and his supporters.
“There are no magic words. There is no secret sauce,” Simas told the Massachusetts delegates. “It isn’t about talking points and soundbites or trying to be clever. It’s about telling people what you believe and why you believe it. Because in that conversation, that’s persuasion.”Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.