Neil Newhouse is a partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, a national political and public affairs research firm which has been described by the New York Times as “the leading Republican polling company” in the country. Neil has twice been named “Pollster of the Year” by the American Association of Political Consultants and was lead pollster for Gov. Mitt Romney’s 2012 Presidential campaign. He sat down with DPR’s Annie Adair.
DPR: Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement in the Bush campaign?
NN: So I grew up in Kansas and ended up going to Duke for undergrad. I had no idea what I wanted to do – I wasn’t political – but I took a sociology and methodology courses and then a voting behavior course in political science. The voting behavior course was the fall of 1972 and this was in the midst of the Nixon-McGovern race and I thought it was just fascinating and I threw myself into it. I was a really good high school athlete, but nowhere near the caliber of college, but I’m really competitive and this campaign brought out my competitive juices, and it was really fun. In the midst of the campaign we had Duke brought down a couple of pollsters to talk about the election it was Pat Cadill and Peter Hart. I thought it was just fascinating stuff. After I graduated I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do and ended up going to grad school for a year at UVA in government/foreign affairs and kind of migrated to Washington and ended up as an intern in survey and research for the Republican National Committee – I was vaguely a Republican because I grew up in Kansas. I joked that in Kansas you kind of had to be a Republican to vote because their only races were in the Republican primary. So I interned at the RNC and there my intern coordinator was Karl Rove. So I fell into it – I loved it. In 1976 I went through what they call campaign management college at the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee where they teach you everything you want to learn about running a campaign. I wanted to go on a campaign someplace. I went through it and did fine, and some guys said “hey, I have a place for you,” they put me in New Jersey. I ended up running a congressional campaign against a guy who was a six-term Democratic congressman and we won. I became the guy’s chief of staff at 24 and I was woefully unprepared for that job. I sucked, I was terrible. I lasted 6 months. and I said ‘you know what, I want to go back and get into the campaign world’. I ended up working at the Republican National Committee. The most fun I’ve had was in 1980 when Reagan got elected. We did nothing but local races – state house, state senate, school board type of thing – all over the country and raised the level of their campaign. I was exposed to hundreds and hundreds of campaigns across the country and just loved it. and I was 27, and nobody was looking over our shoulder at how were were doing it. I had an amazing experience. We played campaign doctor – you go in and we brought all the targeted state house races and would meet with them for an hour. For the first half hour they told you what they were doing and for the last half hour you’d basically write them a prescription, you gave them money, and they went and did it. So a couple years later I was hired by the Wirthlin Group – I had done a bunch of polling, I knew my way around polls – that was the first time I did it professionally. I was involved in the second term of the Reagan administration doing polling. And then in ‘91 we started our own firm. I never dreamed I could make a living doing this. It was one of these things where I really liked the competition, I really liked the campaigns, I enjoyed it, and I kept doing it, and my mom always wanted me to work for the government and she never had a clue what I was doing for a living. I love getting up and going to work and doing this stuff every day. Today is the day of the New Hampshire primary and you look at the way the campaigns have been running and it’s a contact sport. This is not softball, you’re playing for keeps, and I love that. I get a kick out of it.
DPR: On the Bush campaign, what was your role?
NN: I did Jeb’s polling in ‘94 when he lost, I was the pollster in ‘98 when he won and ‘02 when he won for Governor. When they put together the super pac this time, they decided most of the money is going to be spent on the super pac. I’m the lead pollster for the super pac. In terms of how we spend our money. A super pac is so different from being on the actual campaign because we can have no contact. We don’t talk to the campaign – it’s against the law. A good reminder for us is this: you don’t look good in orange, the color of the jumpsuits you wear in prison. We’re not going to prison, so you follow along and you can’t communicate with the campaign. So we have to do the advertising and do everything on behalf of the super pac to help Jeb Bush where we can and listen to what the campaign is doing and watching, but we’ve got to follow our own data. It’s an unusual situation.
DPR: What is the accuracy between the big public polls and the private polls you do?
NN: You’ll see such a difference. Today in New Hampshire – there’s such a huge difference between what you’re going to see on CNN/MSNBC and what the reality is. First background – in a general election race voters are anchored by their partisan ties. 80% have already decided. You really have a small chunk of voters in the middle. In a republican candidate running in the general in an area – they’re still going to get 42% or 43% of the vote because that’s the base and you have your polling within that small margin between whether somebody is 48% or 46% of that vote. In a primary race, there are no anchors. You have unbelievable fluidity and volatility. Voters move on a dime. The best example of that was South Carolina 2012. Mitt Romney had won Iowa, New Hampshire, we’re headed to South Carolina where we’re 10 or 12 points up. This is Monday and the primary is on Saturday, so we’ve got 5 days to blow a 10-12 point lead. Debate on Monday night, Newt Gingrich takes on Brian Williams about the role the media is playing in the campaign. By Wednesday morning when I have Tuesday night’s data, we’re down. Thursday night he takes on John King, and we lose about 14 points. It’s a 24 point shift in 5 days. Now we see in New Hampshire – Marco Rubio had a bad debate. He fell like a rock. We did a Sunday survey that showed his base being cut in half and these public polls are depending on data that was either done before the debate or use only a small portion was done after. Because of costs and the expense of doing polling, it’s extraordinarily expensive for these operations to do late polling. But it’s very important in these primaries that you poll until the very end, like Iowa, you need to poll through Sunday and if you don’t do that you’re going to miss out. These national polls trying to tell you where Republicans or Democrats are are not worth the paper they’re written on. They’ll do an 800 sample survey of adults across the country, and they’ll say 376 of them are Republicans or independent leaning Republicans and they’ll ask them a ballot test. But in about half the states across the country, independents can’t vote in the primary so that knocks out some of those and it’s really only like half the turnout, so you knock that sample size down. So you’re actually talking about 124 people who are really reliable. They’re sampling too small, and they’re sampling voters who don’t yet care about the race. And everyone wants to put a poll out and just not all polls are created equal.
DPR: Aside from responsiveness and speed, what’s the key to getting the most active poll results?
NN: Number one is poll from a voter list because that is the best source to tell you whether that person has participated in a primary previously so you know you’re talking to a voter. Secondly, have a large enough sample size so you know what’s going on and screen properly in terms of people who are actually eligible to vote in the primary.
DPR: Do you think Trump actually has the lead? Why do you think that is?
NN: Yeah Trump does have the lead. There’s a chart that shows that tracks the mood of the country if the voters are headed in the right direction or wrong direction. If American’s think things are going well, they elect incumbents, if they think things are going wrong they kick them out of office. We’ve now had 144 straight months (12 years) where a plurality where Americans think the country is off track. That is the longest sustained period of pessimism in a generation. Americans are upset about the economy, they’re upset about the wars, they’re upset about income inequality, and the lack of leadership in Washington. And that’s why we’re having turnover election after turnover election because people are fed up. And I think it’s that that’s fueling not just Trump on the Republican side but Bernie Sanders on the Democratic. The “establishment” isn’t getting the job done. They want to shake things up and send the message and they keep trying and nothing is working.
DPR: Has Trump had any sort influence on the polls? If there was no Donald Trump would the race be drastically different?
NN: We probably wouldn’t be talking as much about building a wall with the US and Mexico. He’s changed the race. Nobody thought he would last this long. and when he started this campaign his image was terribly inverted with the Republicans – he was not popular. He had terrible numbers, and usually it’s extraordinarily difficult to change those. You can’t change an image overnight from unfavorable to favorable and yet he did it. He has grown immeasurably as a politician and is a candidate he is getting much better. I’m not sure if the polling would change any but he’s certainly taken the focus off the mainstream candidates. Every election is different, but yet nobody has ever seen one like this before.
DPR: Can you talk a little bit about swing groups and Walmart moms?
NN: I love Walmart moms! Walmart moms are women who have shopped at Walmart in the past month and have a child under the age of 18 at home. 65% of women across america have shopped at Walmart in the past month, and Walmart moms account for like 14-15% of the electorate. That’s a big chunk of people. Now who are these people? It’s a real mix of ethnicity, white, minority, and they’re living on the edge of the economy. When the economy catches a cold, they catch the flu. It’s fast and when you listen to these focus groups, they couldn’t give a damn about sequestration in Washington, they want to know how that’s going to affect their pocket book because they’re trying to make ends meet and figure out if they can pay for piano lessons for the kids or gas for the car. That kind of stuff. It’s amazing and they are living these economic issues on the ground. It’s been a ton of fun doing this because if you listen to what these women have to say you can actually see the frustration, and it’s through the roof. The line that still sticks with me is after the bailout of the bank in ‘08 or ‘09, the voter base said “Wall Street got bailed out, when is my bailout coming?”
DPR: You’re famous for your 2012 quote saying “the campaign won’t be dictated by fact checkers.” Do you think all of the candidates can be as apathetic?
NN: Don’t take it the wrong way. What I meant by that was that every ad we did in the Romney campaign was fact-checked internally. All our policy and legal guys approved every script we did – it was fact checked – what I meant was that I wasn’t going to let those independent newspaper guys dictate how we’re going to run the strategy of our campaign. And because our guys had fact checked to our satisfaction, we said they were fair and correct. So I respect the fact checking operation, but respectfully disagree on some of these issues. By that I meant we’re not going to take down a TV ad because they don’t think it’s right when our internal guy does. Every campaign ad we put on air always has to go through fact checkers and legal and it has to be accurate. What I meant by that was I’m not going to let these independent guys run my campaign.