Examining Washington Through the Lens of Polling and Partisanship

Photo Courtesy of Politico

Photo Courtesy of Politico

By Ryan Burns.

On Tuesday, February 3rd, the Duke in D.C. program hosted Neil Newhouse (T ’74), partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, a leading Republican polling company.  Having led polling for Governor Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign in 2012, Newhouse helped elect dozens of embers of Congress, U.S. Senators, and Governors over his impressive thirty plus year career, earning him the title of Pollster of the Year in 2002 and 2010.  Newhouse is well known from both sides of the aisle for providing accurate numbers and solid advice to effectively guide a multitude of successful campaigns. 

 Newhouse provided much insight into navigating the professional atmosphere of Washington, DC by detailing his rise to his current position.  Having had little participation in politics during his time as an undergraduate at Duke outside of handing out buttons for George McGovern on campus, Mr. Newhouse decided to attend graduate school at the University of Virginia and then worked for the Republican National Committee.  As someone who changed direction frequently in his early career, Newhouse encouraged students to follow their passion (politics, in his case) and allow the opportunities that present themselves to do so in response to the exhibition of that passion. 

 In discussing the political environment in Washington today, he points to a few key trends that must be noted in order to understand the elections and actors defining that environment.  He posits that incumbents are inexorably linked to their same party President, and as voters are beginning to split ideologically, their candidates will do the same – both in their own actions and in their relationship to the President.  He predicts that the nation’s hyper-partisanship is unlikely to change without first getting worse, and believes public scrutiny is becoming more complicated as well.  Although the economy used to be the main subject of political discourse, foreign or border concerns now take three of America’s top five 2015 priorities. 

After regaling students with a number of enthusiastic tales about his first campaign as manager and the work he did on the Romney Presidential Campaign, Mr. Newhouse answered a few questions from the Duke in D.C. students.

DPR: How, if at all, is the partisan atmosphere in Washington affecting your work?

Newhouse: Well, it doesn’t affect me as much as you might think because [my work is partisan in nature]—I am involved in partisan politics… It’s like the Duke Carolina [rivalry]. I’m always going to be rooting for Duke; I’m never going to be rooting for Carolina. It’s the same kind of thing. I’m a competitive person.  I love the competition, I love the campaigns, and then being able to figure out on Election Day whether you win or lose, and everything that goes into it.  So the partisanship to me is a natural way of working.  I work with a lot of Democrats—we do a lot of projects with Democratic pollsters and consultants and I thoroughly enjoy that.  But when it comes down to what I do for a living and politics, I’m a hardcore partisan.  It’s like you’re a Duke fan and you’ll never be a Carolina fan because you’re going be a Duke fan. I approach it the same way, I’m a Republican, that’s my profession, I love it and I enjoy it.

DPR: Has American politics become more or less predictable over your career, and have you had to change your strategy?

Newhouse: Politics in the US has changed dramatically.  The polling industry has changed more in the last six or seven years than it changed the first twenty years I was doing this work.  The amount of money being spent in politics with Super PACs… it used to be in campaigns. I’d run my campaign and you’d run your campaign and the best campaign would win.  I got to control my message, you would control your message, we raise money and you raise money, and we’d go at it.  Now it’s like you bring all your friends and I bring all my friends and if your friends have deeper pockets than my friends do then I’ve got to figure out a way to win.  It’s very different in the amount of money that’s being spent.  Now with the analytics—with the way you can back voter data into behavior, into Facebook—it changes how you contact voters.  So it used to be that you’d buy what was called one thousand gross rating points on TV and you’d send out some direct mail and that’s my campaign.  These days, that’s just not the way campaigns are run.  So it’s changed dramatically but it’s fun keeping up with it and trying to stay in front of it as much as possible.

DPR: Has the decrease in local ticket-splitting changed the quality of democracy in DC?

Newhouse: I’m not sure it’s local ticket-splitting, the extreme polarization does impact the ability to get things done in the country, no question.  I think we’ve seen the impact of that.  It’s not good for the system, but you’ve got to have politicians that are willing to work together, and you’ve got to see strong leaders.  Reagan was a strong leader that got Democrats and Republicans to work together, these are unique leaders.  The way current politics are, I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better, unfortunately.

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