Republican pollster Glen Bolger, a partner and cofounder of Public Opinion Strategies, has worked on numerous gubernatorial and congressional campaigns, including Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s race in 2009, and for five successful Senate candidates and 27 members of Congress in 2010. He and his business partner Jim Hobart, project director at Public Opinion Strategies, recently sat down with National Journal to share their thoughts on this year's battleground states.
NJ We saw a dramatic expansion of the map in 2008 with many new states in play. Will that hold or was it a fluke?
Bolger My feeling is we don’t know until we see it again. Trends are trends until they change. I do think Virginia and North Carolina, for instance, are still in play and competitive, and I don’t think that’s any kind of brain surgery.
Hobart The Romney campaign definitely wants to put other states, like Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Pennsylvania, back in play. If Romney is basically trying to win the Bush 2004 states, that becomes a narrow path. But if you tack a couple of others on to that, it becomes a little easier.
NJ How much did demographics contribute to the shift we saw in 2008?
Bolger It’s pretty significant. You’ve got a lot of different impacts. You have the impact of ethnicity, African-Americans and Latino voters. You have the impact of younger voters. You have the impact of white, blue-collar men. All of those are going to be significant factors in determining which states are in play and which ones are in the safer column for each candidate.
NJ How much should President Obama be worried about working-class white voters who have been defecting from his party?
Bolger He’s got serious troubles with them. They don’t trust him. They don’t think that he takes them seriously. The 'bitter, cling to their guns and religion' remark in 2008 is something that still gets brought up in focus groups by those types of voters. He’s got a real problem relating to them. I think it can hurt him in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and parts of North Carolina and Virginia.
NJ What about Republicans and Latino voters?
Bolger Look, we have got to do better with Latino voters, there’s no question about it. The math is getting much more difficult. For example, George W. Bush in 2000 won white voters by the same margin that John McCain did, but McCain got blown out and Bush squeaked by. We have to start doing better with minority groups. It helps to have people like Gov. Susana Martinez, Gov. Brian Sandoval, Sen. Marco Rubio, but we’ve got to keep moving forward.
NJ Arizona has been popping up on a lot of swing-state radars. Is it a true toss-up?
Bolger I think the Obama campaign should spend lots of money there.... It’s very difficult. A poll just came out showing Romney up 7 points. I have not seen data that suggests that Obama has a shot.
Hobart When there’s a swing district like Arizona-8 where there’s a special election and a Democratic candidate won’t say whether he’ll vote for Obama or not, that’ s pretty instructive. That’s not a base Republican district. That’s a district that a Democrat won in 2008, and the fact that he won’t say doesn’t bode well for the Obama campaign.
NJ How does the economic situation in these states affect the race? Has it improved enough in some places to help the president?
Bolger Michigan is a state where he’s capitalized on the auto industry bailout, and that’s helped him there. I think in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Nevada -- the struggling economies there are pretty problematic. I don’t know that there are too many success stories in specific swing states that come to mind other than Michigan.
NJ Which blue-wall states -- among Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania --does the Romney campaign have the best chance of winning?
Bolger If Scott Walker beats the recall effort, then you’ve really got to take Wisconsin up a level in terms of how competitive it can be in November. Michigan is probably a bit challenging because of the auto bailout; it seems to be helping Obama there. But again … you want to put additional states in play, because if you go by the Bush 2004 map or the Bush 2000 map, those aren’t very comfortable maps. As a party, we don’t want Obama to play offense wherever he wants to play offense and not have to play some defense, so we've got to make him play defense in some places.
NJ Social issues seem to be emerging as points of discussion an awful lot. Will that have an impact?
Bolger Voters are still very focused on the economy, they’re focused on spending, they’re focused on the national debt. These other issues are a bit off-track, and off voters’ focus. They are not long-lasting issues. They come up, they’re batted around for a week, and the voters keep saying, you've got to focus on what we want to focus on.
NJ Will President Obama’s public endorsement of gay marriage have ramifications in places like North Carolina, Iowa, and parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania, where voters tend to be socially conservative?
Bolger That remains to be seen. The polling on the issue is sort of unclear and indecisive, and I think when you look at the vote that happened before in North Carolina, that suggests trouble. But I’m skeptical that African-Americans will say that 'I disagree with the president on gay marriage so I’m not going to vote for him.' This is not going to be the issue that is foremost on Americans’ minds when they go to mark their ballots.
NJ What are the states that are must-wins for each campaign?
Bolger It’s those four -- North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida. It’s certainly a must-win for Romney for putting together enough electoral votes to win. I don’t know that the math works unless a Republican wins at least three out of those four and one out of the Colorado-Nevada-New Mexico trio, and I guess you can throw New Hampshire in there as well. The only way that those four aren’t the deciders is if Romney is winning a Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, but you've got to figure that if he’s winning Wisconsin and/or Pennsylvania, he’s winning the other four.
NJ How tight will this election be?
Bolger I think this is going to be much more like a 2000 or 2004 race than a 1996 or 2008 race. I think it’s going to come down to a handful of states and it’s going to be a late Election Night.