Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, CEO of the Mellman Group, boasts a roster of high-profile clients including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. He has worked on the campaigns of 18 senators, eight governors, and 24 members of Congress. Mellman recently sat down with National Journal to share his thoughts about the state of play in this year's battleground states.
NJ There was a dramatic expansion of the map in 2008. Was it a fluke, or are those changes more permanent?
Mellman The map always gets bigger when the overall national margin gets bigger. People don’t seem to realize, but the national vote is linked to the votes in the states. So if you’re going to win by 10 points, you’re going to have a bigger map than if you win by one point. More states will be in play. What has happened is that there is a different set of states in play. Democrats have established a stronger advantage in a number of states because of demographic changes.
NJ In what states are demographics playing a role?
Mellman You have states like North Carolina that have a large number of African-Americans, an increasingly large group of college-educated whites -- a group that tends to be more supportive of Democrats -- and obviously a growing Latino population as well. And you have a state like Nevada that also has a fast-growing and important Latino population. Colorado has, again, a combination of college-educated whites and Latinos.
NJ In 2008, how much of President Obama’s victory was a product of disgruntlement with the party in power and the economic situation?
Mellman That was clearly important in some places. I don’t think anybody thinks that Indiana is going to Obama this time. The Obama campaign worked Indiana very hard and very effectively, but they were close enough for that to make a difference because of the economic situation. And this time, being the incumbent, with an economic situation that is beginning to improve but not fully improved, makes Indiana that much harder. It’s safe to say that President Obama is going to win, but with fewer electoral votes in 2012 than he did in 2008. And an important part of that reduction in the number of electoral votes is going to be a function of the economic situation.
NJ How concerned should Mitt Romney be about the Latino vote in swing states? And how concerned should President Obama be about the working-class white voters?
Mellman In a close election, everybody should worry about everybody, and if you don’t, you’re foolish.
Romney has more to worry about than Obama does. If you look at white voters overall, if Obama is able to hold on to the minority votes he got last time, he can win with less than 40 percent of the white vote. The truth is, in 2010, when Democrats were getting clobbered, they got 38 percent of the white vote, so getting 40 percent of the white vote is not that hard for the president.
On the other hand, Republicans really have to make some substantial inroads into the Latino community, and so far they’ve been much more focused on alienating the Latino community than bringing them into the Republican fold.
NJ Arizona has been on a lot of people’s radar this cycle. Is it a true toss-up?
Mellman It’s just a matter of time, again, because of the growing Latino population, but it’s hard to know. Is it a state that everyone is going to be watching for a while at least? Yes, I think it will remain on the map for a while until people have a clearer sense of where it’s going. Last time of course you had [John] McCain’s tremendous home-state advantage. He’s not on the ballot this time. Whether it’s going to be enough to move over to the Democratic column, it’s hard to know yet.
NJ So you wouldn’t say that Democrats and the Obama campaign are wasting their time there.
Mellman Absolutely not. You have an extremely competitive Senate race there that Democrats can win, and you have the possibility of winning the presidential there too. It’s a state that’s definitely worth investment, resources, time, and attention.
NJ How does the somewhat improving economic situation in some of these swing states affect Romney's and Obama’s chances?
Mellman The overall picture has improved, too, but is it improving enough? For the calculus geeks, we’re a first-derivative nation. We care more about the direction of change than the level. As long as people can look forward and say things are getting better, I think the president economically is going to be in better shape.
NJ Social issues have also been coming up a lot in this cycle. Do they make a difference?
Mellman Most people are going to be focused on the economy, and I think that’s still going to be the case by November.
NJ In what parts of the country are social issues important -- especially with regard to the president’s gay-marriage announcement?
Mellman It happens almost everywhere, but particularly the kinds of states we’re talking about where you have a growing segment of college-educated whites -- that’s Virginia, it’s North Carolina, it’s Nevada, it’s Colorado.
NJ Does that decision also galvanize social conservatives around Romney?
Mellman It probably does. I think it’s overstated, in the sense that those people aren’t going to vote for Obama anyways.... Those older social conservatives tend to be registered, tend to participate a lot, tend to turn out on their own. Younger folks are less likely to vote and they need a little bit more of a push.
NJ Which blue-wall states does Governor Romney have the best chance of taking -- Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota?
Mellman I don’t think Romney’s going to take any of them.
NJ How significant of an issue is the auto bailout?
Mellman It will be a big deal -- especially if we don’t call it a bailout. People don’t like bailouts, but they do like saving the auto industry, which is exactly what he did, and they don’t like the fact that Romney said basically, 'Let it go bankrupt.' It’s going to be an issue in Michigan, it’s going to be an issue in Ohio, it’s going to be an issue in Wisconsin, it’s going to be an issue in Missouri potentially. Nationally, everybody understands in this country that the automobile industry is important to the overall economy.
NJ Are any of the swing states decisive?
Mellman There’s a mythology out there about Ohio and Florida. You guys [National Journal] did a survey in which -- states that he won last time that he’s likely to lose this time -- I think the consensus was Indiana, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina. The president could lose all those states and still win 270 electoral votes. He could even lose another state or two and still win 270 electoral votes.