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Are Polls Good News For Either Candidate?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, we'll hear why some analysts are calling Mali, of all places, the Afghanistan of Africa. We'll ask NPR's West Africa's correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton about why this formerly stable democracy has so many in the region on edge. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, back in this country, you might have been getting a few hints here and there that the election season is heating up. And if you've been watching any part of the Olympics, then you've probably also caught some ads like this one.


KRISTI YAMAGUCHI: As an athlete, you're training your whole life for that one moment at the Olympics.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: But America's Winter Olympics were mired in scandal and deficits. They turned to Mitt Romney.

MARTIN: That was Kristi Yamaguchi, of course, that you heard there on that little slice of an ad paid for by the pro-Romney PAC Restore America's Future. But even if you haven't been caught in the deluge of ads for both candidates, maybe you watch with interest as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney traveled to London, Israel, and Poland trying to demonstrate his foreign policy credentials.

Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to drum up excitement for their convention. They've announced that an up-and-coming star in the party will deliver the keynote address. Also, heading into that convention, there's a new poll out this week that shows that President Obama holds an advantage over former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in a number of key battleground states.

We wanted to dig in to a couple of these stories a bit more, so we've called upon two of our trusted voices on politics. Mario Loyola is with the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That's a conservative think-tank. He also writes for the conservative outlet The National Review. And you often hear him in our Barbershop roundtable on Friday. Mario, hi. Thanks for joining us.

MARIO LOYOLA: Hi. How are you? Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Gabriel Sanchez is a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. He's also the director of research at the polling group Latino Decisions. Professor Sanchez, good to have you back with us, as well. Thanks for coming.

GABRIEL SANCHEZ: Thank you for having me. Always a pleasure.

MARTIN: So let me start with this latest poll from Quinnipiac University. It was jointly run by the New York Times and CBS News and Quinnipiac, and it shows President Obama with a slight edge over Mitt Romney in a few key swing states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. And Professor Sanchez, you work with the polling group Latino Decisions, as we said. How significant do you think this is at this juncture in the race?

SANCHEZ: Well, it's always important when we're talking about polls to realize that we're really looking at a snapshot in time, right, with a bit of time before the actual election. But if you're President Obama, you've got to be pretty happy with the numbers. He has comfortable leads in all three of those key battleground states, and he has, for the most part, very positive ratings among key demographic groups in those states.

So I think it's overall very positive, particularly that he has just overall, you know, favorability ratings that are a bit better than Romney in those states. But it's not all positive. I think one thing to take away from this if you're Romney is that on the economy, that gap is much more narrow, where folks', I guess, perceptions of who can do a better job pulling out of this economy, that split is much, much tighter than it is overall.

MARTIN: Mario, what about that? The poll finds that President Obama has a higher favorability rating and voters relate better to him than they do to Mitt Romney. People think that likeability is important. Some people argue that it gave former president George W. Bush an advantage over his opponents. But as Professor Gabriel Sanchez just said, that the edge is a lot narrower on the economy. What do you think is going to matter most?

LOYOLA: Well, that points to a real weakness for the Romney campaign, which is, you know, you've got a candidate who tends to err on the side of caution. And I'm a veteran of several campaigns, and I know how campaigns can tend to get dominated by really risk-averse consultants, you know. And so they're focusing - they seem to be focusing on what poll tests really well, which is to attack the president on the economy.

But they have to do a much better job of getting the really appealing, charismatic side of Romney's personality out, which is hard to do, because he's not, like, a bombastic, you know, rabble-rousing kind of a person. He's a very appealing person when you know him personally, and they have to get that portrait out. I don't think that the president has as much to be happy about in these poll numbers, by the way, as Professor Sanchez does.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

LOYOLA: There's a lot to worry about. The battleground state polls are going to matter a lot more in the final weeks. They're going to tell us a lot more in the final weeks before the election. Right now, at this point in the election with three months to go, what's a really telling number is the president's favorability rating.

And it's very interesting that he's caught in a - he seems to be caught in a very tight band between 43 percent approval and 47 percent approval, which is a much higher floor than Jimmy Carter's worst numbers, than George W. Bush's numbers. But it's not high enough to get reelected. I mean, you've got to be above 50 percent consistently and the president hasn't been at 50 percent in more than one or two polls in six months.

MARTIN: Even though the person who he's running against, Mitt Romney, more people have an unfavorable opinion of him than have a favorable opinion of him, at least in these three states?

LOYOLA: Well, congratulate him on their having any opinion of him at all. I mean, because the campaign really hasn't done a good job of portraying him. And, you know, it's - yeah. I mean, Romney's unfavorability ratings I think are sort of a figment of the campaign not really framing him, not really framing a narrative about him yet.

MARTIN: Well, to that...

LOYOLA: And they've really got to step up.

MARTIN: To that end, Mario - our guests, by the way, if you're just joining us, we're taking a look at some of the big political stories this week. Our guests are Mario Loyola. He's a contributor to the National Review and also a frequent guest on our Friday Barbershop roundtable - and political science professor Gabriel Sanchez of the University of New Mexico.

A lot of people have been weighing in on the - Mitt Romney's trip overseas to London, Israel and Poland, and very mixed reviews. And I wanted to ask - Mario, I'll start with you on this. What do you think his biggest hit was, and did he miss as badly as some are saying that he did? What stands out for you?

LOYOLA: Yeah. I don't think there was a very good reason for him to be talking about London's problems hosting an Olympics. On the other hand, I think that people - folks in the Arab world and Palestinians need to be reminded that their problems are not all somebody else's fault. And so I think that conservatives have not...

MARTIN: Well, tell a little bit about what you're talking about. Just amplify that a little bit for people who aren't exactly sure what you're talking about. You're talking about a speech that he made that offended some people.

LOYOLA: Yeah. In one of his speeches he said, you know, this great disparity between Israel's economic performance is a very GDP per person, 30-something-thousand dollars a year compared to the GDP of the Palestinian Arabs in West Bank and Gaza, which is something like $1,500 a year. And most of that is from United Nations charity. He said, you know, this is obviously, you know, the culture - a great culture of success and entrepreneurship.

And, you know, Israel has, like, the second highest number of business startups in the world, and it's only a country of six million people. And, you know, he pointed out this is a very industrious culture, one of the few cultures that ever made socialism work, for example. And, you know, the Palestinians, you know, some people think they're touchy to begin with, so it's not hard to offend them, but they were very offended.

They came out and called it a racist statement, which is very hard to understand, considering he was talking about culture. And it's interesting because that, you know, on the left...

MARTIN: Well, they also felt that that ignores all the strictures and the, you know, impediments of the economy that attend to their political situation. So...

LOYOLA: Yeah, but if - so let's say that they were - that they're not under occupation and let's say they're in an economic situation like Egypt's. Well, their GDP per person would only be 5,000 or 6,000.


LOYOLA: So it's clear that this is a part of the world in which Israel really stands out as an economic commercial success, and Romney's making...

MARTIN: OK. I understand your point...


MARTIN: ...but I'm asking you - and we're going to have to go to Professor Sanchez on this. I'm asking you if you can tie a bow on this for us. Do you think that his comments there helped him or hurt him?

LOYOLA: They helped him with conservatives. They did not help him with probably independents or Democrats.

MARTIN: Hmm. Professor Sanchez, what do you think of when you look at Mitt Romney's trip overall? What was a hit? What was a miss?

SANCHEZ: I think overall, it was clearly a miss. I mean, from the standpoint that they really thought this was going to be somewhat of a coming out party for Romney on the international stage, getting him out there really on a lot of softball issues. I mean, especially in the context of Olympics, you look at his resume, and that's the one area that really has been, you know, out of bounds, politically. There's not much to touch there. It's actually a real positive sign.

But then when he makes those blunders in regards to London, it casts that in a whole different shadow. So I think overall, it was a miss. The good news, I suppose, for Romney is I don't think it's going to have much at all impact on voters out here in the United States.

Very few voters actually utilize foreign policy issues like this to determine who they're going to vote for. They're not very salient, particularly in this context, where the economy is basically overshadowing everything else. I don't think there's a whole lot to worry about in terms of the overall election. But in terms of raising some money in some of those key demographic groups, like independent voters, moderate Democrats, I don't think he did a good job of persuading any of those folks to move over to his camp.

LOYOLA: So, overall, I clearly don't think there was any hits in this dynamic, but the good news is I don't think it's going to have a huge consequence on the overall outcome of the election.

MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go, we did want to mention that the Democrats announced that they've selected the person who will deliver the keynote address at their convention, and that is San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. He talked about how he was inspired by the keynote address that President Obama made two conventions ago, and we'll just play a short clip of him so you can hear his voice - a little warm-up, if you want to call it that. Here it is.


MAYOR JULIAN CASTRO: When Obama talked about the audacity of hope, I thought back to my mother saying that if you didn't like the way things were, you could dare to change them. I thought: My mother would like this guy. I felt that this young state senator from Illinois had a clear idea of where we needed to go as a country, and I got the sense that he knew how to get us there.

MARTIN: So I want to ask each of you: What do you think of the choice? And, Professor Sanchez, I'll start with you.

SANCHEZ: Well, I'm extremely proud of this dynamic. I mean, having the first Latino to have this particular stage is important. It's clearly a message to the Latino voting population where the president has an overwhelming advantage in the polls, but there are some questions about enthusiasm and likelihood to vote among that population. I think it's a message to that community to try to drum up some enthusiasm.

On a personal note, I first met Julian Castro back when I was an undergraduate at St. Mary's University out there in San Antonio, and seeing how far he has come on this particular catapult - which, obviously, we've seen the president be able to utilize this to advance his particular career.

I think it's important that, if Julian does well, we'll be looking at this down the line if he goes on to bigger and better things. So I think it's a big move by the president, and might actually do a good job of selling(ph) us on the Latino vote.

MARTIN: Mario, you have a little bit of time left. What do you think?

LOYOLA: I think it's a brilliant choice on the Democrats' part. Julian Castro's a very compelling personality. He not only is a very compelling voice for the Latino community, but he's 37 years old, which helps Obama with another group that he needs to win, which is young people, whose enthusiasm is markedly less in this cycle than it was four years ago. So I think this is a really brilliant choice, and I'm looking forward to the speech.

MARTIN: Mario Loyola is with the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He also writes for the National Review. He was with us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Gabriel Sanchez is a political science professor at the University of New Mexico. He's the director of research at the polling group, Latino Decisions, and he was with us from KUNM in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

LOYOLA: Thank you. Always a pleasure.

SANCHEZ: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.