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Talking Points Live

Terry Neal
washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent
Thursday, November 4, 2004; 1:00 PM

President Bush claimed victory on Wednesday afternoon after his Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry formally ended his bid for the White House.

washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent Terry Neal took your questions on the campaigning, the candidates and last night's debate.

Terry Neal (post.com)

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Terry Neal: Good afternoon, all. I'm pleased to be back with you for my regular weekly chat. It has, of course, been quite a week. So I look forward to a particularly lively discussion. So with that, let us begin.



Rockville, Md.: Just curious -- Several Kerry supporters that I know have bemoaned the election results, saying that the country is just so polarized. Would they be crowing about his mandate if he had won by the same margin as Bush did?

Terry Neal: No, I suspect they would not. I suspect they'd be doing the same thing Republicans are doing, including leaping for joy, praising the high heavans and perhaps even gloating a bit.


Charlotte, N.C.: I seriously must wonder about this Bush manadate talk. You'd think the election was not close and that Bush won in a landslide. Kerry actually picked off two red states to Bush's one blue. This nation is still very divided. The Republicans swerve to the right at their own risk.

Terry Neal: Well, look, Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 and still came in and governed as though he had a mandate. So certainly, given that he won by about 3.5 million votes this time, I don't think there's any question that he will govern as though he has one. Whether people view that as a good or a bad thing is up to them.


Washington, D.C.: Other than a campaign in which one candidate receives 100 percent of the vote, how would the punditry define a nation as not being "deeply divided"? What are the indicators? Was the close 1960 presidential election a sign of a "deeply divided" nation? I don't recall that it was. Or, was it a lack of color TVs, vivid computer graphics, and ratings concerns of print and broadcast media that let us wrongly see the country then as simply having lined up for different candidates -- yet not fundamentally divided?

Terry Neal:
I think there are a lot of signs that the country is deeply divided, beyond the fact that we had another close election and that people divided between two candidates. One good example of what I see is the growing cultural divide. The red staters said in far greater numbers that morality was the top issue for them. As an issue, that was much further down the list for the blue staters. This suggest a sharp divide in the way people see the world as well as what they think politicians should be doing to make it better.


Washington: I liked your talking points today -- they've underlined a couple of things that seem more clear in retrospect. I think many of us Democrats were fooled into thinking that opinions on war/terrorism would determine how the electorate felt about George Bush when I think the opposite in fact happened; how one felt about Bush determined one's attitude about the war. Consequently, arguing about the war wasn't going to change many minds either way. If you agree with this do you think there were other issues that may have been more profitable for Dems to pursue?

washingtonpost.com: Election Reflections (Post, Nov. 4)

Terry Neal: I'm not totally sure I understand your question. But let me try to answer it this way: I believe Bush found himself on election day with an Iraq problem. But I think that was nullified by the fact that Kerry had an Iraq problem too. By not staking out what many voters considered to be a clear and concise and strong position early on, neither side was able to benefit politically on that issue.
Remember in August when Kerry was asked if he would have voted for the Iraq war resolution given everything he knows now? I think some Democrats will be asking whether Kerry should have answered that same question back in, say, March and perhaps have said no--given that there were no WMD, no links to Al Qaeda and no involvement in 9/11. Of course, that strategy would have entailed significant risks as well. But sometimes, the riskiest political strategy of all is to try to eliminate all risks.
I'm not trying to tell Kerry what he should or should not have done. Not my job. I'm merely saying that I think these will be some of the questions that are asked in coming days/weeks/months.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think it is time for Terry McAuliffe to be replaced as head of the DNC?

What do you think about Bill Clinton replacing him? Would that re-energize the Democratic Party?

Terry Neal:
I suspect your going to be hearing a lot of McAuliffe talk in the near future.
I'm not so sure about the Clinton thing. Most ex-presidents consider it beneath them to embroil themselves in the daily, nitty gritty grind of partisan politics. This is not to say that they don't do things like occasionally campaigning for candidates and helping raise money, but party chief really would put him in the mix in way that would be inconsistent with the way past presidents have conducted themselves.
But hey, you never know...


Stafford County, Va.: ABC's Mark Halperin said yesterday: "Most members of the establishment media live in Washington and New York. Most of them don't drive pickup trucks, most of them don't have guns, most of them don't go to NASCAR, and every day we're not out in areas that care about those things and deal with those things as part of their daily lives, we are out of touch with a lot of America and with a lot of America that supports George W. Bush."
I drive a truck, hunt, and love NASCAR -- does the Post want my resume?

Terry Neal: Haha...That's hilarious.
Well, I see Mark's point. And I agree with it to some extent. But I mean, what can be done about that? Washington and NY are the nation's media centers.
The only sort of caveat I would make to Mark's point is that most of the journalists I know in Washington came here from somewhere and came just because this is where those jobs were.
For instance, I grew up in both Raleigh, NC and Kansas City, Mo. I've only spent 10 of my 37 years in DC (Actually, I live in Red State Virginia, outside the Beltway). I've owned a pick up truck in the past. My previous car was an SUV. I've owned guns (although I sold my last one when I moved here from Florida 10 years ago). I don't watch a lot of NASCAR, but I spend my Sundays the way most men do around the country, laying around on the couch, scratching, drinking a brew and watching football.
This is not my attempt to connnect. This is diverse nation. And there are a heck of a lot of people in it who live in populous, urban blue states on the east and wests coasts and upper Midwest who don't drive a truck, hunt or watch NASCAR.


Washington, D.C.: I, too, found your "Talking Points" thought-provoking, as usual, but I am troubled by your apparent acceptance of the proposition that Bush and the GOP have the right to argue they won a mandate. The numbers simply don't support that claim (not that this administration ever pays attention to data, anyway): we simply went from being a 50/50 nation to a 51/49. That's arguably a slight tilt, but no more.

You're right that they will try to govern AS THOUGH they won by a landslide, but the press need to keep reminding them that they didn't.


Terry Neal: I think we may be saying similar things in different ways. I do believe they have a right to argue that they have a mandate. Just as I believe you have a right to argue they don't. A mandate, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
I said clearly in my column that there is a slight conservative tilt in this country. So I think we agree on the 51-49 thing. People tend to look at the electoral map and see all that red, but people, not geography vote. And when you add up the numbers, Republicans have the slight edge right now. But a 3.5 million advantage out of 115 million-plus votes is just that, an edge, not obliteration.
There are lots of Democrats, lots of liberals, lots of people who identify themselves as moderate and lean toward the Democrats in this country. There is by no means a massively dominant partisan machine. We are a closely divided nation that tilts a bit to the right at this point.
At the same time, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. So while Bush's victory was relatively narrow, he still won and he did so with the first majority vote of a president from either party since 1988. He deserves credit for that.
And I suspect the debate over this "mandate" issue will continue for the rest of his term.


Arlington, Va.: What would the popular vote distribution have to reach before the political experts are willing to consider an election a mandate ? 55-45 ? 60-40 ? 51-49 ? What were the percentages to the accepted landslides, such as in 1964 and 1984 ?

Terry Neal: I don't know that there is some pat number on which everyone would agree. But I think '64 and '84 are probably good examples.


Washington, D.C.: Terry...looking back and ahead, what do you think about the way candidates select their nominees? Is it a fair system? Does it vet the candidates enough? I'm not saying Kerry was a problem candidate, but once Iowans decided he was it, then the primary was over. Iowa and New Hampshire select the nominees and that's troublesome, in my opinion.

Terry Neal: I think nomination reform is one of the issues that the parties are going to have to address. The front-loading of the primary calendar has only magnified the importance of early states, such as Iowa and New Hampshire. And there's a strong argument that could be made that this isn't such a great thing. For one thing, these are two of the least diverse states in the country. On the other hand, these states are small enough that politicians can focus on real retail politicking, and the people of these states take their civic duty very seriously.
Nonetheless, people in a great many states are concluding that the system is not fair.


Ithaca, N.Y.: I was interested to see that the exit polls surveyed about 12,000 people on Tuesday. No wonder they were flawed! I had expected that they might survey 12,000 people in Ohio alone. If they had 12,000 in the total sample, how many were in Ohio? 1,000? Across 88 counties? That's 11 - 12 voter interviews -per county-. There's no way that you could extrapolate a sample of 1,000 interviews to over 5.5 million in the state without a significant margin of error.

Does this debacle signal the end of exit polling, or another round of "significant" changes?

Terry Neal: First, I would point out that 12,000 is a far larger sample than is typically used in regular polling that you see throughout the year. I'm not a pollster or a statistician, but it is commonly accepted that very relatively small samples can provide accurate results.
Second, I'm not so sure the polls were innacurate. What do I mean by that? Well, there is a margin of error on exit polls, just like all polls. And it's about 3 or 4 percent. So the polls were showing Kerry was up by 2 or 3 points, when in fact Bush was up 2 or 3 points. That's within the margin of error.
Also, the first few waves of exit polls that the media received during the day showed that it had a disproportionate ratio of women--which was probably a reflection of the fact that women vote in greater numbers earlier in the day because a higher percentage of them are home during the day. And since women vote more for Democrats than Republicans, the polls accurately reflected that moment in time. In other words, Kerry may actually have been leading at 2 p.m. But he certainly wasn't by the end of the night.
Confusion about this is exactly why the media should NOT EVER EVER talk about exit polls while people are still voting. Many people don't seem to understand that these are polls, not actual vote counts. And all polls have a margin of error. Exit polls are good for post-election analysis and guidance, but not very good at predicting winners in close races.
I think the mainstream media should actually be commended for not disseminating the numbers on election day. The only place on election day where I saw exit polls, beyond what I had internal access to, was on the Drudge Report. They were up briefly there, and then on some other websites as well.


Terry Neal: Well folks, it's been great chatting with you, but I've got to run. Let's do it again next week, same time, same place.



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