How Obama won: A Q&A with Obama pollster Cornell Belcher

Cornell Belcher

One of the members of President Obama’s polling team, Cornell Belcher, chatted with theGrio via e-mail on how the president resoundingly won a second term. Here’s the conversation with Belcher, who also polled for the campaign in 2008.

theGrio: Were you surprised by the turnout among blacks? Young people? That black turnout in Ohio was higher than in 2008?

No, I wasn’t.  One of the things I have found amusing over the last month has been Republicans talking about how minority and youth turnout was going to drop way off from ’08 for the president.  They actually believed that the electorate was going to buck a fairly solid historical trend and not grow more diverse but collapse back into the ’80s and grow starkly whiter – how so many rather intelligent people could be the victims of their own wishful fantasy cognitive dissonance would make a nice case study for some graduate student.  I would hear them time and again talk on air and in private about how in no way we could get the electorate to look like ’08 again.

When one Republican member of Congress came up to me after a CNN hit to talk to get my thoughts on this idea that African Americans weren’t energized to turnout again for Obama, I knew something was afoot on their side that was simply wrong and that they were in fact serious.  I was gobsmacked, either they knew something that we just weren’t seeing or they were in fact betting the house on something I knew to be flat-out wrong – that base Democratic turnout for the president would dramatically fall off.

I was both amused and just a little frightened.  A couple of weeks before the election, after both combating the spin on-air and in private conversation with friends on the other side, I was convinced that the polling on their side was either fundamentally flawed or that they had spun so well that they had blurred the lines of bluff and reality even for themselves.  I remember telling one Republican pundit on AC360 (the CNN program) a week or so before the election that betting their election on our base not turning out was fool’s gold.  Look, clearly a lot of pollsters on their side missed something and created models that frankly made some really bad assumptions about the world.  They screened out a lot of voters who frankly they should not have.

Voters who look like the people we ran up huge margins with.   And frankly that’s symbolic or encapsulates the larger GOP problem of not getting/ being able to really grasp a broader more diverse America.  Perhaps if they had more diversity around the table, I mean people who really understood diverse communities in real positions of authority they wouldn’t have made some of the mistakes they made about young people and minorities. They have such little diversity around their table and the so-called people of diversity they have are so woefully outside of the mainstream of thinking within the minority and youth community that they probably ultimately hurt more than help.

Why didn’t these voters show up in 2010?

Because like I said in my last memo to then DNC Chairman (Howard) Dean at the close of the 08 cycle, they are Obama voters, not necessarily Democratic voters and the party has to understand the difference.  We have to work to bring them solidly into the party as reliable Democrats. Look about 11% of the electorate was new voters in 08; people who had made a rationale decision, from their point of view, about not voting.  There was something about Obama and the movement that he created which made them believe in politics as a viable vehicle for change/ things to get better.  In many instances they didn’t even understand the ramifications of the midterm elections or that they needed to have Obama’s back in this fight to change the country.

How can you get them to show up in 2014?

I have a feeling the majority of my work life along with many others will be dedicated to that question for the next two years – but I like our odds.

Any new messages that the campaign used for black voters this time you didn’t in 2008?

Well look, the entire “have Obama’s back” messaging campaign was new and frankly edgy and outside the box for a conventional presidential campaign but it was an important rallying cry that merged aspiration with determination in a really unique way that spoke to diverse and younger voters in a culturally important way.

Do you have any real evidence that black turnout was increased by voter ID laws?

No I don’t, but frankly haven’t really been looking for it.  And look, that aside the Obama campaign spent an unprecedented amount of time, resources and effort building a strategy and carrying out a plan to inform, mobilize and organize our base electorate.  That wasn’t about what Republicans were or weren’t doing, it was about a campaign that put together a really good plan and executed that plan.  Give the Obama campaign its props for executing a really good plan.

Was there any evidence the laws hurt black turnout anywhere?

If it did, it certainly didn’t do so in battleground states where the campaign engaged the electorate.