Is the Political Center Back?

John Zogby and Joel Benenson discuss the mood of American voters, and what they expect for November.


With the primary marathon between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continuing its Energizer Bunny routine by going on and on and on, we take a step back to consider the overall American political landscape with John Zogby and Joel Benenson.

Zogby, President and CEO of the twenty-plus-year-old marketing and polling firm that bears his name, and Benenson, Obama’s campaign pollster, explore the national mood and answer questions about how and where they got things so wrong during the current campaign, notably in California and New Hampshire.

More importantly, they discuss what they believe they’ve gotten right, and point to a sizable and quantifiable shift in the American public from the conservative right, back to — in Zogby’s words — a non-idealogical center.

About this Video

This video was filmed during the Advertising Research Foundation’s Re:think 2008 Program.

Gail Collins, Op-ed columnist at the New York Times moderates the discussion.

About the ARF

The Advertising Research Foundation’s principle mission is to improve the practice of advertising, marketing and media research in pursuit of more effective marketing and advertising communications.

Information about their upcoming events can be found on their Web site.

“Two out of three voters have consistently told us for the past year and half that the United States is in a serious crisis,” Zogby tells us, and adds that in a recent poll general discontent with the country’s direction reached 74%.

“These numbers are the worst numbers that I’ve seen since Watergate” he adds.

Zogby believes Hurrican Katrina was the breaking point for the American public, a final confirmation that after swinging to the right during the Bush years, “the government in particular wasn’t there when they needed them.”

Benenson draws a different lesson from Katrina. In his view, Katrina’s aftermath gave Americans a common purpose to pull together, with cities like Houston opening its doors to the hurricane’s victims. That commonality, he believes, is the theme Obama’s been able to tap into as he campaigns on the idea of a single America coming together to solve the country’s ills.

Zogby’s research outlines the following landscape:

[The] political middle was on sabbatical in 2004… Only five percent of Americans in late ’03 and early ’04 said they were undecided as to who they were going to vote for, the Democratic nominee or George W. Bush. That kind of number is unheard of.

Well, today the middle is back and it’s about a third of American voters and the important thing you need to know about the middle and about all voters is that what they are looking for in this election is, number one, someone who can manage the government; number two, they want someone who has the ability to work across the aisle with the opposition to get the people’s business done; number three, the want someone who can command the military; and number four, they want someone with strong personal values — not to be confused with Christian values. That came out low and continues to come out low…

…. Every one of those values is non-ideological.

Within the landscape that Zogby defines, Benenson outlines his work with the Obama campaign and in particular how they’ve navigated shifting moods, events and dynamics of the primary campaign.

“We… knew that Barack Obama had entered this race with a lot of celebrity,” he says. “but we also knew that when that celebrity faded we would dip in the polls nationally… and we would have to have a lot of intestinal fortitude as criticism got heaped on us from the press, our donors, from our friends and neighbors.”

In particular, Benenson didn’t expect a Clinton win in the New Hampshire primary, nor did he expect Obama’s winning streak throughout February, or again that the two candidates would still be clawing their way to victory here in April.

As we enter the last batch of primaries, and the political chattering class debates super delegates and the damage done to the Democratic party, we think of the polling, market research and data that abounds and wonder if this fall we’ll still be surprised by the course of the 2008 election.

“A lot of people want to think that politics is rational and logical,” says Benenson, “and it isn’t always so.”