(The Root) — Obama campaign pollster Cornell Belcher, a leading public-opinion researcher, is known for his work on behalf of the Democratic National Committee, which culminated in the "50-state strategy" that helped propel the president to victory in 2008.
The day after Hurricane Sandy finished ravaging the Northeast, he spoke with The Root about the storm's possible impact on the candidates' chances and why, in his view, "early voting is outperforming 2008."
The Root: Sandy wreaked havoc on people's lives and the infrastructure of several states. How will it affect the elections?
Cornell Belcher: Sandy did most of its damage to the bluest states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. It did very little damage in the purple states like Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. You're not going to see much impact on voters going to polls because of structural damage. If you look at where early voting is the focal point of the election — Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Iowa and Virginia — those are states that were the least damaged, if at all, by the hurricane, and there is no indication that the early vote is falling off.
TR: Will President Obama being commander in chief during a crisis have a greater impact on swing-state voters than campaigning in those states?
CB: I think it bakes the image in. It reinforces the president's strong leadership and competence, something George W. Bush lost the moment Katrina hit and voters saw him not responding in a way that showed leadership. President Obama's performance sends the message that voters can trust this president when something goes down. Even one of Romney's chief spokespeople, the governor of New Jersey, has said over and over again what an excellent job the president is doing.
TR: What a difference a year makes. Last year Gov. Chris Christie said that Obama "has no idea how to use executive power." He castigated the president for being a "bystander in the Oval Office" preparing to "divide our nation to achieve re-election." Now it's practically a lovefest, with them touring together and backslapping each other. Christie called the president "outstanding." What happened?
CB: You don't have the luxury of being ideological when you have to deliver for your people. Christie knows that middle-of-the-road independent voters don't want politicians who simply will fight and say no for political reasons.
The idea that the New Jersey governor is willing to work with the president to get something done positions Christie well for 2016 [if he chooses to run for president]. There is definitely the perception that it is a political calculation. Voters, particularly women, are turned off by the polarization in Washington and the Tea Party. The photos of the governor with Obama position Christie with those voters.
TR: The polls show Obama and Romney neck and neck in the battleground states. What are the early-voting trends indicating?
CB: Early voting is outperforming 2008. I attribute that to the base of the Democratic Party being determined to come out to vote and put the president back in office. There's been a lot of Republican spin about how Democrats, especially minorities, weren't going to turn out for the president.
If Republicans are betting their chances on winning this election on African Americans and Latinos not turning out, it's fool's gold; it's idiotic. Republicans are betting the house that this election is going to buck a historical trend and be whiter. If you look at presidential elections over the past two decades, the electorate is not going whiter — it is going more diverse. And the early vote is indicative of that.
Leila McDowell is a journalist and former broadcast reporter. She also serves as managing director for communications at Advancement Project.