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Congressional Corner With Tim Vercellotti

Tim Vercellotti
Western New England University
Western New England University

It’s a Biden-Harris ticket heading into the fall.

In today’s Congressional Corner, Tim Vercellotti of the Western New England University poll and professor of political science continues his conversation with WAMC’s Alan Chartock.

Alan Chartock: Tim Vercellotti is here with us. Tim Vercellotti is Director of the Western New England University Poll, Professor of Political Science and one of the sharpest guys that I know, Tim, always wonderful to have you here. Biden selected Senator Harris for the ticket. What's your sense of whether that turns out to be something that will be a popular move, you as a pollster, you as a political scientist?

It's early days, of course, but the initial reaction across the Democratic Party seems to be universally positive, enthusiastic, supportive of this choice. Choosing a running mate can be a very tricky process, because a political party will have many different constituencies, and it's very hard to please them all. I think that's less of an issue in the 2020 cycle, because the Democrats are so focused on defeating President Trump but of the choice Biden could have made, Kamala Harris is a safe choice, but also a bold choice because it's a history making selection. First woman of color on a national party ticket. She's got a compelling personal story, daughter of immigrants, went to historically black university as an undergraduate. Just a very different background from what we're accustomed to seeing on these national tickets. So I think that's fueled the enthusiasm as well.

One of the questions, Tim Vercellotti, that I've been asked is, how important is the fact that one parent was black, and that another parent wasn't? It's not getting as much attention as the black part of it was Indian, from India. Do people tend to vote for their own?

It excites enthusiasm in the South Asian population in the United States. It incites enthusiasm among black voters as well. That's not going to necessarily swing an election. But in these tight races, states where the polling is going to be pretty tight, it could make a difference. And it's also interesting to see what the view is from abroad as well. The selection of Kamala Harris was well received overseas in India and Jamaica. And most recently America has really suffered on the world stage in terms of the world's assessment of our country and how we've handled the COVID-19 pandemic. It's interesting to see a political development that's gotten positive front page coverage in other parts of the world.

Does the Vice Presidential choice mean anything, how voters make up their minds?

In general? No. The rule of vice presidential selection is first do no harm, much like the Hippocratic Oath. Just don't upset the applecart and we saw Hillary Clinton four years ago, chose Tim Kaine as a very safe choice. Senator from Virginia may have tipped the balance a bit ensuring Virginia went into their column in the Electoral College. But it was a choice where Hillary Clinton did not want to risk her lead. And very often we'll see that's the case. Voters rarely cite the vice presidential candidate as a factor in their selection process when they're choosing the candidate for the presidency. But sometimes it can hurt. Looking back, it was clear in the exit poll that John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin in 2008 probably cost him some votes. It raised some questions about his judgment. When it became clear she was not really prepared for a national campaign or to serve as vice president. Of this choice, though, is different because we have Joe Biden, age 77 will be the oldest president, if he wins, oldest on Inauguration Day, he'll be 78. And for many reasons, the vice president will figure in much more prominently. Not so much predicting any sort of health issues or anything that might debilitate Joe Biden. But it's unclear to me whether he'll serve more than one term. It would be something for him to seek a second term at the age of 81. And this positions his vice president as the leader of the future, the presidential standard bearer for the Democrats. Possibly as early as 2024. So in that context, this choice was very important.

Now Biden has been leading in the national polls, do you believe them? A lot of people say, well, the polls were wrong with Hillary? I've never quite believed that. I think the polls are basically right with Hillary with a couple of minor tweaks.

Yes, they were. I've been saying that as a mantra for almost four years now. You know, the final average of the national polls was not that far off the final outcome of voting in 2016. Where there were some issues though, there were some polls that were pretty far off in Wisconsin and Michigan, in particular, and it was that trifecta of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, that delivered the presidency to Donald Trump. So generally speaking, the polls were pretty solid back in 2016, and one of the major lessons from the polls that were off was that they weren't taking into account education. And the polls were underrepresenting people who didn't have college degrees. Most pollsters are being scrupulously careful about that this time around, making sure either their samples have a sufficient percentage of non-college educated voters, or that they're applying mathematical weights to make sure that sample is representative. So I would say we can be confident about the polls so far knowing that they'll probably tighten as we get a little bit closer to Election Day. We're all going to switch from registered voters to likely voters, and that tends to tighten race in favor of the Republican because registered voters tend to be more Democratic than the likely voter pool.

You know, Tim Vercellotti you mentioned those three crucial states. How are they looking poll wise?

They're looking pretty good so far. The polls have Biden ahead in all three states. And the polling right now has some other interesting states in play. Arizona, for example, the polling is showing Biden ahead there. The polling is showing Biden a few points down in places like Georgia and Texas. Now we have to be careful about that. Again, if you move from registered to likely voters, those margins might not be as close. But it is raising some intriguing possibilities in terms of where Biden will contest in the fall. He's buying ads in North Carolina, he's buying ads in Florida, he's buying ads in Arizona. This would expand the map for him. And he seems to feel confident that that's money well spent.

It's a truism of American politics that those people with the least are the least likely to come out and vote, even though they may have the most to gain. First of all, you believe that? And second of all, if it's true, are we seeing anything different in this election?

It is true that education and income are related to probability of turning out. The higher your education and income, the more likely you are to show up. And we're seeing a very complicated dynamic unfold this year because of the pandemic. People are concerned about standing in line at a polling place, concerned that they might expose themselves to COVID-19. And so there has been a push to expand voting by mail and we have seen that a lot of places including here in Massachusetts, but now there's increasing concern about the postal service and whether those ballots will be sent out in time and then delivered in time, given the changes to the postal service by an appointee of President Trump. And so while we've seen this expansion of voting opportunities, now we're seeing a lot of concerns about those opportunities as well.

Tim Vercellotti, love having you on the show. It's always great when you're here because you clear things up that a lot of people just don't know about. And I think your students are very fortunate to have you as their teacher. Thanks so much for doing it. Appreciate it.

You’re kind, Alan. Thank you.

Dr. Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the University at Albany. He hosts the weekly Capitol Connection series, heard on public radio stations around New York. The program, for almost 12 years, highlighted interviews with Governor Mario Cuomo and now continues with conversations with state political leaders. Dr. Chartock also appears each week on The Media Project and The Roundtable and offers commentary on Morning Edition, weekdays at 7:40 a.m.