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Politics doesn't lead, culture does: A conversation with pollster Scott Rasmussen (+podcast)

Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.

Boyd Matheson: Midterm elections are fast approaching, political campaigns are in full swing. Both parties are stoking anger, fear and frustration. Who will decide the election? Will this election be about the base, the independents, or citizens who have simply disengaged from the process? Has politics failed? What is the future for America? Legendary pollster Scott Rasmussen weighs in on this week's edition of Therefore, What?

Therefore, What? is a weekly podcast that breaks down the news while breaking down barriers, challenges you and the status quo, explores timely topics and timeless principles, and leaves you confident to face what's next. I'm Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for The Deseret News. And this is Therefore, What? We're very excited to have in the Deseret News studios today, best-selling author, political observer, pollster, and purveyor of He's looking for community driven solutions through data driven analysis. Scott Rasmussen, thanks for joining us on Therefore, What?

Scott Rasmussen: Boyd, it's great to be here.

BM: It's so good to have you back in the great state of Utah. That's always a good day for us here when you're here. Just with your approach, give us a quick look. We're coming down the homestretch to the election. A lot of people are wringing their hands on both sides of the aisle. What are you seeing in your polling as we approach the midterms?

SR: Well you know the first thing is the people that don't live and breathe politics, two months ago didn't think it could get any worse. But it has and there's a real sense of, man I just need to take a shower. I want this to be over with, among a lot of people. And it's because it's become such a team sport and because there was so much anger and just abuse of process that is annoying people. In terms of what to expect, Republicans are very likely to hang on to the U.S. Senate. I think it's probable they pick up one or two seats, could even be a little better than that if things continue to move in their direction. The reason for that, the Kavanaugh hearings reminded everybody what a team sport politics has become. And all those states like, you know, Missouri that Donald Trump won by 19 points, it becomes very difficult to win as a Democrat. On the House side, it's looking a little different. I expect the Democrats to probably gain control of the House, margins aren't clear just yet. And when I look at different turnout models, the best for the Republicans could put it pretty close to a toss-up where you could almost imagine a scenario where they hang on. The best for the Democrats is probably about a 50 seat gain.

BM: Oh, interesting. That's fascinating. As you look at that, and as you're doing your analysis, what are some of the underlying trends you're seeing? What is driving that? As you mentioned, not everybody is obsessed and living in the middle of the political world. Most people are raising their families and working hard and you know, making a difference in their community. But what are the things that you're noticing across the country?

SR: Well, the dynamics started with a typical midterm effect. Democrats are expected to do well, Democrats are more interested in voting for the simple reason that there's a Republican in the White House. That happens in every midterm election. In the last couple of weeks, Republicans are starting to be a little more interested, and that's perhaps issue-related, perhaps Kavanaugh-related, but it's still not clear how much they're going to show up and vote. The biggest concern for a Republican strategist has to be the fact that 77 percent of Republicans believe they're going to keep the House. They're not seeing this as a threat. And that leads to complacency.

BM: Yeah. And so in terms of both the turnout, some people say this is going to be about getting the base out. Some people are saying no, this is about the independents, they're going to make the decision. You've been talking a lot lately about this group you've defined as the disengaged. Who is this group and how are they going to play in the midterms this year?

SR: Don't know how they're going to play in the midterms. But these are people who are saying — there's 26 percent who say it wouldn't make any difference if Hillary Clinton was president today. It includes a group of people who disapprove of President Trump, but are happy he's there instead of Clinton. It also includes a group of people, mostly Democrats, who say things wouldn't be much different with Hillary, but we really dislike Donald Trump. You know, on balance, that group is going to vote more Democratic than Republican. But again, that's because they started off as more Democratic.

BM: Interesting. So as you look at polling, I want to pivot just a little bit to what does it mean. We were talking before the podcast about why do we do polling? Beyond just the crass, political, you know, I need to beat my opponent by three points on this area or in this particular district. What do you think is the real value of a lot of the polling?

SR: The best polling is that that is not done around election time. I love polling in January and February, when you can really talk to people about what are your attitudes? What are your hopes and dreams? What do you think about? How does the nation fit into that? I've also had a great time polling on some of the themes in my book, 71 percent of Americans recognize that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have had a bigger impact on our nation than the last eight presidents combined. You know, it's good to see that kind of information. But when we get into the final month, being a pollster means you have to tell everybody you meet who you think is going to win what election. And that's really the only comments that people get focused on at this time in the season.

BM: Yeah, very interesting. I want you to drill down a little bit from your book. You've talked a lot over the years about how our politics is failed, why our politics is failed, and then what the real solution is, and it has nothing to do with just raw numbers, does it?

SR: No, not at all. The solution has to do with the fact that politics has a role to play in our society. Government has a very important role to play, but it is not the lead role. Every one of us has something to do to help manage society, to help govern society as individuals, you know. My wife plays a role in governing my life

BM: And knowing your wife, it's a significant role.

SR: But she would also say that I play a role in governing her life. You know, and your job, your employer plays a role in it, and the associations that you're a part of, because these are the things that hold society together. It is that light, that informal government that is far more important and powerful. And that's where people can come together and they can work together in a community to solve problems. So we see that a lot here in Utah. Probably some of the best examples of people with different ideas coming together and saying, how can we find common ground and make this work? And that is exactly the opposite of what we see in Washington.

BM: Yeah, you know, Utah has been such a great example of those kind of community-driven solutions, getting the right people to the table. Utah has really led the nation in dealing with immigration as an issue, in LGBT rights and balancing religious liberty, and now this year we're dealing with marijuana as a medicine. There's an initiative that, whether that passes or not, the governor and the legislature are committed to a great compromise bill that really could lead the nation, again, in terms of a way to have it doctor prescribed, pharmacy delivered, with a lot of the safeguards that are needed so you can do real science and help those that are suffering with compassion, but really making sure you got the safeguards in place as well.

SR: And you know, when you describe that, that sounds like common sense. Sounds like pragmatism and that's where most people are. They don't know the details of the legislation. They don't know the details of the research, but they do have a general sense of what seems fair and right and that's what they're looking for, is people to come together and work on it. I think one of the challenges we run into is when you have people working together outside the political process, you know, they can make an awful lot of progress. But somewhere along the way somebody says, but we need to have a law or my side is not getting as much as I want out of this debate. So we need to go somewhere else. And that creates some difficulties.

BM: Yeah, for sure. Much of your writing — I know you wrote a book a few years ago that really centered on our favorite topic of federalism. I keep joking with all of our guests that, you know, we are determined to make federalism sexy again, and I don't know if that will ever really happen. But this laboratory of democracy does matter. And how are you seeing that, both in terms of your polling and in terms of what you sense as you travel the country?

SR: Well, when you talk about federalism, as a term it's terrible. Bad branding. They should have thought of that a long time ago. In terms of the ideas, people always trust government closer to home. We've done some poll — one of the things you do to tease out ideas sometimes is what we call a split sample research. You asked half the sample a question one way, and then you ask the same question. But you give them a little prompt, you know, and we've done a lot of testing like that about state and local governments. And where should regulations be set? And there's no difference. If we just asked, Where should regulations be set? Most people say closer to home. If we give a choice about you know, if there's national rules, everybody plays under the same rules, but if it's state and local, they can have them adapted to local circumstances, you still get the same results. And what that tells you is there's a real commitment and instinctive support for the idea that decisions should be made closer to home and that decisions when they're made closer to home, you can begin to see how the impact plays out and you can experiment, see what your neighbors are doing.

BM: Yeah, I guess that does get to that laboratory of democracy component.

SR: Again that branding is terrible on federalism, that will never be sexy. But the underlying ideas will be with us long time.

BM: Yeah, that's right. On one of your numbers of the day, which everyone should follow on, you talked about the fact that people would rather go give blood than go work on a political campaign. What is that saying? And what are some of the underlying numbers in that space?

SR: Well, one of the things that we did, we just asked what people have done in the last year, in the last month. And we asked about a variety of activities. Have you gotten involved in a political campaign? Have you gone to a town hall or a campaign rally? Have you donated? We also asked about if you've gotten involved in volunteering to help the poor or giving blood would be the one example, or there's a range of activities and consistently we find large numbers want to get involved in community activities and not in the political process. We're in the midst of this heated battle right now. Seven percent of people have volunteered, even a little bit, for a political campaign in the last month. So 93 percent haven't. And the reason? People believe overwhelmingly that getting involved at the community level is a better use of time than getting involved in a political campaign.

BM: It really does come down to community. I had an experience right after the election in 2016, where I think the whole nation had a bit of a hangover for a few days, or two years. Yeah, it's been a little forlorn there. But it was interesting, I was feeling it myself and a little depressed, a little exhausted. So done with all of it. And then we have this great thing in my neighborhood, a neighbor of mine, Denise Anderson, she started this four years ago, and we have in my neighborhood the most awesome race in the history of all races. It is a 1K Donut Run. And if you actually measure it, it's a little less than 1K. But it was amazing. I went that morning and, again, I was a little down, just a little exhausted. And I looked around and all of these people, Denise chooses a different charity to donate to each year. And so you had people from the neighborhood, all kind of getting their T-shirts. And then there was a group of students from BYU who had seen it on Facebook that morning and said, let's go do that. And so they had showed up and there was all this energy and then just listening to the conversations of people and I just kind of step back said, oh, it's gonna be OK. And it's that community and I love how you always come back to community. Where did that start for you?

SR: For me, it started before my memory. I grew up in a little town, Ocean Grove, New Jersey, spent my summers there. We actually lived in a tent 3 feet away from our neighbors all summer long and we did everything together and it was so natural. I never thought of it as very powerful. After I had a house fire, I saw things in a different light. I began to recognize that this was a big part of the solution.

BM: Tell us a little more about that. Ocean Grove is such a magical place. I was able to go visit you there two years ago. Wow. Hard to believe that it's gone so fast. But that was a significant — that is an extraordinary place on the planet. Tell us about that. And tell us about what happened.

SR: Well, you know, Ocean Grove was founded as a camp meeting town in the 1860s. It's a National Historic Site, a lot of old homes. Our house had been built in the 1870s and that means it's also kindling and when a hotel went up next door, the flame jumped to our house and our house was completely gone in about 23 minutes. Policemen knocked on our door or else we wouldn't be here talking about it today. Six houses, two B&Bs and a hotel were taken out, but nobody lost their life. And in the next 18 months or so as we rebuilt our life, the support from the community, I mean, from our church and from our neighbors we knew we expected, but people we've never seen before. And people were grieving because of our loss. And our town actually held a celebration of thanksgiving that nobody lost their life in this.

And so that was a very powerful experience that helped me to understand the things, the answers that I was looking for, you know, I'd given up on politics. Where was the way forward? And I began to see it in the years since, of course, you just see it all the time. And one of the things that struck me in this country in the last month, very much on this theme, goes all the way back to when Jackie Robinson, broke the major league baseball color barrier. And by the way, just to put that in context, that was before the federal government integrated the military. It was 17 years before Congress got around to passing a Civil Rights Act. This was a cultural movement. And when you read about it, there were conversations going on all over the country among baseball fans about should black ballplayers be allowed to play with white ballplayers, and what's the appropriate response. And I'm sure some of the conversations were pretty offensive. But some of them also began to move us forward as a society. And I suspect that the real impact of the Kavanagh confirmation hearing has nothing to do with who's on the Supreme Court. It has to do with the fact that there have been a lot of private conversations in a lot of families and a lot of households addressing issues that have never really come up before. And those conversations will have a bigger impact in our nation than the political realities and fallout.

BM: That's such great insight. I wrote this week on a saying from Confucius from, you know, 2,500 years ago because it really struck me as an interesting angle. He said the strength of the nation is derived from the integrity of the home. Didn't say the strength of the home, didn't say the will of the people, he said the integrity. And I think that structural integrity and those conversations that you described really are what matters and I do think that's, you know, from the Kavanaugh hearings, a host of really crucial conversations came out of it.

Anything else you're seeing across the nation or trends in terms of what is the net result, and more importantly, what is the state of the homes? If it's home and community that's going to drive the nation, what's the state of the American home today?

SR: You know, the state of politics is easy to define in an aggregate nature because we know how to measure it. You say, wow, is this Republican going to win or a Democrat going to win? What do you like about this issue? Is the marijuana initiative going to pass or not? One of the challenges with measuring homes is life is organic. We don't live the same way our grandparents did. So you don't know the things to measure. We don't have barn-raisings anymore. So if I measured how many barn-raisings we're doing, you know, we're not doing as well as we were a century or so ago. If we measure things in the way that you and I and our generation got together in a community, we're not doing very well. That's because there's a younger generation, we're digital immigrants, you know. We sort of get it. Our children have grown up in this world, and they're learning different ways to engage in community. And what I see is a very vibrant life. It is not what people our age say, oh, you know, those kids are wasting their time on their telephone. They're doing different things. They're doing community differently, but I think it's going very well.

BM: Yeah, I've heard and I've thought that millennials and Gen Z, all those young kids, a lot of people give them a pretty bad rap in terms of being the selfie generation that's, you know, narcissistic and they're getting good reinforcement of that from the White House and other political people in Hollywood. Yet I think they are actually more communitarian than their parents. They do it differently, as you said. Any other interesting trends you're seeing in terms of young people in America?

SR: First off I'm very optimistic. I think millennials are a reason to be optimistic about America's future. I think they have a great sense of social justice in the most positive way you can define that term. They recognize that our country has a lot of great things going for her, but that we're not perfect and they want to make it better. I quote in my book an article by Ron Fournier, where he talks about students at the Kennedy School of Government not wanting to go into politics because they want to have an impact you know, they understand that you have an impact somewhere else. But I think the other thing that when you talk about the next generation, one of the reasons we always have difficulties talking across those lines, is they want to make things better incrementally. You know, it's not we're gonna throw the system away and start over again. And that even comes through in polling about a topic like socialism. We went out and found 42 percent of Americans today have a favorable opinion of socialism, mostly younger people do, right? And to people of a certain generation, they think, oh, the world is coming to an end. How can that be? So I went and asked, What do you mean by socialism and, without going into all the polling details I can paraphrase a former president of the United States, and I think what most young people mean by socialism today is a kinder, gentler capitalism. They like the free market system. They believe free markets are good, they believe freedom is good, but they want to have a few things to take off those rough edges.

BM: Yeah. So as you look at those younger voters, who will exceed half of the voters this round, neither political party seems to be giving them a good reason to join. What happens in that space, as they represent over 50 percent of voters and neither party is giving them a good reason to be a card-carrying Democrat or a card-carrying Republican, what happens in that space?

SR: Well Boyd, Bill Clinton was elected president 1992 with his party in control of Congress, then lost control. George W. Bush was elected with his party in control, then he lost (control of Congress). That had never happened before in back-to-back administrations. Barack Obama made it a three-for-three and there's a good chance Donald Trump will be the fourth consecutive president to come in with his party in control and lose at least part of Congress. That is a fundamental rejection of both political parties. And I am wildly optimistic about our nation's future. But I do believe it will get worse before it gets better. What I think is happening is we still have a centralizing government in a decentralizing society. And that is a disconnect that cannot be sustained. And our political leadership on both sides still wants to keep all that power and money in Washington. It just doesn't fit in the iPad era.

BM: Yeah, that's right. I think with six out of the 10 wealthiest counties in America being suburbs of Washington, D.C., knowing that none of those people produce anything, no widgets, no cars, no computers are made. But it's all kind of power, money and influence. How do you see that next generation? What are they looking for? What do you think's going to galvanize them? Do they just continue to disengage? Or do they show up with something different?

SR: I think the answer is being determined by people we've never heard of yet. It's coming from outside the process. Just as in the 1970s nobody heard of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. You start to look at something like health care and education, these are the two biggest government programs. Combined they're 25 percent of our total economy and they are being revolutionized by a combination of technology and people looking at the world differently. In health, you can go right now and go online and get something for your phone and take an X-ray. Now, the FDA isn't quite ready for you to send that to your doctor. But it's there. They already have approved the ability for you to take your own EKG and send it in. These things are going to totally disrupt the health care industry. And while we can sit here and say 10 years from now, or 15 years from now that's going to be great, in between there's a lot of lab technicians and a lot of companies that are going to be destroyed. People will be put out of work because of these things.

These transitions are going to be hard. Just look at what's happened to journalism in the last generation. It's going to happen to health care, it's going to happen to education and when you go through those things, it's that next generation that is going to put the pieces back together. And how they do it is going to be fascinating to watch.

BM: Yeah, wonderful. In your book, you lead with the idea that the sun's still rising. Why is it still rising? Why should we believe that ?

SR: It's still rising because the leadership, the political process, as broken as it is, as frustrating as it can be, does not lead the country. The culture leads, the technology leads and the American people are still committed to the core beliefs. The single most important value that people agree on is that we should all have the right to live our lives as we see fit as long as we respect the right of everybody else to do the same. That's the good news. The bad news is only about a third think the federal government believes we should have that right. I mean, there is that, again, that disconnect. But I believe in freedom. I believe that if people are free, they will use that freedom to work together in community. I believe in all the experimentation and laboratories of democracy and entrepreneurship. I believe in the millennial generation and their enthusiasm and their, you know, there was a time when baby boomers were idealistic too. These things happen. And if you put all that together, yes, we will get through these difficult times. I chuckle when I hear that this is the most polarized our nation has ever been. You know, there was that little spat in the 1860s that may have been a little more polarizing. People are saying bad things about the other party right now. But when you actually see people at work, or somewhere else, it's a different dynamic and we'll get through it.

BM: Yeah, we always talk about influence and people who make a difference in our lives. As you know, I have a wall of fame. Lot of great baseball autographs on the wall. But the really important autographs are from the people who have made a difference in my life — bosses, teachers, authors, you know, all kinds of different people, good friends. And so the baseball question I get to ask you today, Scott, because I know you've been dying for this question, is if you were starting your wall of fame of people who have influenced you and had an impact, who would be the first ball you would want to get signed?

SR: The first ball that I would have signed from a person who influenced me would be Mary Lou Brewer. She was my high school senior year history teacher. And up until that point in life, I hated history. I thought it was an entirely worthless thing. And she made it come alive. She had our class divide into teams and we played out some of the great trials in history. I was a defense attorney for the Salem witches — got them off, by the way. But what she did is she would assign us all roles and we had to learn our parts and get that competition going and she made history alive and I ended up getting a history degree and obviously I enjoy talking about it a lot right now. So she would be the first person on that wall.

BM: Now that's great. Thanks for sharing that, Scott. Therefore, What? Well, now it's time for the end of the program, what we call Therefore, What? So Scott, normally I will take the Therefore, What? and kind of do an analysis of what we talked about for the last 25 minutes. But since we have you here in the Deseret News studio, I'm going to toss the Therefore, What? to you. So as our listeners have been going through this conversation today, what do you see as that Therefore, What? What should they be thinking about? More importantly, what should they be doing about what we've discussed today?

SR: You know, what they should be thinking about is — in their own daily life they recognize that community activity is where the progress is made, and that politics has a role to play but it's secondary, but when they get into discussions and when the political campaigns heat up, they forget that. I think they should remember to keep politics in perspective. Yes, get involved, vote, talk to your representatives, talk to your neighbors about it, but never ever believe that that's your only obligation. You have a role to play in your community. You have a role to play in governing society. And that's far more important. Act like you really believe that.

BM: Fantastic. Scott, thanks so much for joining us this week. Remember after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is Therefore, What? Don't miss an episode. Follow us on and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for The Deseret News, thanks for engaging with us on Therefore, What?