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Connect the dots between 2023 and 2024 elections? Sure, says this Boise State political expert.

Dr. Sam Martin is Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Service at Boise State University
Boise State University, 123rf
Dr. Sam Martin is Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Service at Boise State University

With one election down and another, bigger one in the wings, more than a few pundits were taken aback by a New York Times / Sienna College series of polls showing Donald Trump leading President Joe Biden in five of six battleground states. But one of Idaho’s best and highest-profile analysts says a few words to the wise might be: place yourself.

“The first thing that I just always say is, is we need to remember before we get too caught off guard, whether one is for Biden or one is for Trump … that polls don't vote. People do,” said Dr. Sam Martin, Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Service at Boise State University. “Which we can all remember from the recent elections we had last week.”

Martin visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the polls, how abortion continues to drive voter turnout and what lessons might be learned from the just-wrapped 2023 rests in Idaho.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. Well, with the 2023 election now in our rear-view mirror, we can officially set our sights on 2024. And to be sure that presidential election season is already well underway. So let's welcome back to the program, Dr. Sam Martin, Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Service at Boise State. Dr. Martin, good morning.

DR. SAM MARTIN: Good morning to you, George. Thanks for having me again.

PRENTICE: You bet. So let's first talk about these jaw dropping polls that came to us from The New York Times and Siena College. It has President Biden behind Donald Trump, five out of six battleground states.

MARTIN: The first thing that I just always say is, is we need to remember before we get too caught off guard, whether one is for Biden or one is for Trump, that polls don't vote. People do. Which we can all remember from the recent elections we had last week. But what we can really take away from this poll is that people are discouraged and down on politics in our nation, and that it's easier to run for president when you haven't been president before, than it is to run for president as an incumbent during difficult economic times. And so, Joe Biden got to do the first four years ago, and now he has to do the second. And that is very clear in this poll that we that we're talking about today.

PRENTICE: Correct me if I'm wrong when we're talking about discouragement. It really is about, "Oh, really? These guys again?"

MARTIN: If we think about it…Biden was nominated almost entirely four years ago because he was electable. He was the person who could beat Donald Trump. But now there are some things that are working against him. Maybe we could think about them as three major factors. And the first one is inevitable, and it happens to almost every person who it happens to, every single person who gets elected president. And that is governing is hard. And it puts a strain on the coalition that elected a person into the presidency, because compromises get made and decisions get made, and some people win and some people lose and things don't always go as expected. And, you know, Biden has been trying to dig out from what happened with the Afghanistan withdrawal in the first summer of his presidency. His approval ratings declined when that happened, and he's never been able to get out from underneath that. And so, you know, that's the first thing governing is hard. And it makes people change their minds in some ways. The second thing working against Biden is that these poll numbers just show that people think he's old. And there's something about having his age start with an eight instead of a seven. He's 80 now. That seems to be just really concerning to people. And I think the third thing that just works against Biden is that he's never been an especially inspiring speaker, and he's just never had an ability as an orator to really win people over and engage them with his words the way that previous presidents have been able to do. And then if we think about the way that Donald Trump, he certainly isn't an especially inspiring orator, but he does have a way of saying things and speaking that seems to get at something deep in the guts of people, that makes them turn to him and think that he's going to fight for them in ways that, you know, take political junkies like me by surprise.

PRENTICE: And while President Biden's approval ratings among youth and minorities continue to plummet, it's not as if they are shifting to the opposition. They're just moving to the sideline.

MARTIN: If we study the Democratic Party, let's say maybe since, since, since if we go back to Ronald Reagan, there's a word that we use in the field and we say that politics and politicians, they're characterized by what we can think of as risk aversion, right? Politics is a risk averse game. And politicians… they want to do things to minimize their losses, just like people do in general. And since 1980, Democrats have been especially risk averse and so especially wary of presenting themselves. Unfortunately, as the party of nonwhite interests, they've been wary of presenting themselves as being against what has traditionally been thought of as the American mainstream Democrats. They have tried to kind of be in the middle of the road. And that was even true. Like with the Clinton election in 1992, this idea of being a new Democrat, right, with a new kind of economics and, and a tough on crime approach and that sort of a thing. But the Democrats have this intractable dilemma at this point, which is that they actually are the party now of nonwhite voters and nonwhite voters and young people play a crucial role in who becomes president. On the one hand, the people who are in charge of the party, the Joe Biden's, who are in charge. These are people who are. Risk averse, and they remember the 1980s, and they think that it's important to stay in the middle of the road, or at least be perceived as being there. Even though we could argue that Joe Biden has very progressive policies. But on the other side, the people that they depend on for their electoral success are the very people who want to be represented and talked about and whose policies they want to see happening in Washington. And so I guess the easiest way to put it is that the risk averse faction. The risk averse leaders saw promise in the New Democrat approach of the 1990s. But for voters and folks whose main reference point is not the 1980s, but it's the 2008 financial crisis, it's the Covid 19 pandemic. It's what has been happening between people of color and the police. That has become more evident over the past 5 or 6 years, or just about anything else that is more relevant to our lives today than it was in 1980. The costs of having too much caution and being too risk averse are very, very real, and they are choosing to just drop out and think that politicians don't care.

PRENTICE: I'm wondering if there's any lesson we can take… at any level… from the recent contest for mayor in the City of Boise.

MARTIN: So I think that the Boise mayor's race is actually a good microcosm of the conversation that is happening on a more national level, because I think the race between Police Chief Masterson and Mayor McLean really had a lot of conversation that surrounded Masterson on the one side, trying to suggest that Boise was becoming less safe and even, we might say, less Boise as more people moved in and it became more diverse, and it just felt less and less like a kind of small city and became more and more kind of vibrant urban space. And Mayor McLean was able to nod to that… and agree that change had happened, and that that meant that there was some pivoting that was required. But she was able to both frame that growth in positive terms, and she was also able to talk in realistic and winsome ways about how the challenges that come… especially to younger populations, let's say the 45 and under crowd, the 50 and under crowd, the changes that come in, cost of living, in finding secure employment, in being involved in your child's school when you don't know your neighbor as well as your parents knew their neighbors, or you knew the neighbors when you were growing up. The way she was able to talk about those things as both opportunities and challenges, I think was something that was people were able to connect to, and that they were able to see that she both could pay attention, or her conversation related both to seeing the challenge and the opportunity, and to being willing to take some risks as a leader, whereas Masterson was really a lot more focused on saying that things were better in the past. And the best way to feel safer is to sort of almost have what amounted to a lockdown.

PRENTICE: What's your take on the recent election results? The big headline is that the abortion factor is only growing in importance and influence.

MARTIN: Polls don't vote. People do. And so, you know, the Democrats probably saw the poll come out the weekend before the election…and everybody was probably ripping their hair from their heads, wondering if it was a mistake not to try to put forward a different Democratic nominee. And then headlines all over the country, the Wednesday after the election last week, were saying things like, “Democrats win decisive victories,” and you see abortion once again, abortion rights, bringing people, drawing people out to vote. You see Democrats doing very well in Virginia, largely because we can the exit polls seem to suggest people wanted to make sure that Governor Youngkin there didn't have the majorities that he needed to pass through very conservative social values laws. And so I think that we are just in a very complicated political moment where we don't exactly know the distance between what people tell post pollsters in order to record their mood and what actually happens when they walk into a voting booth and get confronted with a ballot. I just think that it's going to be a really topsy turvy election season. I think we're going to see a lot of things get said and done. We have to find out if Donald Trump is, is going to is going to get convicted of any crimes, which would really be a game changer. And I think that the election last week, an off-year election, an odd year, not even a midterm, people turned out interesting. Things happened. And I think it portends for, unfortunately, probably a lot of political conflict and vitriol in the year ahead. And perhaps not enough of that civil calm discourse that we all like to pretend was a feature of our past.

PRENTICE: And isn't it possible that abortion may be polarizing, but it is less partisan?

MARTIN: So yes, it is possible. And you know, there is there is some reason to think that if we think back to the Republican playbook of the early 2000 or even 1990s, that party used social values questions like opposition to marriage equality or even attempts to limit abortion access in states, conversations around things like what they called partial birth abortion. They used initiatives and things like that to drive people to the polls to help elect their candidates. In 2004, a large part of George Bush's reelection campaign was based in tying it to having anti-marriage equality amendments on the ballot. And so there is a school of thought that says the Democrats will try to help themselves next year by trying to have abortion related items on the ballot, to encourage people to get to the polls, to vote about those things, who might be demotivated in the presidential race because they don't particularly care for either candidate. But as long as they are there, they'll go ahead and vote for vote for someone. And in that case, a lot of those folks, they think if they've been drawn out to vote on the abortion issue, and because abortion seems to be something that people are looking to defend and protect, that will cause them to vote for President Biden, and it will work in his favor.

PRENTICE: Well, here we go. We're off and running. And Dr. Sam Martin is Frank and Bethine Church chair of public service in Boise State. And Dr. Martin, look forward to many conversations between now and, well, that big day next year. 

Find reporter George Prentice on X @georgepren

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