LAS VEGAS -- "You don't need a pollster to tell you that public opinion of your industry is challenging."
So began Scott Rasmussen, the respected pollster best known for his nationally acclaimed Rasmussen Reports, which tracks presidential and Congressional elections, along with public sentiment on issues of the day.
Speaking before tobacco-outlet and convenience-store operators at the 2012 NATO Show in Las Vegas, Rasmussen confronted one of the country's most heavily regulated and reviled industries, one that is on virtually every state's agenda as a tax revenue source even as its right to operate is increasingly restricted.
So, Rasmussen said candidly, the news for tobacco rights is not very good. That said, there are glimmers of hope.
Only 22% of Americans support banning tobacco outright. And, he added, "Nine out of 10 Americans believe that those who smoke know the risk. That's a very good number for your industry."
To exploit this opportunity, Rasmussen encouraged tobacconists to view their industry in broader terms. If it's a public debate about the virtues of smoking, he warned, "you will lose."
But if the debate shifts to one about personal responsibility and individual rights, the tobacco industry--from supplier to distributor to retailer to end user--can win.
Among the keys, he said, is working with likeminded organizations to shepherd a message of personal rights and fear of excessive government intrusion. Further, he advised, home this message on the public.
"Public opinion matters to your industry more than any politician does." He cited several examples, from the women's suffrage movement to the current rise of the Tea Party and Occupy movements, in which elected officials responded to growing public opinion.
If you successfully sway the public, politicians will fall in line, Rasmussen intimated. For now, though, the nation, he said, is bifurcating between pro-government and pro-individual rights. The next decade will more clearly define the direction of this country, he predicted.
Interestingly, Rasmussen does not believe the 2012 presidential election is nearly as important as the 2016 presidential election or, possibly, the 2014 Congressional mid-term race. What is unprecedented, over the past 20 years, voters have been swinging every two years from one political party to the other.
Two years after Bill Clinton and the Democrats took control of the executive and legislative branches, voters ousted the Democrats in mid-term elections. The same repeated two years after George W. Bush's reelection, when Democrats won back both Houses. And, in this seemingly unceasing pendulum, voters bounced Democrats out of the House two years after Barack Obama won on an election of "change."
"People feel neither side gets it," Rasmussen said. And poll numbers show that neither Obama nor likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is exciting their core constituencies.
As a result, Rasmussen predicted a presidential race grounded in trench warfare, with neither side pulling away from the other. "It's going to be a really ugly, nasty election."
Until a leader emerges who wins the respect and trust of the public, who truly understands the pulse of the nation, this political scrimmage will continue with neither side winning.