In the context of a university’s missions of teaching, learning, and research, presidential elections in the United States create what might be thought of as a unique living laboratory. The myriad issues that arise when our democracy elects a leader raise questions and considerations that intersect many different academic disciplines. The arc of a presidential campaign provides many inherent teachable moments.
Given that 2012 is an election year, we decided to explore presidential politics and the election now under way through the lenses of several different disciplines that are taught at the University. To provide perspective, we convened a panel of alumni who work at the epicenter of national politics.
We asked Daniel Palazzolo, a prominent professor of political science at the University, to moderate the discussion. Drawing on his expertise, for example, he asked the group about how different theories of presidential nominations might factor in the contest for the GOP nomination. Beyond political science, Palazzolo also framed questions that looked at the history, economics, and sociology inherent in the way we elect presidents, and at questions that elections pose about leadership and communications.
For panelists, we drew alumni from across the political spectrum. Jake Colvin, ’00, is vice president for global trade issues at the National Foreign Trade Council, a business association that promotes an open, rules-based global economy on behalf of member companies that include Boeing, Caterpillar, General Electric, Google, Microsoft, and Procter & Gamble. Ashley Watson Flanagan, ’00, has over eleven years of fundraising and political experience and is a principal in the Democratic political fundraising firm Flanagan Fulkerson and Company. Wyatt Stewart, ’06, is a senior legislative assistant in the office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Anne Bradbury Thorsen, ’99, is director of floor operations for Speaker of the House John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). George “Tripp” Wellde III, ’06, is state director for President Obama’s reelection campaign in Wisconsin.
We convened these alumni in late January at The Monocle, a landmark restaurant in Washington, D.C., that is just steps from the U.S. Capitol Building. Gracious with their time—and willing to temporarily hold their natural partisan inclinations in check—the group engaged in a far-ranging and insightful investigation of page-one political issues. With the caveat that the ever-changing political scene might prematurely date some of the panelists’ comments, here is an edited version of their conversation.
PALAZZOLO: To start out, I want to ask a general question in a way that I sometimes use with my students. When you think of the 2012 presidential campaign, what single word comes to mind?
FLANAGAN: I think “expensive.” The Republican side looks like it is going to have a long and therefore expensive primary season. On the Democratic side, if you look at how much money was raised last time versus now, the totals are on track to be even higher. Then add the money that super PACs will spend. There is no way to estimate how much money is going to go that way, but it is going to have an effect. All in all, it’s going to be a very interesting presidential race all the way.
Clockwise from top left, Palazzolo, Colvin, Wellde, Flanagan, Stewart, and Thorsen.
WELLDE: Just to pick up on that, I think “expensive” is a really important word. Look at Newt Gingrich, for example, whose campaign has been boosted lately by an individual who was able to write him two $5 million checks. Judging from that one example, it’s clear that no matter what side you are on, presidential money will obviously have a huge impact. But I think people expect that. If the contest is going to be Mitt Romney versus President Obama, both sides are going to be quite well-funded. I think that money will wash a little bit. It’s when you get into Senate and House races that a disproportionate use of money can really have an effect.
THORSEN: “Expensive” is probably a good word. At the end of the day, I don’t think the election will be won or lost based on money. Obama might have an edge in fundraising, but Romney, or whoever gets the nomination, will be competitive.
PALAZZOLO: Any other things come to mind about 2012? What do you think the issues are going to be?
THORSEN: The biggest issue, obviously, will be economy and jobs. We are seeing a turnaround with the economy and so I think the big issue will be who gets credit. Healthcare is also going to be a big issue. If the Republican nominee campaigns on the repeal of the healthcare law, then he will face tough questions about what he would replace it with. So I would expect that to be a big issue: What’s your solution for healthcare?
COLVIN: The two things that I’m looking at are optimism and equality. Class warfare usually doesn’t resonate with the American people, but as the wealthy have gotten wealthier and everyone else has sort of stayed behind, that’s a pretty stark contrast that could strike a chord this time around.
I think optimism, about the future and about the direction of the country, is what the election will rise and fall on. Polls about voter optimism are currently mixed. If the economy continues to improve, depending on how quickly it improves and if people give the president the benefit of the doubt, that could be a real factor.
PALAZZOLO: Any other first impressions?
THORSEN: Apart from the presidential race, a lot of other names are going to be on the ballot in November. So one issue is whether the person at the top of the ticket helps or hurts those other candidates. For example, there are super-competitive House races going on this year in states that might not be that competitive at the presidential level. Those are going to be really interesting below-the-radar races to watch because that’s where control of the House is decided. For example, California has a dramatic district map and a lot of seats in play. Those races are going to be important to watch.
PALAZZOLO: Redistricting is playing a big role.
STEWART: That’s particularly a factor when you look at the number of traditionally Democratic seats that are up for the Senate compared to traditionally Republican seats.
WELLDE: They are not in the best states for Democrats. Redistricting is going to be a big factor in many states.
PALAZZOLO: We want this conversation to be as nonpartisan as possible, but one of the things we should discuss is the negative tone of the Republican primary campaign. On a historical basis, it’s quite negative by comparison to previous nomination campaigns. What are some of the consequences of that?
THORSEN: Frankly, I think it could cut either way. In some respects, an ugly, bruising primary battle has the potential to make the eventual nominee a stronger candidate. In some ways I think that probably happened in Obama versus Hillary. You sort your baggage out early on, and determine what your best lines of defense are. You find out early on if a particular issue is going to be an issue or not. The process inoculates you to a lot of the general attacks that you will undergo. But that may not be the case this time because it’s getting pretty ugly. Only time will tell.
WELLDE: One effect is that already Romney is becoming a better campaigner. You have also seen the Romney team be able to come back from some setbacks, as they did after Iowa when he went on to win New Hampshire. Then again, it is a long campaign to get the delegates needed to win a nomination and it remains to be seen if Romney can close the deal.
STEWART: There is always going to be a little bit of nastiness in the primary, and whoever loses is going to have their feelings hurt for a while. But they get over it. That’s politics.
FLANAGAN: I’ve heard people say more than once that in the general election of a president, people typically vote for the person they feel is the most personable. The person they’d like to hang out with, maybe have a beer with.
STEWART: I think there’s definitely an element of that. It may be a little more important the first time you are running for president when you don’t have a four-year track record, but I still do think that’s important.
THORSEN: Polls show that voters who give a candidate a high personal approval rating can still give his job performance low marks. So, I think there is also an ability among voters to distinguish the two.
WELLDE: Pivoting back to the primaries, I think the Republican party is going to have no issue whatsoever in eventually uniting and coalescing. Republican voters are likely to turn out in huge numbers this year regardless of who their candidate is, and will forget any nastiness from the primaries. The question is whether or not they will be able to win over independent voters and right now their message is not where the majority of independent voters are.
PALAZZOLO: Political scientists have long wrestled with the question of what constitutes presidential qualities. How effective has the primary season been in helping voters understand how the various candidates would be as leaders?
COLVIN: The number of debates has been helpful in teasing that out. They have been well-watched and had huge audiences. I think that’s been helpful for democracy.
STEWART: From a political standpoint, though, the debates have not been as helpful. Every debate is an opportunity for the guy next to you to tear you down or attack you. In the future, I don’t think we’ll see as many debates in the primary again.
FLANAGAN: From working very closely with campaigns over the years, I think the way a campaign operates reflects very directly on the actual candidate. The candidate has the ultimate control in how disciplined a campaign is and what its key messages are. So, in that sense, a campaign is a reflection of the type of leader the candidate is.
STEWART: To me, one of the most interesting things about a candidate is how well organized they are. I think that really speaks to a candidate’s leadership ability.
PALAZZOLO: To what extent does the process that we use for nominating presidents enable us to get a glimpse of what these people are going to be like in the Oval Office?
THORSEN: I would argue that the process allows me to see the qualities that candidates have. Through that process, I think that leadership qualities come across fairly well. But it’s what’s underneath that I don’t think comes across very well at all.
COLVIN: I think that some of the leadership qualities come through in the course of the primary process, but not all. If you look at President Bush when he was a candidate, it might not have been easy to tell that he would be a good administrator. But actually, from an association perspective in terms of requesting meetings and trying to get through a bureaucracy, his administration did a pretty good job.
PALAZZOLO: What other factors are in play in Campaign 2012?
STEWART: One thing that I have found fascinating about this race is the role that has been played by social media. It has already had a large impact and I think that will continue through the general election. The use of Twitter alone has been incredible. Nowadays, many of us get almost all our news about the campaign by following Twitter. You get real-time updates of what exactly is happening on the campaign trail every two seconds. That has changed the way elections are run. Social media allows candidates to control their message more so than they have in the past.
While their political parties may differ, the panelists' bonds as alumni made for a friendly dinner.
FLANAGAN: I think it’s absolutely absurd how much money is going for TV buys. When it comes to Senate elections, and perhaps the House as well, 75 to 80 percent of the campaign budget is spent on media and on TV buys. When you are talking about a $15,000,000 election, that’s very significant. And the overall cost of media goes up in each election cycle. I would love to see an election won by a candidate who finds other, less expensive strategies and thus can weather a significantly smaller budget for media.
WELLDE: Campaigns are about online communication now, but they are also being driven by data. Campaigns are putting a lot of money into data analytics—for example, measuring the effectiveness of an email send, TV buy, or voter contact in general. A lot of people either used to not do that at all or outsourced a lot of it, but increasingly campaigns are bringing that function in-house as a fundamental operation that applies to everything from fundraising to how they talk with voters.
STEWART: The impact of online communications also goes beyond campaigns; it is also having an impact on the legislative process. A good example was the public opinion brought to bear on the recently proposed Stop Online Piracy Act. The Internet had a huge impact on the tabling of that bill. That’s the first time that has happened since I’ve been on the Hill, and it was fascinating to see how it played out. I know some folks are talking about how this is revolutionizing the way lobbying is done and how Congressional offices interact. It was incredible how quickly that change took root.
PALAZZOLO: One final question. What about the state of our democracy? Is it healthy? I will preface this by noting that we’ve seen an expansion in participation in campaigns, partly as a result of social media. On the one hand, this encompasses not only voting participation but fundraising, activism, and other dimensions of politics. On the other hand, some argue that the new activism is superficial to some extent and possibly polarizing. Given that context, what would you say about the current state of our democracy?
FLANAGAN: I think it is healthy to go through the presidential exercise of electing a leader. On the other hand, many who look at Congress fear that the current levels of partisanship are unhealthy.
Apropos for a presidential election year, an initiative at the University draws on the innate power of new technologies to tease new historical insights out of data. Part of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Laboratory (DSL), the Voting America project uses animated maps to highlight trends in American presidential voting history.
As DSL director Robert K. Nelson (above left) says, Voting America enables users to see those trends in voting “across the entirety of the continent and across 168 years, within a couple of minutes.” The visualizations aggregate data in ways that reveal patterns otherwise hidden in dusty source material—and create new understanding of American history.
Working in the relatively new space of digital humanities, the DSL uses computational and algorithmic tools and techniques to advance scholarship by generating new knowledge. Another inherent goal, Nelson says, is to reach audiences beyond the academy. “We’re using new media to contribute to public history,” Nelson says.
The idea for the DSL came from University President Edward L. Ayers, who is widely seen as a leader and pioneer in digital scholarship. In a recent talk, Ayers characterized the effect of DSL animations as “seeing time.”
Up to ten students at a time work in the DSL. Collecting and parsing data, they make invaluable contributions while learning research techniques. “Sometimes they are looking at material that no professional historian has ever seen,” Nelson says. To learn more, visit http://dsl.richmond.edu.
STEWART: I think current conditions point to the health of our democracy. In terms of history, you sometimes hear people say partisanship is at its highest level, that it’s the worst it has ever been. But if you think about what went on in the 1800s and even in the early 1900s, you can argue that things were worse then. Early on in our country’s history there was often physical violence between members of Congress. The news media and social media may feed a perception that things are worse because they allow everybody to know everything that’s going on, and every scandal, large or small, gets detailed and discussed ad infinitum. But I don’t think it’s worse than it’s ever been.
I think our country right now is in a state where two very different opinions about where the country should be going forward have come into sharp focus. I think that’s a natural and normal part of democracy. That’s what makes elections great, because that’s how voters decide the vision that they’d like to follow. So I think that is where we are right now. I definitely think it’s cyclical and I don’t think it’s worse than we’ve ever been as some people are saying. I think that the democratic process is definitely still working.
COLVIN: I certainly agree that partisanship is cyclical. People forget, for example, that Gingrich and Clinton worked together on all kinds of issues. But I disagree that there are dramatically different views about where we need to go from here. In general, I think there is broad agreement about where we need to go, which is toward smaller or more managed government that does fewer things very well. Actually, if you stripped away partisanship and tax pledges and the like, I think most politicians in Washington could sit down on a bipartisan basis and knock out a grand compromise on major issues like spending, taxes, and immigration.
STEWART: I think you have an opportunity soon, whether it’s with Obama in his second term or whoever else in his first, to tackle some of these big issues. Tax reform is going to be an issue in 2013. Immigration could be an issue. Those and other issues are on the table. Then it becomes a question of tackling them.
PALAZZOLO: Legislators are measured based on whether they get anything done. If you look at this Congress, despite perceptions, important legislation was passed. When all is said and done, the tax bill and budget agreement that was passed almost immediately after the 2010 election will be the largest debt reduction agreement ever in the history of the United States, controlling for inflation. Yes, there was acrimony and conflict, but it got passed. The same with trade bills, which nobody is currently talking about.
WELLDE: There is broad public agreement on a lot of things. Everyone knows how to fix the debt crisis. Everyone agrees that entitlements need to be reformed. A lot of people believe that tax rates need to go up on certain segments of the population. People believe that we need to reform the tax code in general, lower corporate rates, and close loopholes. Immigration reform is another issue where I think there’s broad agreement.
I think people get frustrated when they see the inability––of especially Congress––to get things done that seem to a lot of voters like plain common sense. I would add that it’s worth noting that economic anxiety can be a strong driver in people taking action. When the economy is on good footing, you don’t usually see the volume of activism that we have seen in the last year. We shouldn’t underrate how much economic strife is a driver of different movements in politics and also of more public thinking about the nature and state of our democracy.
With dinner concluded, our alumni panel disbanded and its members headed for home. Outside in the crisp winter air, the brilliantly lit Capitol served as a poignant reminder of the vitality of the American political process.
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