“We don’t have a football team here at AU,” said professor James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, giving welcoming remarks to a large audience gathered to watch Wednesday’s post-election forum. “What we do have is a blood sport. And it’s called politics.”
What followed was a political debate in which experts discussed the implementation and impact of President George W. Bush’s re-election. They covered a range of topics, from voting machines to partial-birth abortion, from ads to administration, and from voter turnout to congressional redistricting.
Topics that received special focus included what John F. Kerry and the Democrats did wrong, and how the election process can be improved.
Pollster Glen Bolger and professors Karen O’Connor, Robert Pastor, Jamin Raskin and Leonard Steinhorn responded to questions posed by Thurber as well as members of the public and AU community.
Asked why Bush won the Midwest, South and Ohio, Bolger responded by stating that Bush’s campaign displayed a clearer focus and more discipline in its approach. Pointing to the overwhelming passage of gay marriage bans, Bolger stated that Bush’s emphasis on family values and moral issues played a key role in his victory.
O’Connor, a government professor and director of the Women’s and Politics Institute, agreed.
“Morals ended up one of the biggest issues in this campaign,” she said, adding that this surprised Democrats, who expected the situation in Iraq and the economy to play more important roles in the election.
According to the panelists, a main reason this focus changed was Bush’s effective mobilization of the Evangelical Christian vote, particularly in the South.
“[Senior adviser to the president] Karl Rove understood early on that this election would really be the culmination of what started in the early 1970s when Richard Nixon created the Southern strategy,” said Steinhorn, a School of Communication professor who taught PR and the Presidency this semester. “Karl Rove could run up big numbers in the South. ... That’s why they had the gay marriage issues on 11 states throughout the country.”
Asked later if Democrats can appeal to Southern, Evangelical voters, O’Connor expressed doubt.
“Florida is probably [their] only chance,” she said, pointing out that the Southwest is more likely to vote Democratic than the South.
The panelists also expressed concerns about the administration and structure of the American voting system. “Administration was probably was bad as it was in 2000,” said Pastor, director of AU’s Center for Democracy and Election Management. Pastor added that the problems weren’t as visible because of Kerry’s quick concession. Pastor mentioned faulty machines and provisional ballots as two of the largest concerns in the election.
The lack of an impartial, non-partisan commission to supervise voting is a major problem in the United States, said Raskin, a Washington College of Law professor. “We have partisan elected officials ... it creates a structural conflict of interest to make hundreds of decisions a week that affect the structure of voting,” Raskin said.
Expressing frustration with a practice that takes power out of the people’s hands, Raskin denounced the practice of partisan officials choosing district boundaries known as “gerrymandering.”
“Voters no longer pick representative, representatives pick voters,” he said.
Raskin also denounced the Electoral College, saying that it puts too much power in the hands of a few swing states, and “forces the rest of the nation to become spectators.”
Speaking to these problems, Pastor, who is also the director of AU’s Center for North American Studies, suggested that the United States take ideas from nations such as Canada and Mexico.
“We need to look to our neighbors to see new ways to rejuvenate our democracy,” he said.
The issues of campaign advertising and finance came up later in the forum. Speaking about the role of negative campaigning in the race, Bolger cited Bush’s ability to, “define [Kerry] before [Kerry] defined himself” as an important factor.
Also, the impact of special interest group ads and soft money played a role in the forum. O’Connor highlighted the candidate’s use of the Internet to accumulate small donations, thus giving everyday citizens a feeling of greater participation in the political process.
Several classes, including Politics in the U.S., assigned attending the forum for credit. Some students said they enjoyed the event and appreciated the depth of analysis the panel members brought to the forum.
“I’m pleased with [the forum]. I thought they had good analyses of the election,” said Andrew Price-Gibson, a freshman in the School of Public Affairs.
SPA freshman Samantha Palmer agreed with Price-Gibson, but added, “It didn’t make me feel any better about the election.”
The panel lasted for an hour, followed by approximately 30 minutes of audience discussion. The Kennedy Political Union and the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies hosted the event.