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Panelists analyze presidential election

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - November 10, 2008


Momentous, memorable, innovative. Those were among the reactions by UConn experts to last week’s presidential election.

The day after the election of the first African American to the country’s highest office, a faculty panel discussed the election, the campaigns that led up to it, and what the future might hold for the two major parties.

The Nov. 5 panel, consisting of Stephen Dyson, Jeffrey Ladewig, and Shayla Nunnally, all assistant professors of political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Ronald Schurin, associate professor-in-residence in political science, was moderated by assistant professor Jeremy Pressman.

Ladewig said the 2008 campaigns incorporated a number of innovations, especially the use of the Internet to encourage people to vote and to raise funds.

Although both campaigns deployed the available technologies, he said the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama gained the greater benefit.

Ladewig said past U.S. Presidents have also put new technologies to good use: William McKinley used the printing press in new ways, and Franklin D. Roosevelt used regular radio broadcasts to secure an advantage.

Schurin said Obama won a solid victory – “exceptionally so in recent memory” — but set in a long-term historical context, the six-point margin was not that large.

Although there were many young and first-time voters, he said, their numbers were at least partly offset by those who did not vote.

Schurin also said that although Obama promised to bring people together, divisions persist. He said that in the red/blue (Republican/Democratic) division of states, Obama carried the blue states and many in the middle, and even won some of the red states, but there is still a marked divide between red and blue.

Reflecting on the significance of race in the 2008 election, Nunnally described the election as ‘momentous,’ ‘monumental,’ and ‘memorable.’

Noting that only in 1965 did African Americans acquire the full privileges of the franchise, she called for reflection on “what it means to see an African American taking an office that has not been accessible to African Americans, and what it meant to African Americans to be able to participate in the election.”

She said the weak economy helped Obama appeal to voters across ethnic lines. “People were thinking more about economy than about race,” she said.

Ladewig said public opinion has shifted as to which party can best handle the economy, thanks to a satisfactory performance under President Bill Clinton and a disastrous second term under President George W. Bush.

He said Obama did not run against just Sen. John McCain, but also against Bush and Ronald Reagan. His platform represented a “repudiation of supply side economics,” Ladewig said, adding that, if succssful, it could affect the way the country views the economy overall.

Dyson pointed to leadership style as an important factor. During the campaign, he said, “Obama was revealed as a decision-maker who’s deliberative, cool under pressure, and takes advice from a wide range of sources.”

Characterizing the current President as ‘trust-my-gut Bush,’ Dyson added, “[Obama] is the ‘anti-Bush’ in terms of how he makes decisions.” He said McCain also came across as an impulsive decision-maker.

One audience member asked whether the election outcome was the result of a bad campaign on McCain’s part. Did Obama win? Or did McCain lose the election, he asked.

Ladewig noted that during the primaries, McCain was seen as being in the best position to win of any Republican, and he was running against an African American.

In the early days of the campaign, McCain was quite successful, pursuing the traditional Republican route, but that changed with the economic downturn.

“Could McCain have run the perfect campaign and won?” asked Schurin. “When the stock market drops 40 percent in the weeks before an election and with two unpopular wars, it is very hard to see how he could have done that.”

Dyson – a British citizen – said globally, there is a “massive amount of good will” toward Obama around the world, whereas “Bush has no constituency anywhere but the United States.”

However, the structural situation remains: “America is the most powerful state in the world,” he said, “and the most powerful state will inevitably provoke opposition.”

He said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will pose a challenge for Obama. “He will not repudiate much of Bush’s war on terror,” Dyson said. “He will talk differently, but structurally he will do the same things.”

Several panelists noted that the biggest constraint on the Democratic agenda will be lack of funds.

“Obama may not be able to do any of the things he promised, other than health care reform,” predicted Schurin.

Noting that raising taxes is politically risky, Nunnally said Obama’s plan to tax the wealthiest 5 percent might work, because it would not affect the majority of the population, but agreed that major initiatives might require a broader tax increase.

Speculating about other issues that may face Obama as President, Ladewig suggested that education policy could be “an easy victory,” because of the unpopularity of Bush’s approach.

Obama will also be judged on how he handles the unanticipated.

In a reference to the Iran hostage crisis during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Schurin noted that during the 1978 presidential contest between Gerald Ford and Carter “no one once used the word Iran. We don’t know what will come up … If Obama handles surprise well, he will be a success.”

Responding to a question about what the Republicans — who also lost seats in both the U.S. House and the Senate — should do to be viable in four years’ time, Ladewig suggested the party should expand its base. He said limits placed on immigration during the Bush administration had hurt the party’s standing among Latinos.

Schurin said a move to the right, might help, with the party tailoring a conservative message to its constituents.

Asked whether Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has a future on the national scene, Nunnally said she would need to adopt “a more serious approach.”

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