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Are Skidmore students literate in politics and government? Lessons in democracy
Students rock the vote New voters, new media, new energy
Road to the White House Melissa Winter '89 staffs the First Lady
McCain-Obama: Fair fight? Reviewing the 2008 presidential race
Growing the grassroots Scott Kennedy '87 films urban citizen action



Shortcuts and potholes in the presidential race

The 2008 election is over, but the historic campaign will long be discussed and analyzed by those who were close to it. Below are excerpts from an alumni roundtable led by Ron Seyb, associate professor of government, two weeks after the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Ron Seyb: In popular votes, this was the biggest victory for a Democrat since 1964. Obama converted to blue nine states that were red in 2004. He would have won even without New York or California, and even without the youth, Hispanic, and black votes. Were the anti-Republican headwinds so strong that it was impossible for the McCain-Palin ticket to win?

Regina Corso: I felt sorry for them, because they really did get caught up in the perfect storm. McCain is a known entity, and—though he may not have been the right person—the Republicans had the right idea in bringing in an outsider. I think they were seeing the same signs we were, which was that people wanted change. It wasn’t just the economy, and it wasn’t just anti-Bush. In mid-October, only 11 percent of the population thought the country was going in the right direction. A number that low—the lowest we’ve seen since we began asking the question in 1980 —really shows that people wanted something different. Obama was it. He was marketing himself as something different. People saw it and loved it.

Ben Clarke: This certainly was the perfect storm. And no other Republican could have fared as well as John McCain. Rudy Giuliani underestimated the importance of early momentum in states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Mitt Romney declared he was the GOP’s conservative candidate—which just isn’t going to fly when you win a statewide elected office in Massachusetts, and getting painted with that flip-flop John Kerry brush is poison from the get-go. That left McCain, in a situation of political circumstance versus political star power. You look at those right-track, wrong-track numbers that Regina was talking about, and you have an unpopular war versus the star power of Barack Obama. McCain ran on the troop-surge notion, which ingratiated him with Republicans and got him the nod, but at the end of the day it didn’t matter what you said about Iraq. In the American people’s mind, this was already a war that we needed to get out of. McCain could have pledged to put Bush and Rumsfeld in Guantanamo for 20 years, or universal health care, or world peace. It didn’t matter. There was no way they were going to overcome the tide that Obama had created.

Andy Kingman: This reminds me of the ’06 governors’ campaign in Massachusetts, where you had a very charismatic Demo­cratic can­didate in Deval Patrick, whom the media adored and whose message was one of change and hope. I agree that this was a very difficult year for a Republican. But it wasn’t necessarily insurmountable if you look at poll numbers in mid-July and early August, where Obama and a generic Democrat were matched against McCain, and the generic Democrat was outperforming Oba­ma. People were still unsure about Obama, but McCain never was able to cobble together a cogent attack to exploit that trepidation.

Corso: McCain was McCain. How many times had he run? Everybody knew who he was, and so he kept trying to reinvent himself. Was he a maverick? Was he close to Bush? It didn’t matter what he did, because he was still John McCain. And in September and October that’s not what people wanted. Obama picked up on it: They wanted this hope.

Eric Hyers: After John Kerry lost in 2004, there were a lot of Democrats who tried to console themselves by saying 2004 was just unwinnable. We had a reasonably strong economy, we were in the midst of a war, and voters did not want to change horses in midstream. The truth, I think, is that in 2004 we had a poor nominee who ran an inept campaign. We were wrong then, just as I think conservatives who maintain that a Democratic victory in 2008 was inevitable are wrong now.

When it became clear that McCain was going to win the South Carolina primary, we had a very uneasy feeling. Here’s a popular war hero who is somehow perceived as a moderate and maverick. He was adored by the press. Yet as the general election unfolded, the wheels really began falling off. He not only ran an inept campaign, he also ran on issues that were divisive, cynical, and based on fear. I think people saw the bigotry that started boiling over at some McCain rallies, and they rejected that type of politics. His pick of Sarah Palin was a disaster, his behavior during the financial crisis was erratic, and his field operations were no­where near Obama’s. His last-ditch effort to depict Obama as a socialist showed just how out of touch the campaign was. Most voters looked at Obama’s plan, looked at his ideas for repealing tax cuts for the wealthy, and said, “OK, that makes sense. If that’s socialism, I don’t care.”

Clarke: I agree that there were things McCain could have done. For example, I could never understand why he was willing to take on Bill Ayers and not take on Rev. Wright. He didn’t have to go super-negative, but he could have said, “Do I think Barack Obama is a racist? Absolutely not. But does it concern me that for 20 years he and his family sat in a church run by a guy who says these hateful things? It warrants further explanation.” As for Sarah Palin, if anyone thinks she’s the future of the party, we’re in big trouble .

Kingman: I think the big mistake for Republicans is thinking that, because the election was a near-perfect storm, there’s nothing that needs to be changed or fixed next time. The fundamental issue that must be resolved before the next campaign is one of direction. For too long, the party has been piggybacking on President Reagan’s legacy. Republican candidates go out of their way to prove they’re the “next Reagan.” The Democrats only began to regain power when they stopped trying to find another Bill Clinton. Similarly, Republicans need to realize that there was only one Reagan.

Who will be the next leader to galvanize the country around a new vision of Republicanism? It’s going to take some serious soul-searching. For example, does the party want to keep demonizing the gay population, even as a majority of people favor at least full civil benefits for same-sex couples? Does the party want to answer every economic issue with “more tax cuts,” even at the expense of fiscal sanity and a balanced budget? If the party is smart, the nominee in 2012 will embrace Goldwater conservatism—strong national defense, fiscal discipline, social libertarianism, small government, and above all pragmatism.

Seyb: Despite the predictions that young voters would turn out in record numbers, they constituted only about 18 percent of the vote in this election—a mere 1 percent increase over their turnout in 2004. What might explain the “false promise” of the youth vote in 2008?

Corso: “Are you going to turn out?” we kept asking in our polling. “Are you going to turn out?” Even taking into account that some young people were lying about it, the numbers still told us, right up to the end, that we’d see an uptick in young voters. But the vote never materialized. The problem is that young people are a lot more cynical than they ever have been before. Right before the election, we did a survey of 13- to 17-year-olds in which only 10 percent said that “most politicians are honest.” They’re not going out and voting because no one is giving them a reason to be proactive. They like organizing parties.

Clarke: I think the visuals were the real player here. At the University of Maryland, for example, Obama had a rally where he drew 75,000 people. There were spill-over rooms. And that’s what you saw on the news that night. He had a rock-star appeal that not even Kennedy had. That sustained his campaign in a lot of ways.

Juan Martinez: I think the youth vote made Obama's election possible. The first test of his candidacy was at the Iowa caucuses, which he won by 20,000 votes, a 12 percent trouncing of Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. The under-25 vote there went for Obama by 4 to 1, and their share of the overall vote was nearly half again higher than it was in 2004. Those voters gave Obama credibility and seized the front-runner mantle from Hillary Clinton.

But the youth-vote tsunami didn’t materialize in November. The reason, I think, has to do with the fact that youth voters are very often first-time voters, and that makes them harder to organize. Most people—young or not—are not enthusiastic about registering to vote, and updating your address with the Board of Elections when you move can take weeks. But once you take those steps for the first time, it’s easier to re­main involved thereafter. To increase turnout among young voters, I think you have to focus on the problems that face new voters.

Emily Sussman: I agree that young voters are cynical, but we can’t discount them. The idea that all politics is corrupt is exactly what we we’re trying to combat with ThinkBlue. In 2008 we threw our support behind five Democratic Congressional candidates—all in their early 40s or younger—after we met with all of them and heard their stories, which allowed us to judge their character in a close personal setting. One reason we think it’s so important to have younger people going into Congress is that the entire business landscape has fundamentally changed. It’s electronic, and it’s a world market. We just can’t have people who don’t understand this new environment making our laws for us.

Seyb: Obama’s aides are using the 13 million e-mail ad­dresses they collected during the campaign to marshal support for his economic, health, environmental, and fiscal policy. Are electronic communications and social networks changing American politics in a way that potentially benefits Demo­rats more than Republicans?

Corso: I was in St. Louis the other night, and the lead story was that “economic stimulus parties” were going on in the area. Everyone was talking about it, and it was definitely working. I think the excitement that the campaign generated is going to spill over. This was the first real test case.

Sussman: I think people want a greater sense of involvement in their politics. They want to be able to access more information, and they want to give feedback to candidates. This ties back directly to our discussion about the cynicism of young voters. The more real interaction young people can have with a candidate via tools like social networks and Twitter, the less cynical they’re likely to be.

Kingman: When I was at the RNC field school in 2006, all we heard was how much better the Republicans were at organizing. Now they’re trying to figure out the next thing that’s going to enable them to leapfrog the Demo­crats. But no one really has an answer. I don’t see any candidate on the Republican side who’s going to be able to start that kind of grassroots movement or lead the charge in campaign innovation.

Obama spoke the language of social media; he had a facility with Facebook and YouTube, he had an iPod and a Blackberry. Just talking about those things gave him an advantage. I began to seriously question my support for McCain when he was so blasé about the fact that he didn’t use e-mail. I don’t see how the leader of the free world can conceptualize the global paradigm in which we’re living without knowing how to use a computer.

Clarke: Howard Dean and Joe Trippi are the ones who really revolutionized the use of the Internet. Obama’s carrying their flame. He ran a “click-of-the-mouse” campaign. They’re using that list of 13 million e-mail addresses to encourage people to hold these kumbaya parties to talk about the stimulus package—and I think it’s brilliant. Direct mail is dead for the most part. You’ve got new blood at the RNC with Michael Steele, and they’d be wise to follow the Dean and Obama model of using these lists not only to raise campaign money but also to drive issues. I think Obama needs to get back on the trail. He is in many ways a face-to-face candidate. To meet him is to like him. Bush tried to sell Social Security reform with a series of town hall meetings, but that’s just not the type of president he was. But if Obama gets out there, I think he can sway a lot of people.