Choices We Make
We asked our scholars to examine the following areas to help us better understand why we choose our leaders.
Gender I Christine Anderson, chair, department of history
At the time that women got the vote, everyone thought it would make a huge difference because women were thought of as morally superior to men, in the fact that they weren’t involved with corruption, right? They cared about children, about peace, so there were many people who thought the world, or at least the United States, would become a much better place once women became voters.
What happened was that women did not vote as a block. Women voted the way their husbands did, not because they were told to do so, but because of their economic and social interests. Their political world was, generally, very similar. So that, although there was some reformist revolution relating to women and children and internal health in the early 1920s, it turned out that women voting really didn’t make much difference. Women have voted very much the same way, historically, that men in their communities have voted. And remember that African-American women—especially in the South—were not voting until the 1960s. So we’re really talking about white women.
In the last several decades, what has begun to emerge, maybe, is what some call a gender gap, where women are assumed to emphasize more social concerns. Not so much about peace, but much more so about social concerns. They have tended toward Democratic candidates in small numbers. In close elections, it could make a big difference. It’s pretty gradual, though.
I would continue to emphasize the ways that women vote according to other categories, though, such as race, education, economic status. Those things also matter—maybe more so right now—than gender bias does.
National Security I Tim White, professor of political science and sociology
National security won’t be as important to voters in this year’s presidential election as it was four years ago because 9/11 is being reinterpreted by many people who now believe the war in Iraq isn’t as critical as it once seemed.
In most elections, aside from presidential races, voters pay little attention to national security, and sometimes not even in presidential contests. In times of peace, voters focus on issues like the economy. In times of war, people feel threatened and national security becomes important.
In 2004, John Kerry was defeated primarily because voters felt more secure with President Bush. The war in Iraq was initially cast by Bush as a response to 9/11 and while the war continues, it is now seen by many people as less critical than four years ago. And so, national security isn’t as big an issue in the Obama-McCain election as it was in the Kerry-Bush contest. There’s not the same feeling of an imminent crisis as there was four years ago that would make voters forego their present concerns about the economy.
Also, the pain of the war in Iraq—which can be associated with heightened concern about national security—isn’t as wide ranging as it was in World War II or the Vietnam War when military conscription personally affected many more people than today’s all-volunteer military.
Globalization I James Buchanan, director, Brueggeman Center for Dialogue
There’s a distinction between globalization and internationalization. International issues have always played a big role in electing our presidents—foreign policy is always a key issue. Increasingly, that relates to trade deficits and so forth.
But this is a transitional period for America. It’s a transitional period in terms of energy, the workforce, what opportunities are available, how to build wealth for retirement. It’s a transitional period in terms of the levels of debt people are going to carry. And it’s a transitional period because all of this is no longer simply a national problem: It’s tied to a global reality.
To some degree, I think that the candidates right now are still focusing on internationalism, as opposed to really focusing on globalization. Since World War II, we’ve had it relatively good, and we just think that a new president can come in and dramatically change our reality with a new national policy. We can’t think that way any more. It’s no longer a national reality of which our nation is part. Whatever we’re going to talk about, it’s going to require sacrifice on behalf of the American population, and that’s not a message that’s ever going to be popular.
So how does a candidate talk about that? I don’t think they do. I think what you have to do is to try and read between the lines of what they’re saying, see who their advisors are and get some kind of gauge of how much courage they have—whether or not they really want to be a visionary and take on the long-term, really hard challenges with which we’re faced. Because they are long-term—and very difficult—challenges.
Advertising I Indra DeSilva, chair, department of communications
Advertising is so important in shaping the way people vote that it is the main reason elections have gotten so outrageously expensive. Anyone can run for president, provided they can raise millions of dollars. Most of that money goes to advertising, which is becoming more expensive—especially radio and television advertising. Newspapers and magazines can add pages to accommodate more political advertising, but radio and TV are limited to 24 hours a day. As demand for advertising airtime increases, the price goes up and candidates are forced to raise even more money.
The high price is worth it to candidates, though. Research shows that advertising has a big impact on voters. Even if only half the advertising works, that is enough. Negative advertising—ripping your opponent instead of promoting yourself—may be distasteful, but is especially effective. Think back to the 1964 presidential campaign when an ad for Lyndon Johnson portrayed his opponent, Barry Goldwater, as having an itchy finger on the nuclear bomb trigger. The ad showed a little girl plucking petals off a daisy and counting. Her counting was superseded by another voice counting down the explosion of a nuclear bomb, and the image of innocent daisy picking was replaced by an eerie mushroom cloud. That turned out to be very effective.
Negative ads tend to be dirtiest on television because of the power of moving images, and the daisy ads put a very powerful image in voters’ minds. We say we don’t like negative ads, but research shows they work.
The Internet I Bob Cotter, associate vice president for information resources
The Internet has impacted the way we elect our leaders in two ways: One, it has allowed information outside the homogenized, corporate, conglomerate filter to be very easily transmitted. You have access to that information and you can create your own viewpoints and distribute them. Secondly, you don’t have to do that as a “crazy guy in the basement” anymore. You can be part of a social network of like-minded people. With the Internet, you can create online social communities.
In 2004, Howard Dean probably did more to lead this change than anyone. He had some very good strategists who understood how to use the Internet for fundraising. Barack Obama also has found the Internet as a very efficient way to get contributions not just from deep pockets but from normal-sized pockets. He also took it up a quantum leap this year by using the Internet to embrace social networking.
In an image-rich age, it finally comes down to the ability of candidates to put themselves across digitally as well as verbally. And I think the Internet will continue to be very influential. In a way, it has replaced the public square where people gather. It allows us to invite more participation, to invite a more vigorous exchange of ideas—just what the republic was set out to do.
Fundraising I Mack Mariani, assistant professor of political science
In many ways, fundraising is a distraction from what candidates should be doing. But, it does provide candidates with some level of feedback from voters, as well as generating support from individuals and groups. At the end of the day, campaigns are about getting the message out.
The way to get the message out in modern America is through media and advertising, and so if candidates are going to have a voice and if people are going to hear that voice, candidates are going to have to raise money.
Raising lots of money has also become important because of the decline of political parties in the United States. People used to connect with candidates through the parties. Political parties supplied the people to campaign for candidates. You had armies of people knocking on doors and holding meetings, and in the early 1900s voting rates were around 90 percent. Political parties were more integrated in governance and there was a lot of patronage, but civil service laws have diminished the power of patronage.
The rise of television as a mass medium helped change that. Political parties used to be part of the nation’s entertainment. Parades and speeches used to provide people with something to do. Thousands of people would turn out to hear three- and four-hour speeches. Now, people get a lot of their entertainment from television. That has forced politicians to change course. Voters now watch TV, so that’s where politicians go to reach them.
Economics I David Yi, assistant professor of economics
Historically, the condition of the economy has impacted the election outcome, especially in the general election where we elect the president. If the economy is in a recession, people tend to blame the current sitting president. Of course, sometimes people vote along the party line no matter what. But if you’re somewhere in the middle, if you’re an independent voter or a swing voter, and the economy is in trouble, that may have some impact on how you vote.
There are different indices people use to measure how the economy is doing, but one of the indicators we should pay attention to is the consumer confidence level. The economy might be in a sluggish stage, but as long as consumer confidence is high, the chance of the incumbent getting re-elected isn’t bad. But if consumer confidence is really low, that means consumers are really concerned about the future of our economy, and that can translate into electing someone from the other party.
If you look at the past 60 years, the Democrats’ economic policy was better for low-income families. But if you look at the income growth rate for families during the election year, under the Republican Party they did better. That’s interesting isn’t it? So perhaps the Republican Party has better strategies of getting elected. Because voters are myopic, they only look at what is happening now.
Of course, voters consider different issues, not just the economy, but foreign policy issues, such as what is happening in Iraq or Afghanistan. These days there’s the issue between Russia and Georgia—all these play important roles. And if you’re a voter who cares more about foreign policy, then you might vote based on these issues, and the impact of the economy will be minimized. We’ll have to see.
Diversity I Cheryl Nunez, vice provost for diversity
Race is a political construction on which every political question and contest must invariably turn. Across every measure of life outcomes—income, wealth, employment, education, morbidity, morality—racial disproportionality is a fact of national life. Yet in the color-blind tradition of the post-Civil Rights era, racial discourse in politics is impermissible. The fact that no serious presidential campaign has ever addressed itself to the eradication of systemic racial inequity is a testament to the intractable influence of race on politics.
While campaigning for racial equity would be political suicide, politicians are well aware that race can be invoked for political advantage. Appeals for law and order, school choice, welfare reform and color-blind hiring—accompanied by racially coded rhetoric and imagery—can predictably trigger white racial resentments toward inner-city violence, black “welfare queens” and reverse discrimination. So race influences elections even when never spoken.
There should also be no doubt that the race of candidates matters. Both conscious racial bias and unconscious assumptions can influence voter preferences. While it is conceivable we could elect a president of color, it is unthinkable we would ever elect any candidate who poses a serious threat to the racial status quo. And until race is understood as central to serious political thought and policy making, it remains the elephant in our nation’s living room. And try as some might to ignore the beast, its footprints are impossible to miss.