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University of Minnesota

Election redux

November 14, 2008

Political science professor Kathryn Pearson.

Political science professor Kathryn Pearson

U professor breaks down historic 2008 election

By Rick Moore

By definition, the College of Continuing Education's Headliners series is a chance for people to meet with University experts whose work illuminates topics in the news.

If only there were something noteworthy in the news during the first week of November... Oh yes, the election!

In fact, it seemed the only potential pitfall for choosing "Election 2008: History in the Making" for the November 6 topic was that the Headliners electorate would be weary of the post-election analysis and Wednesday morning quarterbacking. As it turned out, nothing could be further from the truth. An exuberant, capacity crowd of about 200 filled a room in the Continuing Education Center on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul to hear political science professor Kathryn Pearson lead a spirited 90-minute discussion.

Pearson has been at the fore of local political experts offering her take on the election. As Continuing Education dean Mary Nichols pointed out at the start of the evening, Pearson has appeared as a commentator on every network in the Twin Cities—at all times of the day and night—with analysis that is always "well-informed, upbeat, and articulate."

She kicked off the evening with a presentation highlighting some of the statistics and trends of the epic presidential race, as well as U.S. Senate and Congressional contests.

"It is hard to overstate—or even fully grasp—the significance of Tuesday's elections," Pearson said. "The country elected the first black candidate in history. Barack Obama won by a seven-point margin in what was clearly a 'change' election. In many respects, including public opinion in the U.S. and abroad, change did happen instantly. But the obstacles to policy change are many. As former president Clinton and President Bush would surely agree, even having unified party control of the government does not mean that legislative change is automatic."

Political science research shows that people are socialized at a relatively young age with their party identification," she said. "So to the extent that these young voters who voted for Obama also identify as Democrats--that combined with the partisan gap among Hispanics suggests that the Democratic party has a lot more to celebrate after Tuesday night than just the election of Barack Obama.

To a large extent, many states are clearly established as either Republican or Democratic strongholds, so the presidential race was primarily fought in a small number of battleground states, Pearson noted. And that's a mixed bag for non-battleground states.

"This means that many citizens, including those in deep blue states and deep red states, where the outcome is all but guaranteed, miss out on a lot of the process. They miss these negative ads that we saw for so long in Minnesota," she said to a chorus of laughs. "They also miss visits by candidates and their surrogates throughout the campaign season. ... In fact, political science research shows that voters in [these] states are, indeed, less likely to turn out and, in fact, less knowledgeable about the campaign."

Obama prevailed in a large number of the battleground areas; the nine states that switched from red to blue in 2008 were Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Indiana, and North Carolina.

December Headliners announced
On December 4, Brian Atwood, Dean of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, is going to provide a behind-the-scenes look at how a newly elected president assembles his cabinet and staff. Dean Atwood led the transition team at the State Department during the Clinton administration.

Pearson pointed out some of the many contextual factors at work in the 2008 election. According to exit polls, 85 percent of voters said they were worried about economic conditions and 75 percent said the country was going in the wrong direction. And President Bush's historically low approval ratings were destined to hurt John McCain.

Other factors were also at work, said Pearson. After deciding to forgo public funding for the general election, Obama was able to raise a staggering sum of money during the campaign—a record $66 million in August followed by $160 million in September—which allowed him to become competitive in many more states.

And while Obama's lack of experience was positioned to be an advantage for McCain, that edge was "seriously undercut" by his selection of a vice presidential candidate, she said. Sixty percent of voters in exit polls said that Sarah Palin was not qualified to be president, if necessary (although 16 percent of them voted for the McCain-Palin ticket anyway).

By the numbers

The election turnout of 62.5 percent (133.3 million voters) matched the percentage of 1968, and Minnesota was a beacon of civic participation at about 77 percent, matching 2004 when it had the highest rate in country. "Minnesotans tend to be—and studies have shown this—more likely to join groups," Pearson said. "People who are more likely to join groups [and] know their neighbors are also more likely to turn out to vote."

Among white voters nationwide, McCain scored 55 percent compared to Obama's 43 percent, while among blacks Obama tallied 95 percent of the vote. Pearson also pointed out two other demographic groups of note. Obama had the support of 67 percent of Hispanics (the largest growing demographic group in the United States), as well as about 66 percent of voters ages 18 to 29.

"Political science research shows that people are socialized at a relatively young age with their party identification," she said. "So to the extent that these young voters who voted for Obama also identify as Democrats—that combined with the partisan gap among Hispanics suggests that the Democratic party has a lot more to celebrate after Tuesday night than just the election of Barack Obama.

"On the other hand, it is very possible that some of these effects are very much candidate centered and very much a judgment of the last four and eight years."

Weighing in on questions

The Headliners crowd had no shortage of comments and questions regarding the elections, and Pearson weighed in with her take on the answers. One guest was curious as to the viability of third-party candidates in the future.

"Unless there is structural change in terms of our electoral and representational systems, I think it's unlikely," Pearson said. "As long as the majority of Americans feel a psychological attachment to one party or the other, it's sort of hard to see how anytime remotely soon, or without some structural changes, third-party candidates can consistently be viable."

Another attendee wondered about the future of the Electoral College system, which Pearson also predicted would be slow to change. "After 2000, that was when the time was ripe," she said. "President Bush lost the popular vote, and sure, there were a lot of editorials arguing for Electoral College reform. But if we went to a direct national vote system, there would be many flaws with the voting process that we just don't know [about] right now."

It would also change how campaigns are conducted. "For candidates to run a national campaign, they would concentrate themselves in large, dense areas and basically overlook rural, sparsely populated areas. Now, is that better or worse than spending all your time in Ohio and Florida? There would be a lot of different implications."

"There's no easy solution," she added, "and I don't predict change anytime soon, particularly if we don't see another election like 2000 anytime soon."

What suggestions would she have for the Republican party, which lost significant ground in 2008?

Both parties face the challenge of bringing together a lot of people with differing ideas, she said, and "Republicans have been increasing less successful at doing that."

"In terms of thinking about the future, I would advise the Republicans to try to recapture some of [the] Hispanic voters, and also think about ways in which to appeal to some young voters, and maybe that's emphasizing particular issues like energy [and] technology and not focusing on social issues, [since] definitely the conservative position on social issues is less appealing to young people. But really thinking about future demographics, and in particular, those two groups."

After the event wrapped up, the political conversations spilled out into the hallway and then the parking lot. And the following day, almost as if on cue, there was a headline in the newspaper mirroring Pearson's suggestion: "Pawlenty envisions a renewed GOP: Fresh. Pragmatic. Diverse. Younger."

Seems as if Headliners not only reflects upon the headlines; it's also right in step as they're being created.