The Athenian Society, the premier philanthropic support group for the USC Price School of Public Policy, held a town hall discussion on Oct. 24 focusing on key issues of the presidential election.
NBC Los Angeles political reporter Conan Nolan moderated the discussion with Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at USC Price, and Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, as they analyzed how the race between incumbent President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney has unfolded.
The program was part of the Dean’s Speaker Series presented by the Athenian Society. This year’s theme is “The Challenge of Change,” and no upcoming event has the potential to result in more change than the Nov. 6 election.
“From the presidential election to our state ballot measures, we, the electorate, are going to play a key role in determining the direction of our country and our communities for years to come,” said Jack H. Knott, dean of USC Price. “This is, I believe, a watershed election. Given the significance of the upcoming election, our school is proud to offer a forum that fosters open and thoughtful deliberation about what is to take place.”
The increased vitriol in political campaigns is one development many people could do without. Schnur pointed out that negativity and personal attacks are nothing new in politics, citing the 1796 race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as the election in which politics started getting nasty. Adams supporters accused Jefferson of being an atheist, and Jefferson supporters accused Adams of being a monarchist.
Jeffe contended that the intensity of the negativity is greater today because of the advances in communication. In the country’s early history, candidates would print newspapers with attacks on opponents, many of them untrue, but the limited distribution wouldn’t allow the message to get very far.
“Today, you see political attacks on a blog and they are picked up by the cable networks that are dying to increase [TV ratings] and that need that kind of sensationalism,” Jeffe said. “I do think that has geometrically aggravated the polarization and the negativism in politics.”
Schnur noted that undecided voters are the most likely to be persuaded through positive or comparative messages, but that there are fewer undecided voters than there were 10 or 20 years ago.
“The way you win a campaign in the 21st century is not by persuading undecided voters but by rallying your base and discouraging your opponent’s voters from turning out, and the most effective and efficient way of doing that is with a negative message,” Schnur said. “The more polarized the electorate gets, the more the political center vacates, the nastier campaigns are going to get because that’s the easiest way to turn out your base and scare the other guys.”
Schnur recapped the debates by saying Romney won the first in a dominating fashion never before seen, Joe Biden got the Democrats back on track in the vice presidential debate and Obama continued that momentum in the second debate. For the third debate, he didn’t pick a winner but described Obama as trying to be forceful while Romney tried to appear presidential.
Obama’s lethargic first debate made perfect sense, according to Schnur. Incumbent presidents historically do poorly in the first debates of re-election campaigns because they don’t like being verbally challenged after having gotten used to the deferential treatment that comes with being the leader of the free world.
“An incumbent president, after four years of being kowtowed to, all of a sudden they’re on stage with someone who is a co-equal, who doesn’t treat them with that respect, and it throws them off their game,” Schnur said.
The first debate is usually the most important, creating an initial impression that lasts two weeks before the next debate. After that first debate remade the race, Schnur indicated what Biden did in the vice presidential debate was of critical importance in what might have been the most important vice presidential debate in history.
“What Joe Biden did was remotivate the Democratic base,” Schnur said. “… It fell to Joe Biden over that two-week period to remind Barack Obama’s most loyal supporters why they were fighting.”
Technology is also changing the way politics is conducted in ways that are good and bad. Social media allows people, particularly young voters, to participate in the conversation like never before.
However, communication technologies also can keep people from getting exposure to varying opinions.
Schnur made an analogy of how people sharing the same space used to listen to each other’s music, taking turns on what songs to play, but now they each plug the earbuds into their iPods and listen to what they like, never hearing what the other person likes.
“It’s human nature to want to talk to and listen to and engage with the smartest people in the world,” Schnur said. “Who are the smartest people in the world? The people who agree with me. So many of us tend to read and watch the people we already agree with and reinforce what we already think.”
Schnur assigns his students to watch or read an opposing viewpoint at least once a week. Changing the negativity and polarization in politics today will take an active effort to keep open minds to a broader range of opinions.
“Somehow or another, we as voters have got to become more discriminating as to what we chew on from the media,” Jeffe said. “And the media has to grow a spine to really look carefully at what they are purveying.”