University at Albany
 

Talking Politics: Five Rockefeller Political Scientists Chew Over the Presidential Election

A meal can get lively when politics is on the menu, especially when the conversation turns to this year’s too-close-to-call presidential election.

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(Left to right) Bruce Gyory, Susan Arbetter,
Anne Hildreth, Bruce Miroff, Patty Strach,
and Sally Friedman

You’re invited to eavesdrop on an entertaining and incisive back-and-forth shared by five Rockefeller College political scientists — Sally Friedman, Bruce Gyory, Anne Hildreth, Bruce Miroff, and Patty Strach — over a friendly summer­time lunch at Taste, a downtown Albany eatery just a stone’s throw from New York’s historic Capitol where some of the most interesting politics in the country take place daily.
With award-winning journalist and New York State Capitol Correspondent Susan Arbetter asking the questions, the professors noshed on a variety of hot topics. So pull up a chair and check out what’s for lunch…
 
Susan Arbetter: The last congressional election was all about the Tea Party coming into its own. The election before that was all about the new hope with Obama. What is this election about?
 
Bruce Gyory: That’s a very good question that requires a thoughtful answer.
 
Anne Hildreth: You going to pass? (laughter from group)
 

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(Left to right) Capitol
Correspondent Susan
Arbetter and Rockefeller
Associate Dean of
Undergraduate Education
Anne Hildreth
Bruce Gyory: No, no. This election is going to be a test of what people want out of government. Each party has an advantage and a disadvantage. We remain a center right nation, which gives the Republicans an advantage. There’s skepticism about government and what government can do efficiently that is a headwind in the face of both Obama and the Democrats. On the other side of the ledger, there is a dramatic change in the political demographics of the nation for which the Republicans are ill-equipped because they have not confronted it. They have not confronted the fact that we are now a clear female majority. In the last election, 12 million more women than men voted. Obama carried that female vote 56–43. It gave him a huge edge. There’s also a huge edge coming out of the aggregate minority vote. Four years ago, 26 percent of the electorate was non-white and it voted 81 to 18 percent for Obama over McCain. If the demo­graphics continue and that rises to 28 percent of the electorate and the vote is 85 to 15, which is where it’s trending because Hispanics are moving away from a 2:1 Democratic edge to a 3:1 Democratic edge, it could be enormously significant. The other thing is the perception is that no incumbent can win with an economy this bad, yet if you look at the polling data Obama is hanging in there so we may have to reevaluate that. People expect the election to be a question about the past. I think it’s going to be an interesting answer about what people want the future to be. Underlying it is going to be ideology versus demographics.
 
Susan Arbetter: Bruce Miroff, you’re not very optimistic about either candidate and about how the public feels about them.
 
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(From left) Rockefeller colleagues
Patty Strach and Sally Friedman
Bruce Miroff: Well, the public is unhappy in general and across the board. I think the view that it is about the economy is simplistic. When we use the past, we see incumbents lose when the economy is in very bad shape. But the historical precedents are ones in which that party was solely blamed for a bad economy, like Jimmy Carter or the first President Bush. This is a case where people know that the economy was messed up under a Republican president and that Obama has not really fixed it. So there’s blame on both sides. The other thing is that Romney has a hard time saying exactly what positive he can do to fix the economy because they all sound like Bush’s policies or Paul Ryan’s, which are a more radical version of Bush’s policies. Furthermore, there was a Wall Street Journal poll out recently that showed, similar to most polls, that Romney has the worst average of favorable versus unfavorable of any Republican in recent history, including people who lost the campaign like Dole and McCain. Will Americans vote for a candidate they don’t like? There are a lot of things going on and to hang it on the economy is kind of shallow.
 
Anne Hildreth: I think the narrative is going to be about
money. When political scientists look back at this, it’s going to be the election about Citizens United. I agree that Obama’s going to be given some leeway on the economy. But that’s just a little sound byte of 2012 to me. This is going to be a very different election because of the super PACs and all.
 
Susan Arbetter: Did you read the Matt Bai article in The New York Times?
 
Bruce Gyory: Yes.
 
Susan Arbetter: Will you sum it up?
 
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Bruce Gyory
Bruce Gyory: Well, that it’s more complicated than Citizens United but Citizens United is a major part of it and that we are going to have two $1 billion campaigns at the presidential level. That’s an unprecedented level of expenditure. Whether it has an impact or not, and how significant, is going to be a very interesting question.
 
Anne Hildreth: I think there are going to be people seeing political advertisements who’ve never seen political ads. Candidates aren’t going to have the same control over their message because other groups are going to be running ads, making claims that the Democrats and Republicans and Obama and Romney don’t necessarily control.
 
Sally Friedman: Look at the contrast between 2008 and 2012. 2008 was all about hope and a new president, an African American president and different racial relations. Now we’re emphasizing the cynical part. Obama running as an incumbent versus running as a non-incumbent — how much will that mean?
 
Susan Arbetter: We know him better now.
 
Anne Hildreth: He has a record now.
 
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Bruce Miroff
Bruce Miroff: The hope in Obama in many ways went well beyond what Obama was saying. There was a kind of willing suspension of disbelief. I don’t think Obama has changed that much. I think he’s run smack into the realities of governance in a polarized political system in the midst of an economic crisis.
 
Patty Strach: What’s interesting to me is that in 1980 Ronald Reagan said government isn’t the answer to the problem; government is the problem, which was a whole shift in the way we see and think about government. The private sector was the answer. Now we have a candidate who is the epitome of what the private sector can do and that isn’t the answer. It’s actually something negative. I think a lot of people see what Romney did — Bain Capital going in and shutting things down — as something that isn’t very positive. He wasn’t the head of General Motors. He wasn’t the head of a company that produced something, like a car or Coca-Cola. He was just this market actor. That’s very interesting because that’s not the answer to our problems. We’ve just passed government-mandated healthcare reform. This pushback says that maybe the private sector doesn’t have all the answers.
 
Susan Arbetter: A recent Marist poll said 8 in 10 Americans are frustrated with the tone of the election and they’re frustrated with the incivility in Washington. How is that going to manifest itself in November?
 
Patty Strach: People always say how much they hate it, but negative campaigns always bring people out to vote. They get people interested and excited. When candidates get out there and start talking policy in an Al Gore kind of way, nobody wants to hear it.
 
Bruce Gyory: We have yet to see the reaction of the people. We do not know, to Anne’s point, whether there will be a revulsion against the progeny of Citizens United and huge money in the campaign. We don’t know if finally people will react and say enough of this negative campaigning. We don’t know if people will say, ‘You know what, this economy is bad enough.’ It wiped out all the income gains for the middle class for the entire decade. For 12 years we haven’t had growth of 4 percent in this economy, going back over two administrations, both parties.
 
Susan Arbetter
Capitol Correspondent
Susan Arbetter
Susan Arbetter: So, people have real problems. There are real issues that this country faces and it’s going to take some serious political will and courage to push through but, Bruce Miroff, you’ve said that the politicians almost have a disdain for any sort of big idea.
 
Bruce Miroff: No, they don’t have a disdain. It’s just that when they go for it they usually lose and they know that. I am not at all a fan of Rasmussen — a notorious Republican polling operation — but one of their poll findings recently was quite stunning, which was that only 32 percent of the public thought it made a difference who won in terms of how the economy was going to do in the next four years.
 
Susan Arbetter: We’re skepti­cal also about our institutions. There’s pessimism and disen­gagement among the electorate. How do you get people reen­gaged? Are people getting lazier?
 
Sally Friedman: That’s a huge debate in the civic engagement literature. My own bias is I don’t think people are getting lazier. People are more likely to get involved when people around them are getting involved.
 
Anne Hildreth: The rules also make people less engaged. You may think it’s that they’re lazy or disinterested but it could just be much harder to participate in many places, or much more perilous, or participation requires an extra step or two.
 
Patty Strach: People are making choices about what they want to do. Do I want to go vote or do I want to spend 10 more minutes with my kids? It’s clear that they’re not seeing a huge payoff from voting. Are they mistaken or are we mis­taken for thinking more people should be turning out to vote? I think there’s a real difference, if you participate, in how the political system treats you. No one’s cutting Social Security because seniors turn out to vote. People are making real choices about what they want to spend their time on and voting or participating in politics isn’t the choice that they’re making.
 
Bruce Gyory: On the other hand, the rate of voting has gone up in two successive presidential elections. The vote was greater in 2008 than in 2004, which in turn was greater than the participation rate in 2000. We made an effort to make voting easier four years ago. We had early voting, increased absentee and write-in voting. Now there’s been a retrench­ment of that as the Republicans became afraid of the higher rates, particularly among minorities and younger voters. Where Republicans have controlled the state legislature and the governor, they have tried to put in provisions for voter ID and other such measures. People in the polling data tend to support that because they think everybody should have a voter ID and everybody has a license. We’ll see whether that will withstand either court scrutiny or the scrutiny of public opinion when it dawns on people that there are large numbers of Americans who live their life in a way that they do not need a driver’s license.
 
Susan Arbetter: So in Pennsylvania it turns out they didn’t really have any reason for voter suppression?
 
Bruce Miroff: Well, they had a political reason.
 
Susan Arbetter: What happened in Pennsylvania?
 
Anne Hildreth: And Texas, and Ohio and…
 
Bruce Miroff: In Pennsylvania, the Republicans won the governor and entire state legislature and then passed a voter ID law. It didn’t exist until after the 2010 election. The Pennsylvania House majority leader boasted that this law would give the state to Romney. I’d like to say in defense of the voter that a huge part of the problem is whether there is a stimulus to vote or not. We know from political science literature that the single most effective thing that can turn people out is personal contact. We also know in the debate on the Electoral College that the Electoral College basically makes the presidential election uninteresting and without advertising in roughly three-quarters of the states. If we had a national popular vote, we’d have a different kind of election and a higher turnout because everybody’s vote would count. Everybody would see ads and have people knocking on their doors.
 
Bruce Gyory: I’ll tell you what will drive the contest to a state like New York. The battle for control of the House of Representatives is going to be more and more of a central issue. We have at least eight truly competitive elections for the House. That will drive resources to New York. It’s going to be a very important factor in Long Island, Westchester, the Mid-Hudson, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, and potentially the Southern Tier.
 
Anne Hildreth: That’s a great point.
 
Bruce Gyory: Here’s the real problem. Two things happen in January that could turn the next president’s term into very bitter ashes from which he could not recover — the expira­tion of the Bush tax cuts and the sequestration cuts that came out of the debacle of the 2011 debt limit crisis. If we have paralysis between the president and the Congress over those, all the tax cuts ending and the immediate cuts could trigger that double-dip recession that nobody wants. At some point it might dawn on one of the candidates that he needs a mandate from the voters to vault over this paralysis with the Congress. That’s when Obama’s going to start to say if I don’t win the House and I don’t have a net pick-up of three or four seats from New York, or if I’m Romney and I don’t do something to pick up some seats in Illinois or California, even though I’m not going to win those states in the Electoral College, I may face either a House that has Democratic control or functionally no control. We could have a situation where there is functionally no control in the House of Representatives.
 
Anne Hildreth: Bruce, you said that the polls suggested people support photo IDs for voting. They think voting is a right and a privilege. They think about it from an individual perspective. It’s the reason why we’re not going to have mass movements about voter suppression or campaign finance.
 
Bruce Gyory: If 90 percent of the American people have driver’s licenses, it doesn’t shock me that in a state like Florida, 57 percent would say they support voter ID. They don’t stop and think how this will affect others. There’s a countervailing duty for people who are worried about this — groups like the NAACP and the Democratic Party — to say, ‘Hey, look how this affects this woman sitting here in Altoona, Pennsylvania who has done nothing wrong, who has voted her entire life, and doesn’t have a government photo ID and it’s wrong to deny her right to vote.’ I think if it’s posed in that way, people will react to that.
 
Anne Hildreth: If we weren’t in this economy, you might have the luxury of engaging more people around those types of issues.
 
Susan Arbetter: Isn’t that what Occupy Wall Street was all about — disenfranchisement?
 
Anne Hildreth: Why doesn’t anybody make a good case for government?
 
Bruce Miroff: Look what just happened to Obama. Obama just made this argument and the Romney campaign spliced and diced and twisted it into something else. If you talk about government you’re attacking free enterprise.
 
Patty Strach: What is important is what they are not saying. They are not emphasizing Romney’s background at Bain. They won’t say that Romney did for Bain Capital what he can do for the U.S. Ten or 15 years ago this kind of capitalism would have been something positive.
 
Bruce Gyory: You knew Bain would cut as an issue when South Carolina exit polls said it bothered 25 percent of registered Republicans who voted there. If it bothered a quarter of Republicans imagine what it would do in the larger electorate. If George Romney, Mitt’s father, were the nominee of the Republican Party this year, he would win in a landslide because he was a businessman who produced something — cars. He was someone who said I’m going to campaign with transparency. A release of one year of my tax returns could be a blip. I’m going to release 12. Thirdly, he was a Republican governor who was closely associated with a pro-civil rights stance and, through his wife, a pro-choice stance. If you were looking for what the center of the country wants, they would pick somebody like George Romney. But his son is befuddled and can’t be himself because if he were to be himself and run on his moderate record as governor of Massachusetts, he would not have been able to win the nomination of his party. That’s a tremendous irony.
 
Susan Arbetter: He’s beyond that now so why isn’t he opening his tent to welcome others?
 
Bruce Gyory: He can’t. There is such distrust of him on the right that if he morphed back to what he was you would have wholesale defections from his right wing, and probably have a very invigorated Libertarian candidate for president who could draw as high as 6 or 7 percent.
 
Bruce Miroff: He’d be mocked as a huge flip-flopper by the Democrats. He’d be hit from both sides. I agree that George Romney could be elected, but that’s not the American economy anymore. Finance capital has replaced industrial capital. These days the titans of the American econ­omy are financial and not the people who produce something.
 
Bruce Gyory: When Lyndon Johnson wanted to show he was friendly to business, he had a picture taken with Henry Ford, he cousined up to Governor Rockefeller of New York, and met with business titans. You don’t see the Republicans doing that in a public way. From the day Ronald Reagan was elected until last fall, the middle class functionally gave its proxy on tax policy to the wealthy and said you go fight the fight against taxes and we don’t care. So whenever somebody talked about a progressive tax proposal, class warfare knocked it right off the table. Last fall, the middle class in this coun­try pulled its proxy and said we’re not anti-wealthy but we want the tax code to start nurturing the middle class instead of coddling the wealthy. That created tremendous dysfunc­tion on the Republican side without creating a mandate for Democratic programs. We are in an era of dealignment and we desperately need a realignment where somebody forms a governing majority, and that is not happening.
 
Susan Arbetter: What do you mean by dealignment?
 
Bruce Gyory: Samuel Lubell said American politics works best when you have a Sun Party and a Moon Party. The Sun Party is dominant but it’s challenged by the Moon Party. The Sun Party sets the agenda. David Brooks observed that we are functionally living at a time where there are two Moon Parties, neither one is capable of having a clear majority. The Democrats face an ideological gap and the Republicans face a demographic gap and they have not been able to muster a majority that will consistently support them through thick and thin the way the country supported Roosevelt and Reagan.
 
Anne Hildreth: And it probably never will again.
 
Patty Strach: And the Founders thought this was a great thing. This is the way American politics is supposed to work.
 
Sally Friedman: Political scientists talk about ‘issue publics’ where different people think different issues are important. Presumably the economy is going to get it as most important on this one. Voters don’t have to know about every issue but you have to know what’s important to you.
 
Bruce Gyory: Willie Brown told a story at a Black and Puerto Rican Caucus dinner about when he was going up against California Governor Deukmejian, a Republican, who had put forward cuts. He said all the Liberals came into his (Brown’s) office and said here are the 25 things we need to do to break Deukmejian on the budget. Brown said, “I listened to them and I looked at their list and I knew that people would not focus on 25 issues. So I looked at it a little more closely and I saw that he had cut out kindergarten. I said there’s one thing I know about California mothers. By the time those children turn five or six, they want those little bastards out of the house in school. So I went at that issue and I brought Deukmejian to his knees and then when we were negotiating, be­cause he needed peace on that issue, I pulled out the other 24 things and I got 18 of them.” That’s an issue people can relate to. That’s the difference.
 
Susan Arbetter: Why is it we always have to use propaganda-like techniques to boil down huge issues?
 
Bruce Miroff: People need symbols to understand complicat­ed issues. Politics works on symbols, as does everything else.
 
Patty Strach: When’s the last time you went to the mechanic and they said, “Oh, your head gasket needs to be replaced.” And you’re thinking, “Okay, head gasket?” My point is that we all can’t be experts on refrigerators and cars, and traffic, and kids’ education.
 
Susan Arbetter: Isn’t that just another excuse not to get into the weeds when it comes to issues that do matter to people, like healthcare? If your kids need healthcare it should matter to you.
 

Patty Strach: It does matter to them. But have you read the healthcare law? Has anybody?
 
Susan Arbetter: No, but I read The New York Times’s articles that make it into English and I bet a lot of people don’t even do that.
 
Bruce Gyory: That’s where V. O. Key comes in. Probably the greatest political scientist this country has produced.
 
Patty Strach: I don’t know. E. E. Schattschneider, that’s my guy.
 
Anne Hildreth: I’m with E. E.
 
Bruce Gyory: V. O. Key pointed out that the American people are too busy with their everyday lives to get into every nook and cranny and every issue. But like the parents of teenagers, Americans ‘pull the car keys’ when they don’t like what they see from their politicians. That was his essential theory. It’s not an irresponsible electorate; it’s a busy electorate.
 
Anne Hildreth: I’d like to ask my colleagues a question. What one thing do you want your students to absorb as we approach this election?
 
Bruce Miroff: I would say that however frustrating, however banal, however pointless it sometimes seems to pay attention to these matters, nonetheless, our fate both collectively and as individuals is profoundly shaped by the political choices we make as to who holds the important offices — the presidency, Congress, state officials. To turn your attention away from that on the grounds that you have no influence or say is to essentially will your own hopelessness in the face of the people and the choices that will shape our future.
 
Bruce Gyory: I couldn’t say it better. I’d second that.
 
Patty Strach: What I usually tell my students is to look around them, and I say, “What in this room is not regulated by government?” And there’s nothing. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the people who are sitting next to us, and the ergonomic nature of the chairs. All of those things are regulated by government. Who’s in charge of government and who’s making these rules matter in ways we don’t think about. So maybe your vote doesn’t make a difference in terms of who gets elected to the presidency, but politics doesn’t happen ‘out there.’ It’s all around us right here, right now. Think about the ramifications. Social Security will never get cut but financial aid will. Guaranteed. They should think about those tradeoffs when they’re deciding whether to vote.
 
Sally Friedman: And find some ways to get involved in any way you can. It’s your country.
 
Anne Hildreth: The thing I would stress is to recognize the complexity of politics and not to give short shrift to the symbolism. Often when students start to realize politics is complex, they think “I can’t deal with it.” That’s okay. That’s the reality. That’s actually part of the design. Earlier when Bruce was talking, I was thinking maybe elections don’t matter. Maybe who’s in the White House is not going to be a critical factor in what’s coming.
 
Bruce Miroff: If I were a multimillionaire, I think it would matter a great deal who’s going to get elected, or if I were a low-income person. They may not fix the economy but there are going to be different people benefiting.
 
Anne Hildreth: Right, and I know that. But in a way, the problems don’t change a lot.
 
Susan Arbetter: Just different winners and losers.

In the photo at top of page: Our roundtable participants share a friendly toast. (Pictured from left to right) Bruce Gyory, Susan Arbetter, Anne Hildreth, Bruce Miroff, Patty Strach, and Sally Friedman

Photography by Mark Schmidt

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 Rockefeller College News Magazine.