Takeaways from the Presidential Election

First thoughts from Center staff about yesterday’s (mercifully finished and legitimate) election:

Andrew Whitacre, Communications Manager:

  1. A series of [packed] tubes. An unpredicted consequence of Citizens United was complete mass media saturation. In the run-up to 2014 and ’16, we’ll see even more money spent, but far more will go toward ratcheting up field operations, especially by the GOP.
  2. Momentum for voting process reform. Any government official who now tries to shorten early voting or voting hours will be laughed out of the room. If activists stay focused on these issues (we could help), I’d venture that at least one state changes its laws so that the person(s) overseeing elections does not hold an elected position. On the downside, this is less likely to happen in states that really needs it.
  3. (Late add.) The overall youth vote was up again this year. 18- to 29-year-olds made up 19% of voters. Over the four presidential elections I’ve voted in, I’ve seen a rhetorical sea change from the one-off “here’s who represents youth interests, so vote for x” appeals to the way more effective “why the eff aren’t you voting?” social pressure appeals. As in, there’s been some success in turning voting from a decision about your future (something youth tend to be terrible at) to something you just do. The proof, however, will be in the off-year pudding.

Chris Peterson, Comparative Media Studies grad student and Civic research assistant:

the culture wars are over. this has been said before. it may be said again. but it is impossible to look at an election in which akin and mourdock lost what should have been favorable races; in which multiple states democratically passed gay marriage and medical marijuana; in which the candidate overwhelmingly supported by white men lost just as overwhelmingly; it is impossible to survey this landscape and not conclude, 20 years later, that the buchanan insurgency inexorably recedes.

pat buchanan once famously wrote to nixon that the Republican Party could cut the country in two and be left with the bigger half. Now, they’re stuck with the smaller, with no clear path to grow again.

Ethan Zuckerman, Director:

  1. Nate Silver was right, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Yep, he’s probably a witch (http://isnatesilverawitch.com/) and he’s a terrific commentator, but the real story is that polling’s gotten accurate enough that campaigns know with a very high degree of certainty the few votes in disputed counties that they’re fighting for. The paucity of real dialog around the campaign primarily reflects that this isn’t a campaign to persuade the majority of voters, but to sway a very small (and very centrist) group. Our political discourse suffers from the incredible attention paid to swaying this small group of voters and the little discourse focused on swaying the electorate as a whole.
  2. What happened to Citizens United? One of the dominant pre-election narratives was that unlimited campaign donations would shift the field for Republicans, particularly in senate and house races. While the right retained the House, they lost a number of close and hotly contested Senate races. Commentators like Matt Bai have suggested that the focus on Citizens United was too narrow – the political process has been deeply corrupted by campaign spending for years, and CU simply calls attention to a system that’s already badly broken. (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/22/magazine/how-much-has-citizens-united-changed-the-political-game.html) It will be interesting to see if there’s momentum to challenge CU in the courts, or whether it’s a major discussion point around Supreme Court nominations.
  3. While we’re at it, what happened to the Internet transforming politics? In 2004, there was excitement around Dean and participatory governance via the internet. In 2008, there was enthusiasm about remix and cultural activism, and about grassroots donations. We didn’t see much of a media narrative around the internet and presidential politics this year – is that because the ‘net is now so mainstream, we don’t feel compelled to talk about it? Or have we let go of the notion that participatory media is going to substantially alter a process that seems deeply attached to broadcast media?

Ed Schiappa, Comparative Media Studies, Visiting Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies:

I am noting the rather historic news of 4 states voting in favor of same-sex marriage after 32 straight defeats in previous state elections.  I credit this to two factors:  The continuing rise of young voters (who tend to support same-sex marriage) and the fact that the heavy reliance on fear appeals by opponents of same-sex marriage apparently has run out of steam.  People just aren’t buying fear appeals anymore, and the religious arguments aren’t compelling outside of the Bible Belt.

Sasha Costanza-Chock, Assistant Professor of Civic Media:

  1. Don’t lose momentum on the fight against voter suppression. In the runup to this election, we built powerful coalitions of legal advocates, civil rights groups, reporters, and participatory monitoring projects (for example see http://www.thenation.com/authors/voting-rights-watch-2012 + http://videothevote.org); the danger now is that this energy and attention will dissipate. We should push to follow through on legal and other challenges to voter suppression laws and tactics, not wait for the problem to rear its ugly head again during the next electoral cycle.
  2. This: –> “Five Race and Gender Justice Lessons Learned from this Marathon Election” http://colorlines.com/archives/2012/11/gender_justice_for_the_next_four_years.html

Rodrigo Davies, Comparative Media Studies grad student and Civic research assistant:

I felt that all the energy and resources the campaigns spent on their rapid rebuttal accounts (on twitter) was fairly ineffectual, since those debates about facts were so quickly overtaken by memes like Big Bird and Binders Full of Women. Perhaps the campaigns could look at trying to extract pithy memes of their own around the issues and rapidly display those? The Obama scored a few wins around iconic shareable images (like the most retweeted tweet of all time) but I felt that neither campaign managed to connect those energies and strategies to substantive issues.

Stephen Suen, MIT undergrad in Comparative Media Studies:

To provide a counterpoint to Rodrigo’s point, I’d argue that we did see inklings of some meme-based campaign strategy—the two that come to mind are Obama’s Romnesia speech (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8BBEXB1Wf9c) and Romney and GOP ads built around Obama’s “you didn’t build that” line (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/events/you-didnt-build-that). In both cases, the memes didn’t originate per se from the respective campaigns, but they did show an awareness of these political memes as well as some measure of effort to further exploit/circulate them.

Rodrigo @ Stephen:

Good point – I think you’re right that those examples could be called the very early roots of meme-based campaigning. I suppose I was making the point more that the balance (in social media at least) seemed a little too skewed in favour of factual accuracy-based campaigning rather than developing compelling messaging that exploits the medium (though that is slowly beginning to happen).

More reactions to come. In the meantime, what’s your take? Or your take on the takes above?