It was Oct. 4, just one day after President Barack Obama and his Republican opponent, Gov. Mitt Romney, came face-to-face in their first debate of the 2012 election season.
In the famed Starlight Roof ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, Franklin & Marshall College alumni spanning the classes of 1952 to 2012 had gathered. The more than 450 alumni, family and friends of the College had come together to discuss, debate, spar and reflect on a familiar topic for the F&M community: politics.
The energy in the room was palpable as groups congregated to sip wine and sparkling water and indulge in French cheeses, their conversation never straying far from the subject of the night. The group had wide and varied insights and perspectives on the state of the campaigns, and they had come to hear expert panelists assess the presidential race as part of “The Franklin & Marshall Forum on Presidential Politics,” a panel discussion among some leading political influencers, who also are F&M alumni.
The four-person panel comprised a former U.S. representative, the chief strategist for the re-election of George W. Bush, the late President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, and the general counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives under the late Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. And in the audience: hundreds of others with a strong interest and involvement in government and law.
“We have a vibrant community of alumni in the field of government,” said one of the event organizers, Aimee Achorn, F&M’s associate director of alumni relations. “It’s exciting to hear from our alumni who are so accomplished and who have a lifetime of experience to share. There is a lot of pride in the room.”
The evening was just one in a series of events and programs that provide an outlet for the political passions of the F&M community every four years, organizers said. With get-out-the-vote initiatives, panel discussions with F&M experts, student groups that mobilize for the political parties, the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and regional alumni events such as the forum on presidential politics, members of the F&M community have myriad opportunities to engage in the election process.
In an amplification of the College’s commitment to lifelong learning, the year of the presidential election is a time when lessons on critical thinking intersect with opportunities for assessment of the politicians who make decisions affecting the lives of F&M’s students and alumni in real and tangible ways.
The Waldorf-Astoria gathering was indicative of a remarkable legacy of involvement in politics, which, for many, begins on campus and extends throughout their lives.
Influential Alumni Offer Views
The College’s tradition of political activism spans the centuries, from it founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin and John Marshall, to students who graduate and secure jobs in the trenches of national politics.
William Gray III ’63, Kenneth Duberstein ’65, Stan Brand ’79 and Kenneth Mehlman ’88, the panelists at the Oct. 4 presidential forum, are four such alumni. Their panel discussion, which mirrored similar events in 2008, preceded a late October panel on the same topic in Washington, D.C.
Moderator G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and the Center for Politics and Public Affairs, began a two-hour discussion by asking the four panelists to agree or disagree with this assessment of the presidential race: “If President Obama wins re-election, it’s in spite of the economy and because of a good campaign. If Gov. Romney wins the election, it’s because of the economy and in spite of a bad campaign.”
As expected, the panelists had differing views.
“If President Obama is re-elected, it will be because of two things: a good campaign and also good demographics,” said Mehlman, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and campaign director for the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney ticket in 2004. “One of the reasons President Obama starts with certain advantages is, if you look at the Electoral College, a lot of states like Colorado and Nevada and North Carolina that were really not in play when I was in politics are in play today. The growth of Hispanic voters all across the country, but particularly in the Southwest, is something Republicans need to come to terms with.”
Mehlman, now a partner in a financial services firm in New York, said the Obama and Romney campaigns view voter sentiment differently, which could mean failure or success. Obama’s supporters liken their situation to 2004, when President Bush secured G. Terry Madonna, a second term despite a low director of the Franklin approval rating. Romney’s & Marshall College Poll aides believe “it’s more like and the Center for 1980,” when the public didn’t Politics and Public Affairs at F&M, want to re-elect Jimmy Carter but was unsure about Reagan. answers a student's question during a Sept.
Duberstein, a political 27 Common Hour consultant who was chief of panel centering on the staff for the late President presidential election. Reagan, agreed today’s voters are similar to the 1980s electorate.
“The answer for Ronald Reagan was [convincing voters] he was not who they thought he would be. Last night, what Mitt Romney did was get over the acceptability threshold,” Duberstein said of the Oct. 3 presidential debate. “We see him as an acceptable alternative to Barack Obama.”
Gray, the third-highest ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1979 to 1991, agreed Romney “achieved a level of acceptability” in the debate. But Gray wondered if the boost of support would last. He seconded Mehlman’s assertion that the GOP must appeal to the changing face of voters.
“This may be the last Republican hurrah on the arguments they have been using for the last 50 years,” Gray said. “The politics of 1980, they will not fly in 2012 in terms of the demographics.”
But Brand, a College trustee who served as general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives under Democratic speaker O’Neill from 1976 to 1983, said the Democrats need to step up as well.
“In the debate, Romney shed his skin as a right wing tea partier,” Brand said. “The Democrats need to come in and say, ‘It’s not a question of whether he’s capable or not ….The question is on the substance of what he’s saying. How valid is it given what he said during the primaries?’”
Many who attended the forum said they appreciated the exchange of ideas. “I knew F&M would give a good variety of points of view,” said Bruce Graves ’71, who works as a strategist for IBM. Paul Weinstein ’53, said he’s been involved in politics all his life and wouldn’t have missed the discussion.
“When I saw the list of speakers for this event, I wanted to hear what they had to say,” he said.
Mobilizing the Vote
Back on campus, discussions among Democrats, Republicans, Independents and undecided voters remain lively in the final days before the Nov. 6 election, even if the level of energy of this election season doesn’t quite measure up to the pace of the 2008 race. That year, the two new presidential candidates—Obama and Sen. John McCain— invested millions of dollars in television advertisements in Pennsylvania.
At the invitation of the nonpartisan advocacy group F&M Votes, McCain held a rally at F&M, while Obama stumped at the adjacent Buchanan Park. The result: Students turned out in force at the polls. In Lancaster City’s 9th ward, 4th precinct, all but 300 of the 1,500 voters who cast ballots were F&M students, said Nicole Hoover ’09, co-chair of the student-faculty-staff-run F&M Votes and the Department of Philosophy's academic coordinator.
“We almost tripled the number of voters in any other precinct,” Hoover said. “In the 18- to 24-year-old age group, typically one-in-seven vote.”
The College invited the candidates to visit campus this year, but Pennsylvania has not been considered a prime swing state in recent months. Still, voter registration drives started on move-in day as students arrived this fall and extended to events inside and outside the classroom. Many key issues hit home for students, such as access to higher education, the state of the economy and student loan debt, Hoover said. The proposed state law requiring that voters show photo ID, now in abeyance until after the Nov. 6 election, also remains a hot topic.
Van Gosse, an associate professor of history and co-founder and current co-chair of F&M Votes, said he is proud of the success of F&M Votes in mobilizing participation in the electoral process on campus. Students now primarily vote in one precinct, at the Alumni Sports & Fitness Center on campus.
F&M Votes posts signs in the College Houses instructing students when and where to vote. On Election Day, members staff the polls, serve coffee and doughnuts at Steinman College Center atrium and run through the dining halls yelling, “Get to the voting center now!”
Hoover, who joined F&M Votes as a student in 2008—four years after its founding in 2004—said developing the right to vote was empowering.
“You don’t leave F&M without a fiery passion for something,” she said. “Being a student here equips you, above all else, with the tools, power and confidence to go after your goals. For me, that manifests itself in this voting initiative.”
John Gandolfo ’13, a business major from New York, registered to vote during a registration drive at the College's Common Hour lecture series.
“I’m registered in New York, but I wouldn’t be able to get there,” said Gandolfo, a self-described Republican leaning toward Obama.
Students Active Through Political Groups, Classes
Much of the activism on campus is spurred by the work of student clubs and organizations affiliated with the major political parties. They hope to stir the political passions of classmates by encouraging them to take an active role in shaping national issues.
Jeff Kempler ’15, a Manaroneck, N.Y., native who is considering the government major, is head of F&M College Republicans. Coming from a self-described “staunch Democratic family,” Kempler started thinking about politics seriously around 2004, he said.
“When I was looking at colleges, I was mindful that as a Republican on a liberal arts campus, I might be only one of a few,” Kempler said. “But someone said to me, ‘It’s OK to be a young conservative here, and I’ve found that to be true.’ I always say, ‘Without the other side, politics would be very boring.’”
This year, aside from getting young Republicans energized for Romney, the group set up camp at Steinman College Center to educate voters about state and federal issues.
For the College Democrats, government major Wyatt Huppert ’14, is the president, in addition to being the organizing intern for F&M Votes. While his work with F&M Votes strictly is about getting out the vote, Huppert is working with the Democrats to educate voters about issues that affect them.
“There are a lot of informed voters at F&M,” he said. “Part of that is because we have such a strong government department, and so we have classes and academic programs that create informed voters. But there are key, critical issues that will affect students, such as the direction of the economy, student aid and health care. It’s absolutely critical to students’ lives that they pay attention and make informed decisions and vote.”
Several students said their classes in F&M’s government department keep them well informed of the policy questions being raised by the candidates. Connor Burns ’13, a government major from Haddonfield, N.J., has kept close watch on the issues through Associate Professor of Government Stephen Medvic’s “Campaigns and Elections” class.
“I think students on campus mostly are energized. The people I talk to are concerned about the voter ID law,” Burns said.
Caitlin Krutsick ’13, a government major from Bethlehem, Pa., also is in Medvic’s “Campaigns” class.
“I’m super-excited to be taking this class during a time when an election is going on,” she said. “We talk about things you don’t hear in the media sound bites. Going to school here has made me think about the issues more.”
Influencing National Discussion Via the F&M College Poll
Another way students and alumni—as well as faculty, professional staff and much of the public far beyond the College—stay informed about the political landscape is through the Franklin & Marshall College Poll.
Founded as the Keystone Poll at Millersville University, the F&M poll is the longest-running Pennsylvania statewide poll and serves as a research tool for scholars, think tanks and media. Madonna created the poll in 1991 and hired Berwood Yost as the chief methodologist, beginning a collaboration spanning more than two decades. The poll moved to F&M in 2003, and the name officially changed in 2008.
In addition to directing six to 12 polls per year, Madonna, who co-authors a syndicated column and hosts a local television show, provides analysis on voter sentiment about such issues as the popularity of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and the voter ID law.
“Terry’s role is to be out in front of the poll. He talks about it and contextualizes it,” Yost said.
Eight media partners, including the Philadelphia Daily News, Lancaster Newspapers, and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, use the poll results, as well as 1,700 media subscribers that include CNN, MSNBC and the Huffington Post, and 6,000 Facebook and Twitter followers. It’s not unusual to see the poll in political coverage in The Economist, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune. A poll-citing story by the Associated French Press recently appeared in news outlets in China, Singapore, Australia and India.
Chris Borick, a professor of political science and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, Pa., described the F&M poll as “in many ways, the most complete record of how Pennsylvanians think and feel and behave in elections.”
“When you look at the numbers that come out of the F&M poll, they always are looked at as being produced with the best methods available and with the most balanced and fair approach to public opinion,” Borick said. “It has become one of the most respected measures of public opinion in the state.”
Campus Waits for Election Day
With Election Day mere days away, members of the College community continue to consider the polls, discuss and debate with classmates, and reflect on the insights offered by faculty and alumni.
At a Sept. 27 Common Hour titled “Money, Ideology and Personality,” Madonna, Medvic and Associate Professor of Government Robert Friedrich considered some of the same issues as the panelists participating in the alumni presidential forums in D.C. and New York:
“To paraphrase how many people are talking about the campaign, ‘If Obama wins, it’s in spite of the economy and because of a good campaign. If Romney wins, it’s because of the economy and in spite of a bad campaign,’” Madonna said.
The economy should have been the No. 1 issue in the contest, but Romney’s message had been “muddled” Medvic said. “But the race is not over.”
Friedrich noted that the monthly job-growth rate will influence the race. Still, Friedrich suggested, most voters decided long ago whom to support.
“Usually, 10 percent are undecided at this point in an election year. This year, it seems to be even less,” he said. “The Democrats have come to see Obama in a positive way and Romney in a negative way, and the same on the other side.”
Whatever the results, F&M has played a key role in the outcome of the election, with influencers far and wide weighing in and exercising their right to be heard.
Stephen Medvic, associate professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College, explores Americans’ attitudes toward politicians in an upcoming book, “In Defense of Politicians” (Routledge, 2012). Here, he explains his motivations for writing the book and how the presidential campaign may affect our feelings about politicians.
Q: How did you choose the title of your book, and what do you hope people learn from it?
I wanted something a little provocative. Who in their right mind would defend politicians? I thought the title might make people curious to find out what the argument could possibly be. The title is also an homage to a brilliant book called “In Defense of Politics,” written 50 years ago by a British political scientist named Bernard Crick, which really influenced my thinking as a student.
I hope people learn several things from the book. First, that politicians are rational actors who respond to the incentive structure of our political system. And I hope people begin to judge politicians by their public actions and not by what we presume to be their “true” motives, which we can’t possibly know. Finally, I’d like people to come to see politicians as human beings who may be more ambitious than the average person—which, as it happens, is a good thing—but who otherwise share the same range of virtues and flaws that all human beings possess.
Q: Why do people dislike politicians? Are there specific events in history that led to this collective public opinion?
I think people have disliked politicians from the founding of the Republic. Specific events may make things worse for politicians at particular moments in history, but there is a general disdain for politicians in the United States. To some extent, that disdain is based on the egalitarianism that is inherent in democracy. It springs from the “leveling spirit” the founders feared, but that spread among the public quite early in the nation’s history. Of course, the public’s contempt for politicians is also the result of the American distrust of government. To a degree much greater in the United States than in other democracies, Americans are leery of government. Therefore, anyone in government is viewed with considerable suspicion.
Ultimately, I argue that our expectations for politicians, which are unrealistic and contradictory, shape our attitudes about them. We expect politicians, simultaneously, to provide leadership but to follow the people’s will; we want them to be more distinguished and successful than the average person, yet be just like us; and we want them to stick to their principles but also be willing to compromise. As a result of this “expectations trap,” as I call it, politicians can’t help but disappoint.
Q: As part of the research, you worked with F&M’s Center for Opinion Research to measure voters’ opinions of politicians. What questions did you ask, and what did you learn from the poll?
I was curious to know just how deeply the public held its anti-politician sentiment. One quick way to test it was to see if people thought any more highly of “elected officials” than they did of “politicians.” So we asked half of a survey sample whether they thought “politicians” were honest or dishonest, were more interested in solving problems or getting elected, doing what is popular or what is right, and are ethical or unethical (among others). Then we asked the other half of the sample the same questions about “elected officials.” There were no differences in the responses of the two groups. That suggests that people really do hold negative attitudes about those in public office and aren't just influenced by the word “politicians” and all the baggage that comes with it.
Q: How does a campaign influence the way we view politicians?
Campaigns are simply arguments about which direction the country (or a state or city) should take. There’s a lot at stake for the public in an election. Values and interests are being defended, and people’s lives will be affected by the outcome. In such a situation, the rhetoric gets hot, and there are times when one side or the other may step over the line, though where to draw that line is never clear. But I see that as an unavoidable byproduct of democracy.
Q: Are candidates as negative and dishonest as many people think they are?
People believe that candidates are too negative or that they lie about their opponents. When pressed, however, it turns out that most people think it’s the other side, not the candidates they support, who are lying and running all the negative ads. Occasionally candidates do stretch the truth. Today there are several fact-checking organizations that scrutinize nearly everything candidates say. As a result, it's easy to get caught in a lie. No campaign wants to spend valuable time defending itself against such a charge, and so few of them are purposely deceptive. But the two parties do see the world differently. Competing interpretations of how well particular policies have worked, or will work, are not true or false; they're simply different perspectives.
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