With the national election only three weeks away, University students, parents and alumni gathered in Memorial Chapel on Friday for a Homecoming Weekend WESeminar entitled “Presidential Campaign 2008: Policy Rhetoric Meets Policy Substance.” The seminar featured presentations by University Government professors Elvin Lim, Douglas C. Foyle and Melanye Price, which were followed by a question and answer session.
Professor Lim began the seminar with his presentation on the 2008 presidential race. He described the current election as one of realignment, in which the traditional political alliances in America begin to shift.
“It is signally revealing that the Republicans, in a year where one would think that they would be trying to get the vote of independents, are fighting to try to maintain… their base,” Lim said.
He highlighted the fact that the current presidential and vice presidential candidates are all campaigning in states that Bush had won in 2004.
“This is the Republican party under siege… The Republicans are being forced to defend territory they never had to before,” Lim said.
According to Lim, the 2008 election marks a series of great achievements for Democratic nominee Barack Obama. Lim highlighted Obama’s successful nomination as the first biracial candidate, as well as his ambitious efforts to make inroads into the South. Should Obama succeed, Lim insists that the meaning of “the solid South” and the nature of American politics will be transformed as drastically as when President Franklin Roosevelt redefined liberalism in 1932 and when President Ronald Reagan took control of the Democrats in 1980.
“On election night, look not to the West, but to the South and the Southeast when polls close,” Lim said. “Should Virginia turn, it shall be a very significant landslide victory for Barack Obama.”
Following Lim’s presentation, Foyle discussed the effect of negative advertisements in campaigns.
“There is a big controversy in political science about the effect of negative ads,” Foyle explained in an interview with the Argus. “The common knowledge is that negative ads undermine democracy by turning people off and making them disgusted about politics, that they drive up negative attitudes about opponents… and get you to win elections.”
In his presentation, however, Foyle argued that there is no evidence proving that negative ads have any significant effect on perceptions of democracy, nor do they guarantee a candidate victory.
“Negative ads are not a magic bullet, even if they are treated as such by people who run campaigns,” Foyle said in his presentation.
Foyle’s portion of the seminar featured a number of shocking, negative ads from 1964 to 2008. From the current campaign, he showed two 30-second clips attacking Republican nominee John McCain and a 1-minute clip attacking Obama.
In the final presentation, Price discussed the issues of race and gender in the 2008 election. She criticized the media’s rhetoric on the topic of race, and considered the idea of a “race-neutral” campaign. While the earlier stages in the presidential race saw fairly lively debate in the media about whether African-Americans would vote for Obama, Price pointed out that his victory in the South Carolina primaries, in which over 50 percent of voters were African-American, made the matter of voters and race less contentious. She expressed dismay at the fact that, after the primary, the media seemed almost unanimously decided that African-Americans would vote for a candidate of the same race.
“[The media’s new view took] away the ability [for an African American] to be seen as a critical voter,” Price said. “I think that might be one of the greatest disservices in the way that racial minorities were treated in this election.”
She also saw Obama’s race-neutral approach to his campaign—that is, his avoidance of issues that might be seen as racially charged—as indicative of societal restrictions that might suppress issues affecting racial minorities.
In her discussion of the role of gender in this year’s election, Price focused on the media’s treatment of both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. She noted their use of gendered terms in describing the candidates, such as “shrill” and “nagging,” and discussed the vice-presidential debate and how it revealed society’s inability to deal with the issue of arguing with a woman without appearing sexist or condescending.
On Palin’s actual qualifications, however, Price expressed somewhat different sentiments.
“If you use motherhood as a credential, do we have the right to question how good you are as a mother? If you say, ‘I’m a mother, that makes me qualified,’ then I want to see [them raise] some Rhodes Scholars,” she said.
Following the presentations, the audience stayed for nearly an hour of questions directed at the panelists.
“It was a largely Obama crowd, and I did wish that there were more sensible questions from the Republican side, but it was good debate,” Lim commented afterward.