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Panel Gives Assessment of Decision 2012

WBZ-TV news co-anchor Paula Ebben '89 was the moderator for "Decision 2012," with BC political scientists (L-R) Kay Lehman Schlozman, David Hopkins, Dennis Hale and Marc Landy. (Photo by Frank Curran)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Oct. 18, 2012

Four Boston College political scientists weighed in on the upcoming presidential election at a panel discussion last week, an event that offered historical perspective, statistical analysis, thoughtful speculation, the prediction for a finish similar to that of 2000 — and even a classic movie quote or two.

“Decision 2012,” held in Stuart Hall on Newton Campus, featured Moakley Professor of Political Science Kay Schlozman, Professor Marc Landy, Associate Professor Dennis Hale and Assistant Professor David Hopkins, with WBZ-TV news co-anchor Paula Ebben ’89 serving as moderator. The event was sponsored by the Alumni Association, Political Science Department and Political Science Alumni Network.

The four faculty members each gave a brief assessment of issues and trends related to the election: Schlozman discussed the evolution of presidential campaigns since 1960; Hopkins examined polling data on the election for the past few months; Hale provided an overview of the debate over national debt versus entitlements; and Landy presented a foreign policy take on the presidential race. A question-and-answer period with the audience followed.

The result was a chatty, brisk-moving evening in which the speakers sought to give their views in an informal, concise manner that appealed to political spectators from the most avid to the more casual.

Hale channeled movie star Bette Davis in summing up the difference of opinion on whether to maintain protection of government entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare — as Democrats propose — or to focus on reducing debt in part through significant cuts to government programs, as recommended by Republicans.

“The GOP path is unknown and scary; the Democratic path is known and scary. Fasten your seatbelts: It’s going to be a bumpy ride,” he said, paraphrasing Davis’ line from the movie “All About Eve.”

Hopkins reviewed the shifts in voter preferences for Obama and Romney since the party conventions and described how the Electoral College map was shaping up for the candidates. He said the race would likely turn on nine states and their combined 110 electoral votes, and that given the available polling data, Obama seemed to have an edge.

But the tightness of the race, Hopkins said, could well mean a repeat of the 2000 presidential election: Romney, like Al Gore, might win the popular vote, but Obama — like Bush — would capture the presidency by taking the Electoral College.

“I’d keep an eye on Ohio, Wisconsin and Nevada,” Hopkins said. “Obama is ahead in all of them at the moment, and they’re his firewall. He wins those three, he wins the race.”

To Landy, Obama and Romney represent “a clear-cut difference” in foreign policy approaches. Obama, he said, prefers “soft power” — distinguished by cooperative activities and leadership in “non-force activities” such as addressing poverty and climate change — while Romney’s “hard power” philosophy is grounded in building military assets that are strategically and tactically superior “and being willing to use them.”

Setting the current election year in historical context, Schlozman used the 1960 election as a point of reference, describing it as “our first modern campaign, the first TV election, with the first televised presidential debates.” Since then, she said, the party coalitions have changed significantly — Democrats lost white Southerners and incorporated African American and Latino voters, for example, while Catholics became swing voters and less reliably Democratic.

These and other factors have contributed to an increased polarization of the two parties, Schlozman said. Where in the past, the economy was the major dividing line between Democrats and Republicans, she said, “these days they differ on just about every issue: social — such as gay rights and abortion — immigration, the environment and foreign policy.

Schlozman also touched on developments in campaign finance and changes in the media landscape since 1960, especially the proliferation of cable TV news — “The joke goes, ‘If you’re watching Fox, you’re conservative; if you’re watching MSNBC, you’re liberal,’ she quipped, ‘and if you’re watching CNN, your plane’s delayed’” — and growth of the Internet and social media.

“The environment has changed dramatically,” she said.

The Q&A period included a discussion on the controversy over voter fraud: Schlozman said the most serious election fraud is committed by party organizers and elected officials, rather than voters; Landy said the low number of prosecutions for voter fraud is deceptive because such cases are typically difficult to pursue.

In response to a question about that night’s vice presidential debate, Ebben talked about how perceptions of candidates’ performances are shaped by party operatives and the media. Hale said the media’s influence can be “dangerous” — he had waited a few days to watch the first Obama-Romney debate, and despite media coverage that proclaimed a crushing debate for the president, “When I actually watched it, I didn’t think Obama did so bad.”

Hopkins criticized what he said was the media’s propensity to focus on candidates’ styles, rather than substance. “It’s disgraceful to turn a debate about policy into a theater critique.”