Gary Wasserman on the 2008 US Presidential Elections

On October 5th 2007, CIRS hosted a luncheon at the Four Seasons Hotel in Doha in which Dr. Gary Wasserman discussed the 2008 presidential elections in the United States. Wasserman, who is professor of Government at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, spoke before a small audience of Doha-based diplomats and business leaders. The event was moderated by CIRS-Director Mehran Kamrava.

To start, Dr. Wasserman asserted that the next presidential election will depend on the moderate and swing votes and not so much on the traditional core Republican or Democratic bases. He explained that in the last election, the Bush campaign was able to secure core Republican votes through issues like terrorism and social conservatism, and by ignoring those issues appealing to moderate voters.

The next election is likely to focus on what may be called “moments.” According to Wasserman, these are brief, key phrases and sound-bites that are fed to the public by the media, the opposition or the candidates themselves, to create for the voters an idea of the candidate’s political agenda or personality. In other words, “moments” dispense of the need for a member of the public to understand an entire political doctrine from start to finish. Wasserman reminded his audience that the general public has daily concerns other than those pertaining to politics. Therefore, it is in need of these “briefs” in order to be able to keep abreast of the political situation and to understand each candidate’s general narrative, without having to follow too closely every move in the long electoral process.

Wasserman also noted that because today’s media-driven climate is “politically correct,” the public does not tolerate outright criticism of women and racial and ethnic minorities. There are, instead, particular “code-words” that are used by campaigners in order to compress an entire history of stereotypes into a single word or phrase without being directly confrontational and offensive. For example, Republicans discuss Hillary Clinton as a woman in order to reinforce traditional stereotypes of weakness and ineffective policy. Another example was the constant use of the word “crime” during Giuliani’s “zero tolerance” policy to stand in for the word “black,” so that the governing discourse would avoid being blatantly racist but would still have the desired effect. The group also discussed the attempt by Republican candidate Mitt Romney to frighten voters away from Barack Obama, when Romney confused Obama’s name with “Osama” on a live television broadcast.

Also important to consider, according to Wasserman, is the changing nature of demographics, especially in terms of minority voters, and the dramatic effects this has on traditional political stances. These minority voters are being paid attention to and are now being canvassed in a way unseen before in political history. Wasserman discussed the significant rise of the under-30 youth vote and how this meant that traditional politics will have to find new and inventive ways to accommodate this growing constituency. Not only are “minorities” now seen as important voters, but they are also regarded as an amalgam of differences and not as the block categories they were in the past. New media technologies such as the internet and micro-targeting capabilities now have increased the ability to distinguish populations into a variety of fragmented constituencies based on a great deal of defining factors, be they age-related, educational, economic, racial, or occupational.

Wasserman said he would like to see a shift in politics towards a discussion of the larger, more important questions about the role of the United States in the world in broader, more encompassing terms, instead of the current trend towards targeting specific populations and the use of advertising techniques. One such crucial issue is the question of climate change and the stance regarding energy consumption and expenditure. Wasserman was optimistic about future policies regarding the environment and was confident that the public is positioning itself ahead of its politicians. He pointed out the positive changes that certain state and local governments in the United States have made with regards to legislation in favor of energy-efficiency, of which building codes and environmentally-friendly mass transportation systems are prime examples.

As for predictions on the election’s outcome, Wasserman warned against reading too much into Senator Clinton’s front-runner status among the Democrats, especially if she fails to rein in high expectations of her campaign’s successes in the primary season. Nevertheless, barring major surprises and slippages by the Clinton campaign, according to Wasserman, all indications point to the Senator’s emergence as the Democratic candidate and, most probably, the next occupant of the White House.
 

Summary prepared by Suzi Mirgani, CIRS staff member.