BUIES CREEK - Noted political scientist and Harvard University professor Thomas E. Patterson began his keynote address of the Barden Forum Lecture at Campbell University on Wednesday night with three questions: 1.) What should we make of the 2012 U.S. presidential election? 2.) What does the presidential election tell us about American politics? and 3.) What does it suggest about where we’re going?
During a nearly hour-and-a-half talk and question-and-answer session before about 80 students, faculty, staff and alumni that included Campbell alumnus and former U.S. House of Representative Bob Etheridge, Patterson systematically answered each of those questions.
And he offered his overall takeaway from the 2012 presidential election: The U.S. is "a quite deeply divided” and polarized country, which makes governing “extremely difficult,” said Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who is regarded as one of the eminent political communications scholars in the U.S.
Here are pertinent, edited excerpts from Patterson’s lecture -- titled “The Elections of 2012: Reflections & Prospects” -- which he delivered in the Harris Teeter Auditorium inside Maddox Hall:
On what to make of the 2012 presidential election
It’s very difficult if you’re the “in party” to win the presidency with unemployment above 7 percent, and it was at 8 percent in 2012. If history had gone to form, Barack Obama would have joined Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush as one-term presidents. But it didn’t go quite to form. Perhaps there are simple explanations for it, and I think they all have credibility:
- The economic downturn was so severe that Americans . . . didn’t blame Obama as substantially as they might had if we had a more mild recession. . . .
- Romney was a deeply flawed candidate, and another Republican might have run stronger. . . .
- Hurricane Sandy came along about a week before Election Day, . . . and it gave the president the opportunity to act presidential and boost public support . . . .
But there’s another element of the 2012 campaign, and that’s party polarization. . . . We’re a quite deeply divided country, and we’re split about 50/50 with a slight advantage to the Democrats in a presidential year.
On the indicators that we’re deeply polarized
One of the most interesting indicators is the presidential approval rating. . . .As you expect, without exception, is that if a Democrat is in office, the Democrats think the president is doing a better job, and if a Republican is office, the Republicans are more likely to say the president is doing a good job. But what has been happening is that the gap in terms of what Republicans think and Democrats think is widening. Back in the 1950s the gap was about 20 points. It started to widen in the 1990s, and it has gotten wider with each succeeding president. Right before the November election, when Americans were asked if they approved or disapproved of the job the president was doing, 90 percent of Democrats said they approved, while 10 percent of Republicans said they approved. That’s an 80 percent gap. . . . That’s polarization.
On what polarization means for American politics
Our political system was designed . . . to encourage compromise and to get people to come to the middle. But we’re having difficulty doing that, and . . . what happens when you can’t get the parties to work together is that lots of things start to come apart. Look at the issues of American politics and ask yourself why is it that we can’t seem to come to grip with these issues. . . . The gap is so large that it’s very difficult to bridge that gap. . . . Look at what happened at the end of last month. Now they did avoid part of the fiscal cliff. They did reinstitute or keep in place the middle class tax cuts; but it had little much else going for it, and it certainly didn’t address the fiscal problem. Where are we in terms of our national spending and our revenues, and the balance between the two? That’s the issue. Think about some of the other issues we face: Immigration reform. . . . Gun control. . . . Are we going to do anything about it? Probably not, at least not in a substantial way. . . . I think it’s really very difficult to govern.
On what contributes to the polarization
Since Obama’s campaign, the Democrats certainly think they are in the driver’s seat. . . But when you look at the general picture, it’s not so much of a Democratic victory. The Republicans were able to hold onto the House of Representatives in this last election. How about governorships? Republicans hold about 30 governorships, and Democrats 20. . . . How about state legislators? The same ratio.
Republicans win mid-term elections. And what happens in the mid-terms is that a large part of the electorate stays home. We can get about 60 percent of eligible voters to the presidential election. But when it comes to the mid-terms, only about 40 percent show up. What do the 40 percent look like? . . . They are more affluent, they are more white, they are less young, they are less minority. I’m talking about people who look more Republican than they do in a presidential year. That happened for the Republicans in 2010. . . . And I think they’ll do that again in 2014, because that mid-term election is much better for the Republicans than a presidential election when you get more voters to the poll.
And when we look down the road, I think you can see this trend continuing. . . . We’ll see Democrats doing very well in presidential elections, and Republicans during relatively well, comparatively, in mid-term elections. That means as far as we can see, you can see stalemate and deadlock.
On how we break the stalemate and polarization
One possibility is that we’ll outgrow it. If we do outgrow it, that means the Democrats will be the party that outgrows the polarization. The Republicans invented base politics, in terms of thinking of these elections as turn-out elections -- of thinking of these elections as appealing to the base and not doing what has traditionally happened, which is focusing on the center and pulling in the undecided, swing voters. It worked pretty well in the 2004 election, but that’s not a good strategy if the demographics are running against you. If you’re the party that is older . . . if you’re the party that is whiter . . . well, guess what? Older people do fall out of the electorate, because they die, become infirm. And the white proportion of the population is shrinking. So it’s not a very good long-term strategy, because the Democrats are on the right side of the demographic equation. . . .
A lot of Republican leaders are thinking hard on this: How do we become competitive in the long-term?
On how Republicans can think long-term
What I think it will take for the Republicans to get out of this and think long-term is what it took the Democrats to get out of the problem they were in beginning in the late 1970s and clearly in the 1980s. People didn’t like very much what the Democratic Party represented. That was in many ways because the face of the party was all wrong; it was the face of the far left of the party. . . . Then Bill Clinton comes along and says we have to reposition the party, and he quite deliberately moved the Democratic Party back to the middle. In our time of chaotic politics, that’s what you almost have to do today, because that’s the way we think of politics and the way the media thinks of politics. [The Republican Party] needs a different kind of presentation.
On why that may not be enough
But even if those things happen, I think there is a structural mess that is going to make it difficult for us to address the problem of governing and polarization. Think for a minute about the nature of the political system. It’s designed for compromise, but there are parts to it, more recent, that don’t work that way. One is redistricting. Every 10 years we redraw our districts. And what do we do? We create safe Democratic districts and safe Republican districts. And what’s the importance of districts? The effects on the primary, not the general election.
Who turns out for primaries? Disproportionally, on the Republican side, it’s the quite conservative Republican side; and on the Democratic side, the quite liberal side. So redistricting tends to push the parties out to the wings from the center. . . .
And look at the money in American politics. . . . The problem with the money in politics is that it comes in from the wings. It’s not coming from the moderates aimed at getting more moderates into politics. . . . How much money comes out of the pro-life groups that go to the Democratic caucus? 4 percent, while 96 percent goes to Republicans. Pro-choice money, where does it go? The opposite: 96 [percent to the Democratic caucus] and 4 percent [to Republicans]. You need a lot of money in American politics to run for public office, and it’s holding them in place on the wings of their parties.
On his thoughts on the future of the American political system
I’m not all that optimistic. I’m a little pessimistic about the state of our politics. But I think the real story of American politics at the moment is the polarization. And I see this happening at the elite level; it’s happening at the public level. . . . We’re not going to change those institutions. We’re not going to get the money out of politics. We’re not going to get partisan redistricting out of the way.
But somewhere along the lines parties have to recognize that to govern in this system they will have to move to the center. And the incentive to do that is to lose. So I think that if the Republicans lose again in 2016, they are going to have to move back to the center -- and that will move the political system back on the track that it should be.
About Thomas E. Patterson: Patterson is the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. His most recent book, “The Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty (2003),” looked at the causes and consequences of electoral participation. His earlier book on the political role of the media, “Out of Order (1994),” received the American Political Science Association’s Graber Award as the best book of the decade in political communication. His first book, “The Unseeing Eye (1976),” was named by the American Association for Public Opinion Research as one of the 50 most influential books on public opinion in the past half century. He’s also the author of “The Mass Media Election (1980)” and two general U.S. government texts: “The American Democracy” and “We the People.” His articles have appeared in Political Communication, Journal of Communication and other academic journals, as well as in the popular press. His research has been funded by the Ford, Markle, Smith-Richardson, Pew, Knight, Carnegie and the National Science foundations. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1971.
About the Barden Forum Lecture: Begun in 1991, the annual lecture series is hosted by Campbell University’s Department of History, Criminal Justice and Political Science. It’s named in honor of the late Graham A. Barden (1896-1967). He was first elected to represent North Carolina’s Third Congressional District in the U.S. Congress in 1934 and held the seat for 26 years. He was a long-time chair of the U.S. House’s Education and Labor Committee.