Friday, March 28, 2008

Hoosiers for Hillary

As a social scientist, I spend a lot of time immersed in the "science" of politics. Every so often, however, I am reminded that I became a political scientist first and foremost because of my love of politics. I grew up in New Hampshire surrounded by the quadrennial election pageantry, and even spent a year and a half working on campaigns after graduating college.

This presidential election year is one of those moments that reminds me of how much I love politics and the American political system generally.

In May, I'll be moving to Bozeman to start my new position at Montana State. But right now I live in South Bend, IN. And Indiana is now, for the first time in a long time (some say 1968, but I say 1976) that Indiana has received this much attention in a presidential campaign from the major contenders. I've been telling my students to take advantage of this opportunity: go see the candidates, ask them questions, shake their hands. Although I have a number of projects I'd like to get finished sooner rather than later, I remembered that it was an opportunity that I--as a frequent commentator on elections and campaigns--should also not miss. It's one thing to watch the news, read the newspaper, and then form an opinion. It's quite another to take part in the political process personally, front and center.

This week, Bill Clinton attended Dyngus Day events at the Westside Democratic Club in South Bend. And today, Hillary Clinton spoke at Mishawaka High School. I attended both events as an observer of the political process to see if I could glean anything interesting about this election year.

I learned lots of things specific to Bill and Hillary Clinton. But perhaps more importantly, I learned something very special about this election year and the character of our American republic (notice future 206 students that I did not say our American democracy).

During Hillary's speech, she noted that roughly 20 percent of poll respondents indicated they wanted her to drop out of the race, 20 percent wanted Obama to drop from the race, but 60 percent wanted to let the nomination process to play out and to allow voters in other states to have their say. This line drew a positive roar from the crowd, which clearly was pleased to have a voice in deciding this year's election.

Some commentators have indicated that prolonging the nomination process will do harm to the eventual Democratic nominee and benefit McCain's campaign (for example, see Chuck Todd's piece here). Others have cited the Gallup poll that indicates roughly a quarter of Obama and Clinton's support will go to McCain should the other candidate win the Democratic nomination.

I'm not convinced that ending this nomination battle is the best thing for the country or, for that matter, the Democratic Party.

First, I was amazed at the turnout for the Mishawaka event. The location wasn't announced until late in the afternoon on Thursday (after the South Bend school district turned the Clinton campaign's request to visit Washington High School--check out the controversy this has generated here), and yet there were roughly 4,000 folks in the middle of a weekday in attendance. Granted, 1,800 were students, staff, and faculty, but this was impressive. One of the cardinal rules about voting is that people are more likely to vote when they feel their vote counts. Close races create excitement, they generate additional news coverage, and they provide the opportunity for additional political learning. As psychologists term it, close elections decrease the cognitive costs of political participation. How could this be bad for the democratic process?

Second, the focus on the Democratic nomination process has essentially removed McCain from the news cycle. As they say in public relations, all news is good news. A constant discussion and debate about the merits of Obama versus Clinton is not necessarily bad given that the candidates agree on so many of the issues. With Democratic issues and priorities dominating the political discourse, it might be difficult for McCain to shove his agenda onto the table come late summer. And I suspect that Democrats will rally around their nominee in the end, notwithstanding the Gallup poll results.

Third, the interest in politics that this campaign has been nothing short of tremendous. Many of my students have expressed cynical attitudes concerning politics and politicians. One thing I've learned is that a good cure for cynicism is actually visiting and meeting with politicians. Going to hear them give a speech at a rally and getting the opportunity to ask a question humanizes politics and political leaders for people. One of the things I talk about in my Congress class is Fenno's Paradox: the tendency for people to hate Congress but to love their Congressman or Congresswoman. There are many reasons why this is the case, but the obvious reason is people tend to know their individual member of Congress. Politicians are bad and corrupt and they populate Congress, but MY Congressman is a good guy. I know him, I voted for him, he works for us, and comes back to the district all the time.

The more exposure people get to our national leaders, I suspect the less cynical they will become about their leaders and politics more generally. For the first time in a long time, states that were "fly over country" on the way to fundraisers are seeing presidential candidates up close and personal. And this alone has to make them feel like the candidates are their own and not like the other politicians in Washington. The potential to rebuild trust and a personal bond with the next president is a precious and rare gift that can give our next president an incredible leadership opportunity. Nothing should stand in its way.

Let the campaign continue, say I! Enjoy it while you can. Soon, Montana will have its chance. I'm looking forward to seeing Montana matter, much as Indiana matters now.

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