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Inside American Politics
Allison Reid, NYU Florence Student
La Pietra Dialogues
November 30, 2014

This past weekend marked another successful conference with La Pietra Dialogues as the Inside American Politics event brought together some of the brilliant minds influencing American politics today. Over the course of six panels, students and guests were able to discuss the current political environment facing the United States, and debate topics such as the effect of the recent midterm elections and the prospective candidates for the 2016 presidency.

The conference began with a panel titled The Media’s Role in Voter Decision-Making, where former ABC News Chief Capitol Hill Correspondent and former Director of Communications for the White House Office of Health Reform in the Obama administration, Linda Douglass, moderated the impressive discussion between: Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for the New York Times; Betsy Fischer Martin, President of Fischer Martin Media and former Senior Executive Producer and Managing Editor of NBC News political programming; Stephanie Cutter, founding partner of Precision Strategies, CNN contributor, and former Deputy Campaign Manager for the 2012 Obama campaign; Todd Harris, the media and communications strategist for Senator Marco Rubio; and David Kochel, founder of Redwave Communications and Redwave Digital, and Senior Advisor to the 2008 and 2012 Romney for President campaigns.

Linda Douglass started the conversation with a straightforward question: Did the media have a real impact on this midterm election? Todd Harris began by acknowledging that the media played a role, but insisted that it was not in a way the public would expect; he explained that, on a national level, the media sets the agenda and ‘narrative’ of the elections by choosing which issues and appearances to cover. Both Stephanie Cutter and David Kochel agreed, however, that the nature of midterm elections means that most of the coverage was done by local stations. Kochel noted that “local television is where most people are getting their news about this election”, while Cutter added that national media doesn’t “tune in” until November, due to crowded news space covering crises such as Ebola and the Islamic State.

Douglass then shifted attention to the modern phenomenon of social media, and prompted the panel to respond to how it changes the way politicians campaign and make campaign decisions. Jonathan Martin recognized that “there is an increase of voters getting their information not from the newspaper every morning, but by scrolling through their newsfeeds”. Todd Harris joined in by mentioning that the United States is becoming an increasingly polarized country with regards to politics, and he credits at least part of this to the “technological polarization in the way we see our media”. He understands that more and more people are tuning into programs that reflect their personal views, and Betsy Fischer Martin agreed with this notion that, even though the political center is expanding, partisan media is on the rise, and people don’t necessarily want to invest their time to hear both sides of an issue. However, Stephanie Cutter, speaking on behalf of the Obama campaign, credits social media as a useful tool to generate information, labeling it as “single-handedly the most effective way to not only reach our followers, but the friends of our followers” due to its ability to change the technical and political context of campaign information into more colloquial and understandable terms.

The second panel, The Midterm Results: What Can We Learn?, was headed by Steve McMahon, who is the co-founder of Purple Strategies, LLC, and a Democratic strategist and public affairs consultant. This discussion also included Todd Harris and Stephanie Cutter. Additionally, we heard from: Maria Cino, Vice President for the Americas and US Government Relations at Hewlett-Packard; Kiki McLean, a leading public affairs and political strategist, and veteran of six presidential campaigns; and Joshua Tucker, Professor of Politics at New York University, co-Director of the NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab, and co-author of The Monkey Cage blog at The Washington Post.

When Steve McMahon asked what the panel felt was the biggest surprise about the recent midterm election results, there seemed to be a general consensus that the sheer numbers were unexpected. Kiki McLean noted that voter turnout was extremely low, but that the Republican win was due to the fact that republican voters were the ones who turned out. Maria Cino and Joshua Tucker both supported McLean’s response - and added that while it was not surprising that the Republicans had won control of Congress, analysts did not anticipate such a high number of seats going to the Republican party.

Maria Cino also claimed that the environment of the 2014 midterm elections was a surprise, and posed the question: Does experience really matter? According to her, these elections took place in an environment of “fear, anger, and hope”. Stephanie Cutter agreed, saying that “any candidate running on pure accomplishments is going to lose” because some people don’t connect with accomplishments. Josh Tucker described one of the best predictors of an election - especially a midterm election - as presidential approval ratings. Often times, he notes, midterm elections reflect dissatisfaction with the president.

When prompted as to why the president’s approval rating is so low, Kiki McLean attributed it to the public’s feeling of insecurity. Todd Harris explained that the belief in the ideal of working hard to provide a better life for your children no longer exists. Stephanie Cutter describes the nation’s insecurity - namely, job and financial insecurity - stems from the reality that what immediately impacts people’s daily lives are the issues that they routinely find most important. However, according to Harris, the bottom line is the fact that it’s “hard to get people fired up about an intellectual idea”, such as Obamacare, where its benefits are not immediately tangible.

The conversation of the third panel of the day, Money and Messaging in The Wake of The Supreme Court Campaign Finance Ruling, was moderated by Dale Hemmerdinger, chairman of Atco Properties and of The Hemmerdinger Corporation. The panel consisted of Kevin Madden, partner at Hamilton Place Strategies in Washington, D.C. and Senior Advisor to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, Joel Benenson, founder and CEO of Benenson Strategy Group and Democratic political strategist and pollster in both the Obama and Clinton administrations, Stephanie Cutter, Betsy Fischer Martin, and David Kochel.

Mr. Hemmerdinger’s first question was to the point: What is money? Every panelist seemed to agree that money was out of control, a threat to democracy, but here to stay. Kevin Madden stated that money has the ability to significantly influence campaigns and we’re seeing a shift in this influence to a handful of individuals who are able to donate large sums. This, according to Stephanie Cutter, is why the key to money and politics is transparency. The use of ´dark money´ threatens such transparency and, therefore, democracy, according to Joel Benenson, when donors don’t have to be disclosed to the public. Benenson was adamant about the fact that, “if we’re going to have a free and open press and meaningful campaigns where candidates can talk about issues that matter to voters, we have to get away from these zillion dollar campaigns with dark money”.

A question from the audience raised a related question: Politicians spend about 70 percent of their time campaigning, but only five percent of Americans can contribute to a campaign - how does this affect how the average American is represented in a campaign? Stephanie Cutter was quick to point out that President Barack Obama’s average donation for his presidential campaign was less than 25 dollars. She claimed that these small donations from individuals, and not large sums from super PACS, gave the people a piece of the campaign and made them feel invested in something larger than themselves. This engaged many at the local level, whereas campaigns running on five million dollar checks make the pool of participants very restrictive.

Joel Benenson reminded everyone that, even if a small percentage of citizens can afford to donate money to a candidate’s campaign, all can vote. The key in winning elections, more so than raising money, is getting the average American to believe that a candidate can help them. If a candidate can make a connection with the average American, he or she will vote for that candidate regardless of whether or not he or she was able to donate to the campaign efforts. David Kochel explained the strong correlation between a candidate’s success in a campaign and its finances, but notes that a strong base of smaller donations correlates to stronger public support.

Thursday’s fourth and final panel was titled Legislating: Is There Hope for Bi-Partisan Compromise in a Republican Controlled Congress? and was hosted by Lynne Brown, Senior Vice President for University Relations and Public Affairs at New York University. The panel included Maria Cino, David Kochel, Kiki McLean, Steve McMahon, and Betsy Fischer Martin.

The discussion started with the panelists’ expectations for the newly-elected 114th Congress, as well as the outgoing “lame duck” Congress. Betsy Fischer Martin began the discussion by acknowledging that both Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell must appeal to an overall conservative caucus in Congress. Therefore, according to Maria Cino, President Obama is going to have to “share the basketball now”, because serious compromises will be necessary from both the legislative and executive branches if President Obama hopes to pass any legislation in his final two years in office. Kiki McLean also warned against the cyclical pattern that voters have fallen into: voters are removing officials because they don’t like them, which leads to high turnover rates and the continual flipping of Congressional control, and thus the perpetual reality that nothing gets accomplished.

Lynne Brown added that, if Congress cannot create a respectable legislative record, the institution might very well be on its way to irrelevance in the eyes of the public. She then questioned whether such a compromise between the Republican Congress and Democratic president could develop to protect the institution. Kiki McLean adamantly urged that both sides had to stop being so offended by the other - the Republicans are obviously interested in making sure that the Democrats don’t win the 2016 election, but President Obama also is not one known for flattering his colleagues. However, she was more optimistic that if both sides would “take off the horns, throw the scorecard out, and get over the past”, two years is enough time to make things happen. Maria concurred, saying that a compromise must occur that gives President Obama his legacy and gives Republicans a shot at the presidency in 2016.

A member of the audience challenged the necessity of a compromise, questioning why the Republicans have to do anything right now: Why must Republicans’ preferred policies be compromised if they can wait until 2016 for a Republican president? Steve McMahon dismissed this conclusion, reminding the audience that, despite majority control in Congress, Republicans still must defend twice as many Senate seats as before, including some seats that are in traditionally blue, or Democratic, states. Because the Democrats currently hold a large proportion of electoral votes, he cautions that it will be structurally difficult for the Republicans to hold on to the seats that they had just won. McMahon warns that the Republicans cannot survive on inaction, and should pass legislation that the president can sign in order to build their own resume of accomplishments. Maria Cino agreed that Republicans must prove that they’re capable of governing, while also appealing to a larger support base if they wish to sit in the White House in 2016.

Friday kicked off with the panel Issues and Polling: What Will Matter to Voters Between Now and 2016?. Joshua Tucker moderated the discussion, which additionally involved Kevin Madden, Maria Cino, Steve McMahon, Jonathan Martin, and Joel Benenson.

Joshua Tucker opened the talk with a previously addressed issue: the fact that, while a Republican win was not surprising, experts had not anticipated such high discrepancies between numbers in polling projections and the results. Joel Benenson pointed out that the media’s obsession with polls is driving more bad polling than good. There’s too much reporting on the “horse race”, with numbers that don’t matter as much as we’re led to believe. Kevin Madden agreed with Benenson, stating that media outlets are constantly throwing up polls, which really only represent “a snapshot in time” taken out of a larger context. Polls can change, particularly in the closing days of an election, and are often an inaccurate representation of the direction of an election.

Tucker inquired into another discrepancy from this past election, between the success of the Republicans in Congress and the country’s trend to support progressive issues, and the ability of voters to vote on issues alone. Steve McMahon recognized the general “disgust that surrounds decision-making in Washington”, as more and more states are adopting the mindset that, if Washington can’t get it done, then they’ll take it into their own hands and pass legislation at the state and local levels. He called this midterm election a “brake pedal election”. For many voters, the country is going in a direction that they’re not completely comfortable with, and even though dissatisfaction is aimed at Washington in general, and not Democrats in particular, the Democrats have suffered. To put this into perspective, McMahon explains that President Obama isn’t responsible for Ebola or the Islamic State, but these crises have made people scared enough to decide that they want to go in a different direction, which favored Republicans in this election cycle.

The question was then raised with regard to how Republicans planned to navigate the tension within the party between rising enthusiasm from the more conservative members of Congress and the rise in public support for progressive issues. Kevin Madden credited the Republicans’ success to its shift in campaign approaches: rather than focusing on what a candidate is against, which has traditionally been the method of the party, candidates highlighted the issues and reforms that they supported. He explained that it’s no longer enough for a candidate to say he or she is against taxes - one must show what tax reform looks like, and how it can be implemented and maintained. For Joel Benenson, the Republicans’ tactics, coupled with the Democrat’s insufficient efforts to create a greater contrast between the parties, had led to Republicans appearing more moderate than is necessarily accurate.

The conference’s final panel, The 2016 Presidential Elections: Who Will the Likely Candidate Be?, was headed by Joseph Pichirallo, chair of Undergraduate Film and Television at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and former reporter for The Washington Post. He was joined by Todd Harris, Kevin Madden, Jonathan Martin, Kiki McLean and Joel Benenson.

Joseph Pichirallo’s first question concerned the underlying qualities that must be present for a candidate to be elected President. Joel Benenson mentioned that, in this impersonal media world, candidates have to be able to connect to the voters on a human level. This connection must then be materialized through policies and an agenda that “strikes a chord” with voters. Kevin Madden agreed that personal connections are important, but that the presidency cannot be run as “an e-harmony.com election” - there needs to exist some form of balance between competence and connection. Speaking about his participation in Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, he recognized that the campaign was run from an angle too concerned with the candidate’s competence, and did not emphasise enough his connection with citizens. Instead of going out and speaking with individuals about their daily lives and aspirations, Republicans took concerns, such as the economy, and addressed them with statistics and values as if the country were in an economics class, instead of reducing uneasiness about job security. Todd Harris supported this reality, explaining the importance of candidates to remember that “voters aren’t voting ultimately with their heads, but with their hearts”.

The conferences was rounded off with the highly anticipated question: Who is running for the 2016 presidency? Unfortunately, none of the panelists could shed light on the uncertainties surrounding potential candidates. Jonathan Martin insisted that all of the potential decisions will be sorted out by the spring, but he and Joel Benenson agreed that deciding to run for President of the United States is a difficult decision that requires a tremendous amount of confidence; a candidate has to know why he or she wants to run, and must believe that he or she is the best possible person to fill the position.

 
 
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