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Three Takeaways from the U.S. Politics: Towards 2012 Conference
Carlos Estevez, NYU Florence student
La Pietra Dialogues
October 17, 2011

This past Wednesday, Republican and Democratic analysts gathered in Villa Sassetti for a conference about the 2012 U.S. elections. The event was hosted by NYU’s La Pietra Dialogues, which brings together academics and policy makers for conversations on current events. In attendance were republican analysts Christopher Caldwell, Bruce Haynes and Steve Schmidt. Democratic campaign experts Paul Begala, Robert Shrum and journalist Marylouise Oates.

Both Republican and Democratic analysts framed the 2012 U.S. presidential election as a two-way race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Certain alternative, albeit unlikely, scenarios were also considered. Caldwell suggested that a third party candidate could swing the race, most likely in favor of Obama. With potential candidates Chris Christie and Sarah Palin declining to run in recent weeks, the opportunity for a new Republican candidate has vanished. Rick Perry proved to be a fleeting front-runner in September. The analysts present agreed that his inferior performance at debates will cost him the nomination. All this leads to the sense that Romney is the inevitable candidate whom democrat Shrum called a potentially “formidable opponent.”

Even though the panelists agreed that Romney’s religion should not be questioned, they affirmed that it is already part of the debate. Oates proposed that Mormon voters could swing key districts towards Romney. On the other hand, Schmidt asserted that Romney’s religion would pose a liability. When asked about vice-presidential candidates there was a consensus that Romney would most likely choose Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida, but a clear rift between Democrats and Republicans occurred over Rubio’s effect on the Hispanic vote. Caldwell consented that certain groups such as Cubans and Puerto Ricans are unlikely to make unexpected swings, yet he remained confident that Rubio would help carry the Hispanic vote in Florida. Meanwhile, Shrum contended that Rubio will not swing the Hispanic vote, not even in his home state. This view stems from the alienation that many Hispanics feel from the Republican party on the issue of immigration. Caldwell instead sees immigration as the reason why Rubio will get the Hispanic vote, as a Cuban American he will be able to bring the Republican messages to Hispanics.

A recent poll from Purple Strategies, a bipartisan public affairs firm, provided good news for both Republicans and Democrats. If the election happened today, Obama would have a lead over Perry but would be slightly behind Romney. These results highlights Romney’s place as the clear front-runner who has a better chance of defeating Obama. Romney promoted these polls to the media because they give him a significant lead among independents. Democrats, on the other hand, see this three-point difference as essentially a tie when the margin of error is taken into account. Which means that even though unemployment remains high and voters are disappointed over healthcare and the economy, they would still give Obama 43 percent of the vote. Romney has been campaigning for four years and has not been as scrutinized as President Obama, and yet his most likely scenario at the moment is a tie with Obama. Overall these polls reveal a discontented electorate, which overwhelmingly disapproves of both political parties. This feeling of voter resentment and hopelessness will lead to a close election. This sentiment was echoed by both Republicans and Democrats on the panels, both sides displayed hope for their candidate but neither side showed confidence. When asked if the democrats would succeed in the elections, Oates responded “Some days yes, some days no.”

Democrats remain optimistic that from this point onwards Obama’s popularity will increase. In the past few months, Obama’s campaign has essentially been a referendum as opposed to an election because Obama cannot compare his views to those of another candidate yet. With Romney as the potential contender, Obama could begin to contrast his plans with those of Romney. A perception of Obama as a weak leader was echoed by American and European analysts. Begala called for Obama to focus on his character and to emphasize his background as someone who reached the American Dream.

Surprisingly, human rights and gender equality issues were off the table. Logically the conversation focused on the topics that voters care for the most, in other words the economy and taxes. Yet with the Arab Spring and human rights crises in countries such as Cuba, the U.S. president should take a bold stance on foreign crises.  According to Haynes, the winner of this race will be the candidate who can give trust back to the American people. But for the moment, the debates in the next year will give voters a choice and allow them, in the words of Begala, to choose “What kind of country do we want to be?”

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