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Cover Story


Faculty probe key issues they’re watching in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.

Campaigning in 140 characters

By Herbert Lowe, journalism professional in residence

Midway through the venerable Sunday talk show Meet the Press the morning after Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney announced U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate in August, host David Gregory called it “the first VP pick in the age of Twitter.” Gregory also said “the social platform really lit up” because of the choice and presented viewers with tweets from both sides of the political spectrum.

Throughout the same month, The Washington Post urged visitors to its website to suggest ways the presidential candidates should be using Facebook, Twitter, etc. “Which candidates or campaigns are using social media most effectively, and how are they using it?” the Post asked. “As a voter, what kind of social media campaign would make you want to interact with a campaign? Is there anything politicians could learn from the business world about how to use social media? Who could be using it better — and how?”

The Pew Research Center seemed to wonder the same things. It released a study, also in August, concluding that President Barack Obama’s campaign held a distinct advantage over Romney’s in its use of digital technology to communicate directly with voters. The study found, however, that neither campaign used social media, well, socially. That is, they almost never commented on or retweeted something from mere citizens.

Times sure have changed. Most of us are too young to remember watching John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon spar in their televised debates — the biggest events of the 1960 presidential campaign. Then, television was the new frontier. These days, citizen journalists, nonprofit advocacy groups, political action committees and others use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google, Storify, LinkedIn, etc., to engage with a multitude of “friends,” “followers” and “connections” about whatever is the biggest event of the past five minutes.

So much has happened since the Obama campaign seized upon social media and email en route to winning the White House in 2008. Who can argue that the 24-hour news cycle is not now the 24-second news cycle? Or that the new news cycle affects any notable election?

Technology of the times

What hasn’t changed is that political candidates strive to use the technology of the time to push out their 
messages as unfiltered as possible. Campaign organizers are happiest when their standard-bearers engage voters during choreographed events.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I favor the article, “Ten Ways Social Media Can Improve Campaign Engagement and Reinvigorate American Democracy,” written by Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. West’s first observation: Given that politicians often disagree not just on interpretations, but also on the facts, people are using their social networks as “trust filters.”

West also wrote that grassroots networks generate ideas and force candidates to answer questions they would rather not, and that social media connects the public with its leaders in ways that create greater responsiveness and accountability. He called for embedding social media commentary in news coverage — a la Gregory’s approach on Meet the Press — to add more diversity of voices in the political dialogue.

“There is no reason why 2012 should not be an engaging election,” West wrote. “With the issues we face in the areas of budget deficits, health care, education, energy and foreign policy, we should use digital technology to involve people in the campaign.”

So what if all West suggested happened? Would it make a difference? We would hope so. But does a candidate’s social media activity during an election influence voters? And does online buzz generated — via blog posts, news sites, video and image sites, message boards/groups and tweets — necessarily translate into more votes?

In April, the social media research organization NM Incite of New York reported that it reviewed four significant races in the 2010 midterm elections — for U.S. senate in California and Florida and governor in Maryland and Ohio. In three of the races, NM Incite found the candidates most frequently mentioned on social media won.

Which party generated the most buzz? 
NM Incite found equal social media conversation about Democrats and Republicans when it measured 50 days’ worth of data from all four races. The company also pointed out that each party won two of the races examined.

All of this is well and good. But my journalism DNA leads me to believe that traditional media — and its mandate to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comforted — remains the surest and best avenue for voters to make the best choices on Election Day. There’s no doubt, though, that traditional media cannot simply rely on old ways to do its job.

The Poynter Institute in Florida is just one organization teaching journalists how to use social media for political reporting. Mallary Tenore wrote last year on that social media gives “journalists a way to see how politicians and campaign staffers are interacting with voters and sharing news. And it has helped them find local voters and get a better sense of what their audience wants in election coverage.”

Voters most want — indeed, deserve — genuine interaction with those who seek elected office. Considering the Pew Research Center’s finding that the presidential candidates don’t retweet or post comments, I offer the following: If Obama could hold the first-ever Twitter Town Hall from the White House in July 2011, he should spend an hour answering voters’ questions via tweets from wherever he wants while seeking re-election in 2012. Romney should do likewise. It’s risky, yes, but the rewards could be huge.

Herbert Lowe, Jour ’84, the journalism professional in residence in the J. William and Mary Diederich College of Communication, is a former newspaper reporter who teaches students how to tell stories across multiple platforms: text, images, audio, video and social media. He is a past president of the National Association of Black Journalists.

What’s the fuss about “dark money”?

By Dr. Amber Wichowsky, associate professor of political science

In January 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a controversial decision that overturned longstanding campaign finance restrictions on corporations and unions. While critics focused on the 5–4 decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, news outlets paid less attention to the court’s separate 8–1 ruling to uphold disclaimer and disclosure laws that require political committees to identify who paid for their ads and file public expenditure disclosure statements with the FEC.

Attention quickly turned to the issue of campaign finance transparency, however, as outside groups took to the airwaves in the 2010 national midterm elections. Examining campaign finance filings with the FEC, the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen reported that although nearly 100 percent of outside groups revealed their donors in the 2006 election cycle, fewer than one-third did so in 2010. Similar statistics have been reported in this year’s elections.

How — despite rules mandating transparency — have the identities of some donors remained secret? In brief, groups have been able to take advantage of loopholes in the rules. For example, nonprofit groups are not required to register with the FEC as Political Action Committees as long as their “primary purpose” is not political. Some Super PACs have also constructed clever funding structures that allow them to attribute a portion of their contributions to nonprofit organizations rather than to the individuals, corporations or unions who gave to the nonprofit in the first place. And it should be noted that groups were already taking advantage of these loopholes in 2008, long before the heavily criticized Citizens United decision.

Disclosure in advertising

Given this context it is worth examining the Supreme Court’s logic in upholding disclaimer and disclosure requirements. Since the late 1970s the court has provided several rationales for these requirements, specifically citing the government’s compelling interests in deterring corruption, enforcing campaign finance limits and informing voters. But in recent cases, the court has relied almost exclusively on the “informing voters” argument. Writing for the majority in the separate 8–1 ruling in Citizens United, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued:

“The First Amendment protects political speech and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

When asked in a recent interview with National Public Radio why he supports disclosure laws, Justice Antonin Scalia responded: “To evaluate speech intelligently … it’s good to know where the speech is coming from. Or, put another way, it’s important to know ‘who’s telling me this.’”

I am not a constitutional law scholar; my areas of expertise include campaigns, elections and voter behavior. But I was drawn to the Supreme Court’s assumption that knowing who stands behind the message puts voters in a better place to weigh the merits of claims made in a 30-second commercial.

Political scientists have shown that voters use shortcuts, such as group cues, party labels and endorsements, to make informed political judgments in the absence of detailed information. Yet even though groups are required to attach disclaimer statements and contact information to their ads, the innocuous names of Super PACs, 527s and 501(c) groups provide voters with little information about the interests behind the message.

Is going negative a boon or a bomb?

Consider these two groups that aired controversial ads in Nevada’s 2010 U.S. Senate race. One group, Latinos for Reform, urged Hispanics not to vote in November, saying Democrats had not delivered on immigration reform. Although in the ad it appears as if the group supports reforms that would provide a pathway to citizenship, it was individuals and organizations generally opposed to liberalizing immigration laws who funded the ad. Another group, Patriot Majority, sponsored a radio ad that sounded very much like a Tea Party-backed attack against the Republican candidate but paid for it with labor union money.

In response to the increased anonymity in political advertising, congressional Democrats have tried to pass legislation that would require the top five funders of campaign-related ads and the amounts they contributed to be listed within the ad. Justin Levitt, associate professor of law at Loyola Law School Los Angeles, argues for a “Democracy Facts” label — similar to the Nutrition Facts and Drug Facts labels on consumer products — that lists the total number of contributors, the top five donors and the proportion of support received from the top five donors.

But would any of this really make a difference? That question guided my latest research (co-authored with Dr. Conor Dowling, assistant professor of political science at the University of Mississippi). We prepared to answer this question by conducting an experiment using a political ad that ran in the 2010 national midterm elections. We enlisted 1,213 participants and 
assigned our participants to one of several treatment groups. Participants in our control group received neutral information about a U.S. congressional race. Among the other treatment groups, some participants were randomly assigned to watch an attack ad from that race. Others watched the ad and then read a news article discussing the donors who paid for the ad. Another treatment group watched the ad and then read a news article emphasizing that the group that paid for the ad kept the donors’ identities secret. Finally, some watched the ad and then were presented with a “Democracy Facts” label similar to (but not the same as) the one discussed above.  

We looked at whether participants in the treatment and control groups differed in how they evaluated the candidates in the race. Because our participants were assigned to their groups by the flip of a coin, we were confident that any differences would be attributable to the treatments themselves and not to differences among our participants.

We found participants who were shown the “Democracy Facts” label about the donors to the group were more supportive of the attacked candidate than were the individuals who only watched the ad. However, we also found greater support for the attacked candidate among participants who read a news article emphasizing the group’s “dark money,” or funds used without disclosure. Our findings suggest that voters do take note of campaign finance information in one form or another. The trick — and a question that remains for future research — is whether voters connect the dots between campaign finance information and the attack ads they see on television. And, of course, the effects of any change to how campaign finance information is presented in political ads may erode over time as voters tune out that information.  

So much is up for debate

Although we were initially concerned with examining the Supreme Court’s logic that campaign finance disclosure informs voters, another criticism of anonymity in political advertising is that it gives candidates a free pass to “go negative” in a campaign. Negative ads can be effective, but there is always a risk that the candidate will be punished for being too negative. In another experimental study, we looked to see if candidates escape this backlash effect if a benignly named group sponsors the attack ad.

Our results were resoundingly clear: Though the candidate was punished a bit for sponsoring a negative ad, the exact same ad sponsored by a group produced no such effect. We also found that disclosing campaign finance information about the group reduced some (but not all) of this advantage.

With the 2012 presidential election in high gear, outside groups continue to play a large role in what voters hear over the airwaves. These groups have also taken the lead in sponsoring negative ads. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, there was a 1,600 percent increase in ads sponsored by outside groups in the Republican primaries between 2008 and 2012; more than 80 percent of group ads aired in the presidential race as of late-August were negative.

The increase in outside group involvement in campaigns raises a number of questions. Political scientists continue to debate whether negative ads depress voter turnout or do more to inform voters about the issues. But the increase in anonymous spending also raises new questions about accountability in campaigns and the effectiveness of the current campaign finance disclosure regime. Although many questions remain unresolved, no doubt the sheer volume of negative ads in the 2012 election will give us an opportunity to examine these issues in greater detail.

Dr. Amber Wichowsky is an assistant professor of political science. Her teaching and research specializations include urban politics, public policy, public opinion and electoral behavior.

What the law school poll foretold

By Dr. Charles Franklin, director of the Law School Poll and visiting professor of law and public policy

The Marquette Law School Poll was created in January 2012 as part of the Law School’s public policy initiative. In its first eight months the poll interviewed more than 8,000 Wisconsin voters on several hundred questions. It predicted the winners and closely matched the vote margins in the Republican presidential primary, the Democratic primary for governor, the recall election and the Republican Senate primary. If “getting the votes right” is a fundamental goal of polls, then the Law School Poll successfully passed that threshold. But that is not the only or even the most important purpose of the poll.

The poll is most importantly a mechanism for bringing the voices of the public into the discussion of politics and policy. Carefully designed polls are the only mechanism for enabling a representative sample of the public to have their say on issues and express their views of candidates before going to the voting booth. The reporting and discussion of the poll in turn is a way for voters to learn what their peers think without the bias inherent in talking only to friends and fellow partisans. The goal of polling is to help the public see itself as well as to express each individual’s views.

Here are three ways the Law School Poll demonstrated some important facts about public opinion in Wisconsin that might not have been obvious from casual conversation but which revealed something fundamental about Wisconsin voters.

Gas prices

Gas prices are a fairly “objective” political issue. In March, gas prices rose sharply for several weeks to $4 or more per gallon before falling off, at least for a while. In our March Law School Poll, we asked, “Is the price of gas something a president can do a lot about or is that beyond a president’s control?” In Wisconsin, opinion divided evenly: 46 percent said a president can do a lot, while an equal 46 percent said gas prices are beyond a president’s control.

But Republicans and Democrats had sharply differing views: Two-thirds of Republicans said a president can do a lot about the price of gas, while two-thirds of Democrats said the opposite, a president can’t control gas prices.

Or so it was in 2012.

However in May 2006, when the CBS News Poll asked this same question as gas prices spiked during the Bush administration, the partisans had opposite theories of presidential control of the economy. Then, three-quarters of Democrats were convinced a president could control gas prices while less than one-half of Republicans thought so.

The data illustrate strikingly that our ability to perceive gas prices and interpret presidential responsibility for them is a plaything of partisanship. When it is “our guy,” we absolve him of blame, and when it is the “other guy,” we heap the responsibility upon him. But just a few years later, with a different president, we come to exactly opposite conclusions. Perhaps an awareness of how powerfully partisanship plays with our views might warn us to consider our evaluations 
a bit more cautiously.

Political conflict

The Wisconsin recall process and election brought unprecedented levels of party polarization to the state, along with exceptionally high levels of political involvement and activity by many citizens. Our data showed several important results, but it was the interpersonal consequences of political conflict that produced the most-striking conclusion.

In our May Law School Poll, just before the Wisconsin recall, more than one-half of respondents said they had talked to other people and tried to show them why they should vote for or against a candidate. That is a significantly higher rate than is usually found during election campaigns — 30-something percent vs. 54 percent found here — reflecting the intense involvement in the recall. But we also found a side consequence: A full one-third of the public said there was someone they had stopped talking to about politics due to disagreements over the recall. We also found that the percentage that had stopped talking was virtually identical for Democrats and Republicans.

The data illustrate that participation is the foundation of democracy, but it is not without personal cost.

Polarized but not on everything

Some issues that have large majority support are associated with Democratic leaders, and other issues with equally large majority support are associated with Republican leaders. For example, substantial majorities oppose cuts to spending on education or health care, while at the same time large majorities support increased contributions to pensions and health benefits by public employees and a requirement of photo identification to vote. If voters were perfectly polarized by party, we would see these and all other issues split about 50–50. Instead, we see that some “Democratic issues” command broad support, while other “Republican issues” are equally popular. Despite the current polarization, there remains a number of issues that appeal across party lines, some to the advantage of Democrats and others to the advantage of Republicans.

The Marquette Law School Poll provides an instrument for measuring and understanding how public opinion affects politics. Each party holds some winning cards and some losing cards. The fall campaign and the governing that will come afterward are chances to see how well each party plays those cards.   

The Law School Poll initiative was created by Law School Dean Joseph D. Kearney as a forum for wide-ranging, nonpartisan discussion of issues facing Milwaukee and Wisconsin. In 2012, Dr. Charles Franklin, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, joined Marquette as director of the Law School Poll.

Longing for common ground

By Christopher Murray, visiting instructor at the Les Aspin Center for Government

On the morning of Nov. 7, either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama will wake up to the increasingly unenviable task of president of the United States. President Obama has had four years to become accustomed to the grueling nature of the job. If Romney wins, he will no doubt quickly discover that governing the United States — while certainly always a difficult assignment — has become virtually impossible.

What seems to be making the presidency such a thankless job is a function, I argue, of two forces. The irony is that both of these forces are, in and of themselves, positive.

First, consider the electorate that will go to the polls in November. As reams of demographic data show, the United States is becoming increasingly diverse across a range of variables: race, ethnicity, income, education level, religious affiliation, language, etc. In a course I taught this past summer on presidential campaigns at the Les Aspin Center in Washington, D.C., I recommended that my students familiarize themselves with the 2010 census. The picture the census provides is a fascinating mosaic and a testament to the notion that our country is indeed a melting pot. The difficulty with this image, however, is that as the diversity of the country increases, so do the range of issues, beliefs and policy preferences being brought to bear on our political system. To navigate this landscape and create a coalition of voters that will propel them to the White House, Romney and Obama have taken positions on difficult issues. No doubt, some of these positions will prove challenging to implement after the election. 

A second force complicating modern politics is the rapidly advancing technology that allows this increasingly diverse electorate to mobilize and petition the government. Individuals and groups now have the ability to instantaneously organize and communicate their feelings to elected officials. Like the growing diversity of the country, this is in many ways a good thing. The functioning of a healthy democracy requires that its politicians be accessible, responsive and accountable to the people who elect them. The question I ask, though, is whether this access comes at the expense of deliberation and sound judgment. As many people who have worked in the office of an elected official can attest, it often seems impossible to make a decision on an issue without being bombarded from all directions by emails, phone calls, blog posts and twitter messages in support or opposition to the elected official’s latest move.

As a result of these factors, I fear the United States is becoming increasingly fragmented and divided. Beyond being divided into the two main partisan camps of the Democratic and Republican parties, people now have multiple ways to express themselves politically. Our political identities are shaped by who we socialize with, where we live and work, what media we consume, and numerous other factors. Because we now have more choices available to us, and instantaneous means for connecting with each other, we are able to self-select into our own communities of like-minded thinkers. Rather than conversing or debating honestly, more often than not we simply re-enforce our own beliefs and filter out information that challenges our thinking. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find areas of common ground — not because common ground doesn’t exist but because we’ve walled ourselves off from those who might lead us to it. To make the compromises that are necessary to produce policy for the whole country, people first must be able to recognize how other people view the world. Increasingly it seems as if this empathy is elusive. 

This might seem an overly pessimistic view of the American political process, but I believe there is a path forward. One of the things I most cherish about my Marquette education, and which has driven my work at the Les Aspin Center, is that it forced me to rigorously question the world around me, constantly reflect on my observations, and proceed with a realization that there is much out there that still needs to be understood. After nearly 20 years spent living and working in our nation’s capital, I’ve come to conclude that the three most rarely heard words in Washington are “I don’t know.” It is only when we pursue knowledge with an intellectual humility that we allow ourselves to consider perspectives, beliefs and ideas that challenge our preconceived notions and assumptions. When we realize that we might be wrong, we make it easier to find what’s right. As our country gets larger, grows more diverse, becomes increasingly mobilized and more highly interconnected, each of us has a responsibility to look at the world through as many lenses as possible. If we do so, it will be much easier to find the common ground that has recently eluded us on so many issues and problems. It will also make the job much easier for the next U.S. president.

Christopher Murray, Grad ’95, is coordinator of student affairs and visiting instructor at the Marquette University Les Aspin Center for Government in Washington, D.C.


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