As the elections campaign season for the upcoming presidential elections between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney picks up in the United States, the Department of Political Science, in collaboration with the American Center, New Delhi, conducted a symposium titled “Panorama of 2012 US Election: Making Sense of it” to discuss the American political process, and to look at the race for the American presidency from an Indian perspective. The symposium took place at the Department of Political Science on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012.
The speakers for the event were Professor K.P. Vijayalakshmi, Centre for US Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University; Professor Badrul Alam, Department of Political Sceince, Jamia Millia Islamia; and Dr. Uma Purushothaman, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
Mr. Donald Maynard, the Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer, the US Embassy New Delhi, was the moderator for the symposium.
Prof. K.P. Vijayalakshmi
Prof. Vijayalakshmi began her talk by saying that as a teacher of American Studies she has spent her professional life studying, teaching and anaylysing the United States on various courses and therefore she looks at the process and goes beyond the headlines because “to become an expert in area studies, one needs to look beyond the headlines”. However, she said, “strangely, elections are all about headlines.”
For the outsiders, there is not much difference between the candidates “because once the campaign and election season are over, they are all going to do the same,” she stated. “The incumbent advantage is what we all think about. Somebody who is a president has a better chance of having a good record because he has an eye on his second elections. So nobody does something good for karmic good sense. You want to win the next election; you whip up support for it. That is a political human being. This is the general understanding,” she continued.
Prof. Vijayalakshmi also looked into the question of ‘new minorities’. “The original idea of minority was dominated by our understanding of the Blacks The new minorities are the Latin Americans or the Spanish-speaking Americans. Now they have overtaken the Blacks. So how do we look at this question of minorities now? Is it going to be a competitive thing? But what we’ve understood is that Obama won handsomely with them also,” she explained. Talking about other demographic groups in the US that had voted for Obama, she said that it is very well possible that those groups would go and vote for him once again in this election. So where exactly is the real challenge for Obama? “In one word: Economy,” she stated. Referring to the two wars inherited by Obama from former President Bush and the 2008 economic crisis and recession, Vijayalakshmi pointed out “the defining and polarizing messages that divides the two candidates that are standing for elections in the US.”
“Both candidates want to take America on different paths. They are not saying the same things,” she said as she drew out the different approaches of the candidates towards the matters of taxes, outsourcing, China, immigration, promotion of democracy in the Arab world, and US-Russia relations.
Prof. Badrul Alam
Dr. Badrul Alam, on the other hand gave an overview of three aspects of the process; namely, the nominating process, the Electoral College, and the important issues and challenges in 2012 elections.
Starting with the nomination process, he briefed about how the Democratic Party chose Obama for a second-term and how Mitt Romney beat the other Republican contenders to be the presidential candidate from the Republican Party. “A few weeks ago, Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan from Wisconsin as his running mate. In American elections, it is usually the President’s prerogative to choose the running mate. So it is Romney-Ryan versus Obama-Joe Biden,” he said.
Event though America is widely known as a two-party system state, he said, “not many people know that there was a Communist Party in America which was very active and vibrant in many elections since the Second World War. There are also parties like Justice Party, Peace Party, American Independent Party etc. But those parties did not make it. So eventually, it is Romney versus Obama.”
“The campaign is all about the Electoral College; about who can get past 270-plus,” he said. “This year there will be four debates. Three presidential and one vice-presidency debate and they are very carefully spread across different states,” he pointed out. He briefed about the scheduled dates and venues for the debates. Elaborating upon the Electoral College, Alam explained that “In the US, as we all know, there are 50 states. Each state represents certain specific number of people in the US Congress. Going back more than two hundred years ago, as part of the great compromise, the small states were given the compensation of the upper chamber, which is the US Senate where every state has two members.” Explaining that the US Congress has 538 members of which 438 are from the lower house and 100 are from the Senate, he said, “If you divide 538 by 2, it would be 269. So you must need 270-plus. In case of a tie, it is the lower house that votes again.”
Dr. Alam also looked into the subject of popular votes versus the Electoral College. “People who have less popular votes have managed to get 270-plus at the Electoral College,” he said. This often leads to mixed reactions. He further looked at the role of the swing states, Third Party including women, Blacks, Asians, Indian Diaspora, and October Surprises, etc, concluding with Yogi Berra’s famous quote — “It ain’t over till it’s over.” “Suspense will continue and linger for a while,” he concluded.
Dr. Uma Purushothaman
Dr. Uma Purushothaman looked into the foreign policy issues in US elections and the Democratic and Republican positions on these issues. “Many studies, over the years, have shown that foreign policy does not determine voting patterns in the United States,” she said. She also said that foreign policy has shaped US elections only twice in the last five presidential elections, the first time being the 2004 elections that happened right after 9/11 and the second time in 2008 during the economic crisis. In most part of her talk, she examined either the Republican’s foreign policy or the Republican criticism of Obama’s foreign policy. “Romney won’t surrender America’s leadership in the world,” she said.
In reference to US-Russia relations, she said that “Romney’s position seems very cold war-ish and he has promised to reset the ‘Reset’.” While Obama wants more or less stable relations with other countries, “Romeny portrays himself as a tough guy,” she said.
In conclusion, she contended that even though there are issues of foreign policy, “for 50 per cent of voters, jobs and economy are major issues of elections.” “Foreign policy does not form as important a criterion as the economy,” she noted.
Wrapping up the symposium, Mr. Donal Maynard said that “campaigning in the US is a science. The candidates are targeting the advertising and getting that one per cent advantage is what they are shooting for.”
He concluded by stating that “most Americans are not following foreign policy in terms of the presidential election. It comes down to what Bill Clinton’s advisors told him in 1991 when he was first campaigning for 1992 elections, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ “
“If Americans wake up on November 6,” he added, “and they think one of two things, if they think I am better than I was four years ago or if they are optimistic about the future, they’ll vote for the incumbent. It doesn’t matter if it is a Democratic or a Republican, they’ll vote for the incumbent. But if they wake up that morning and they think I’ve lost my job and I see no prospects or if a factory has closed down, then they are going to think about change.”
Watch a six-minute Youtube video of Donald Maynard give his concluding remarks on the symposium: