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Professors analyze historic election

By : Eric Coker

How did Barack Obama win the presidential election?

Should Obama have won more than 52 or 53 percent of the vote?

Did John McCain do as well as any Republican would have?

What factor did the youth vote play in the election?

These are some of the questions that Jonathan Krasno, director of the undergraduate program in the Political Science Department, and John McNulty, assistant professor of political science, discussed with their classes after last week’s election.

The students in Krasno’s campaigns and elections seminar and McNulty’s voting behavior seminar, made up mostly of seniors, were enthusiastic about their role in the Obama victory.

“I lot of my shtick has been ‘Don’t get too excited about the youth vote. They never turn out,’” McNulty said. “I have to say I was wrong. Obama got you to turn out. It really carried him to victory.”

Krasno also highlighted Obama’s ability to reach younger voters.

“I think one of the things that was interesting this year was the effort to mobilize on certain campuses,” he said, stressing the work at battleground-state universities, such as Penn State.

The turnout effort was emphasized in both classes, with Krasno’s seminar examining voting percentages and returning to a persuasion vs. mobilization theme.

Krasno peppered his class with persuasion-oriented questions, such as Obama’s margin of victory: “Is six points really a big deal?” he asked, noting that Obama barely won states such as Ohio, Florida and New Mexico that John Kerry lost in 2004.

“If you begin with the assumption that any Democrat was going to win, given the economy and how President Bush is doing, it’s not clear where Obama’s brilliance really lies,” he said. “If it’s a 50-50 country, he gained two points and McCain lost four (over 2004 results). But we shouldn’t assume it’s a 50-50 country during an economic recession and one of the most unpopular presidents in the history of polling.”

But Krasno said it is unfair to suggest Obama should have won in a landslide similar to incumbents Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

“Sixty percent would’ve been difficult to get under the circumstances,” he said. “If Bush had been re-nominated somehow or if the Constitution had been suspended, perhaps.”

Krasno discussed with class members campaign gaffes made by McCain and said if Obama had made them, “these things would’ve been devastating.” But Obama succeeds by taking a defensive posture, never making a major mistake and ends up with a nearly flawless campaign performance, Krasno said.

“He succeeds by reassuring people over and over again that he is capable of doing the job,” he said. “But he’s not winning over 46 percent of the country.”

Obama was, however, mobilizing voters in battleground states. That surge proved instrumental, Krasno said.

The mobilization strategy was on McNulty’s mind, as he reminded class members of a Democrat who he said deserves much credit.

“Obama owes a lot to Howard Dean,” said McNulty, who kept the discussion flowing with jokes about Facebook and Twitter. “Dean showed the world how to raise money on the Internet. Then Obama perfected it. Howard Dean came up with the notion that Democrats have to compete in 50 states. And Obama competed in all of them.”

By campaigning in “red” parts of states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania with record amounts of money, Obama was able to cut into Republican margins and place McCain at a disadvantage, McNulty said.

“The public financing of presidential elections is as outdated today as the buggy whip,” he said.

McNulty went back to the days of the buggy whip when he drew parallels between the 2008 and 1896 elections. He said 1896 was a “re-alignment election” similar to 1932 or 1980, as Democrats faced economic  problems and were trounced by Republicans.

“What did the map look like?” he asked. “Most of the country was Republican with Democrats in the deep South and the Plains states.” 1896 was a mirror image of 2008, only with the parties reversed.

Both classes went beyond the presidential election.

McNulty gave students a brief lesson on redistricting, pointing out that the 2010 elections will be key in New York state. The state Senate has a Democratic majority for the first time since 1965. If the state Senate and governor’s office stay Democratic in 2010, the party will be able to control the re-drawing of legislative districts that occurs every 10 years.

Krasno’s class focused on various congressional races, as each of the 20 students was responsible for examining a contest ranging from newsworthy races such as recently convicted Sen. Ted Stevens’ re-election bid in Alaska to seemingly obscure races such as Nancy Boyda vs. Lynn Jenkins in Kansas’ 2nd Congressional District.

One still undecided race examined by the class was the U.S. Senate contest in Minnesota between Norm Coleman and Al Franken. Krasno expressed surprise that a state that elected Jesse Ventura would not turn to Franken, a former Saturday Night Live performer and writer, and told students the winner may not be determined until after they leave for winter break.

“If you think the Senate is a joke,” he said, “you might as well send a comedian.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08