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First Forum of the year addresses election

By : Eric Coker

John McNulty, assistant professor of poltical science, speaks during the Binghamton University Forum on Sept. 24.

Models show that Barack Obama will be the next president, faculty member John McNulty said at the Binghamton University Forum on Sept. 24.

Based on factors such as the state of the economy and presidential approval ratings, the Democrat will end up with 53 percent of the two-party vote, McNulty told the Binghamton Club audience at the Forum’s first event of the new school year.

“Winning the popular vote by that margin makes it virtually impossible, mathematically, for him to lose the electoral vote,” said McNulty, an assistant professor of political science.

McNulty, whose work has been published in American Political Science Review and American Politics Quarterly, addressed what political science has to add to the 2008 campaign and began his talk by injecting humor into the serious topic.

“I’m all too aware that when the champagne goes flat at the election parties, no one will want to talk to me for three and a half years,” he said.

McNulty pointed out that there are many factors that make 2008 a unique election: expanded media coverage, thanks to three cable news networks;  the first election since 1952 not to have an incumbent president or vice president at the top of a ticket; the historic candidacies of Obama and Republican vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin; the longest election season ever; and the fact that John McCain is the second POW to be a presidential nominee (Andrew Jackson was the first).

But while political scientists can base predictions on real-life applications such as the economy, home states on the tickets and voter trends, they are having a hard time in 2008 with candidate-specific factors for Obama and Palin, McNulty said. There’s no history on which to base how voters will react to an African-American presidential candidate or a Republican, female vice presidential candidate.

“One data point isn’t data,” he said. “It’s an anecdote.”

There is one question that will play a major role in the next month, McNulty said: “To what degree does Sen. McCain, as the candidate of the ‘in party,’ have to bear the sins of the outgoing administration or take credit for its successes?”

McNulty also discussed the history and evolution of voter turnout.  The door-to-door method of pressuring people to vote faded in the 1960s as more people moved to the suburbs and political parties began using the television and telephone to mobilize.  Turnout then fell as parties became weaker and Vietnam War-era disillusionment set in.

Mobilization efforts came full circle, McNulty said, when political science studies showed that knocking on doors was effective. Parties later changed their behavior by turning to the recruitment of young people and unions to help mobilize voters.

“From these back-to-the-future mobilization techniques, we’ve seen increases in voter turnout over the past two election cycles and we’re expecting to set another record this year,” McNulty said.

Other insights from McNulty:
• Palin has similarities in résumé and combative style to former Vice President Spiro Agnew. “Everyone said ‘Spiro who?’” when Richard Nixon tapped the inexperienced Maryland governor, McNulty said.
• Research shows that a well-organized, enthusiastic base for Obama could actually help McCain with peripheral voters who are easily swayed by the other side.
• The Bradley Effect was not detectable in the Democratic primaries for Obama. The effect is based on former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s 1982 unsuccessful run for California governor. Polls showed the black candidate leading his opponent going into Election Day.

“Maybe one reason the Bradley Effect is going away,” McNulty said, “is that people are becoming more honest with pollsters.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08