Final Lessons from the Campaign Trail

Sam Fulwood III delineates the four main lessons he’s learned this election season.

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Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the Mauldin Fire Station on Election Day, Tuesday, November 6, 2012, in Mauldin, South Carolina. (AP/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the Mauldin Fire Station on Election Day, Tuesday, November 6, 2012, in Mauldin, South Carolina. (AP/Rainier Ehrhardt)

As Americans go to the polls today, our great national experiment in self-governing refreshes itself. By the singular actions of millions of voters, our democracy will set its course and character for the next four years.

Getting to Election Day is always a struggle, however—not only for the candidates but also for the citizens who have endured months of contentious campaigning, aggressive advertising, perpetual polling, and mindless media speculation. Is that how our political process works—or doesn’t work? The answer to that question seems to depend on the reaction to the eventual outcome: Did your favored candidate win or lose?

At this point, as I write, I don’t know the answer. But I’ve watched this election cycle very closely and have come to a set of conclusions about our crazy way of choosing a president. Regardless of the outcome, here are my final four lessons from the campaign trail.

Lesson No. 1: No future candidate or party will depend exclusively on white men to win

Unlike any other elected positions in the land, the president and vice president of the United States are the only political leaders that every voting-age American has an opportunity to select. That’s very different from how the Founding Fathers established a system designed to allow only landed, white men the franchise.

While that system is no longer enshrined in law, some conservative candidates and their supporters seem wedded to that outdated notion. But the fact of the matter is that after this year, the declining percentage of white voters—and especially white male voters—in the U.S. electorate means they aren’t enough of a voting constituency to independently push a candidate into the White House.

By all accounts, this year’s election is razor close (which I question and will address in a moment). Still, the racial and ethnic divisions among voters are apparent in a recent Washington Post/ABC News national poll that found 60 percent of white voters supporting the Republican presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and about 37 percent of white voters supporting President Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee. Meanwhile, the article noted, several polls suggest the president will collect about 75 percent of the Latino vote and more than 95 percent of the black vote.

Election Day turnout among the faithful is the all-important factor.

Bottom line: From this election onward, the formula for winning the White House will require greater—not less—appeal to an ever-widening and increasingly diverse electorate.

Lesson No. 2: A media industrial complex confuses the electoral system

As I hinted above, I’m skeptical about just how close this election really is. All the media pundits tell me that’s the case, so why don’t I believe them?

I suspect the talking heads online, on television, and in print have a vested interest. They want to keep you, dear reader, involved in the horserace quality of political campaigns because it’s good for their business.

Every four years, as politicians beg for increasingly larger campaign contributions, a network of media concerns—from political consultants to advertising companies to network broadcasters to websites—wait with yawning pockets for the bonanza that comes their way.

By one count, the presidential campaigns and outside groups poured a record of nearly $1 billion into campaign ads this election season. NBC News reported that the final advertising spending in just the battleground states by all the campaigns and outside groups was:

  • $189 million in Ohio
  • $146 million in Virginia
  • $79 million in Colorado
  • $72 million in Iowa
  • $69 million in North Carolina
  • $56 million in Nevada
  • $40 million in Wisconsin
  • $40 million in New Hampshire
  • $22 million in Pennsylvania

All that money has a surprising impact on the public. No, it doesn’t help voters make up their minds about which candidate to support. Voters seem to be able to do that very well without being told. Indeed, in Ohio, where advertising was the heaviest, Greg Schreiber of Sunbury, Ohio, told a reporter, “All this attention doesn’t make us feel special. It makes us mad.”

Rather, the money for ads is a part of each campaign’s strategic plan to drive a specific narrative about the candidate, which in turn is designed to shape the coverage by pundits and media personalities. It’s a vicious circle of media talking to one another, hoping the public listens in and buys the message.

For the most part, I’m convinced, voters know fairly early in the process for whom they’re voting, and all the other noise gets tuned out—or just makes them mad.

Lesson No. 3: Mendacity is a political strategy that implies facts don’t matter

As one perceptive CNN story put it, “The presidential campaigns are blowing smoke so thick that some voters are having a hard time peering through it.”

Calling it a time-tested tactic, the cable network found a psychology professor who explained why politicians lie. “There’s a ‘trusting bias’ such that people are inclined to believe more than disbelieve,” he said.

I don’t think so any longer, though—not after the whoppers told during this year’s campaign. I won’t regurgitate any here.

James Warren, a former Washington bureau chief with the Chicago Tribune, made this point quite well in a recent essay on The Atlantic’s website. Quoting Colin Greer, an educator who runs the New World Foundation, a New York-based social justice organization, Warren wrote:

Of course, in the political sphere, we now have the cottage industry of fact-checking of the candidates’ every assertion or pregnant pause. It’s done by the respective campaigns and by an increasing number of media outlets. …

That would seem to make all our lives easier and constitute a salutary contribution to campaign discourse in a democracy. But if the campaign officials interviewed by Politico are correct — that ample disclosure of such fudging, even outright deceit, won’t have much impact — what does that say?

“Basic institutions have been usurped by the small lie,” said Greer. “A big lie is recognizable and has impact, but the small lie undermined the ability to believe in the truth, leads you to think there’s no such thing as truth.”

Demonstrated and repeated lying on the part of any one elected official or candidate seeking office corrodes public confidence in all candidates and undermines our democratic system. I pray we haven’t crossed the Rubicon on mendacity in politics.

Lesson No. 4: Voting is vital and Election Day is a relief

Yes! Enough said.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sam Fulwood III

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