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Political science professors lead discussion of coming election

Published: November 2, 2012, 5:37 pm ET
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Political science professors Ernest McGowen and Daniel Palazzolo led a forum to inform the campus community about the coming presidential election.

The discussion is the third Brown Bag event presented by the political science department this semester and took place from 12 to 1:15 p.m. in the International Commons on Wednesday, Oct. 30.

McGowen and Palazzolo structured the forum in a point-counterpoint format, covering the issues of forecasting models, the media “horse race,” campaign effects and the candidates’ current standing in the race.

Forecasting models are the process political scientists use to predict election results. These models use referendum quality, approval ratings and Gallup data to project results. “Most measure the economy and the incumbency factor or how long the party in office has been in power,” Palazzolo said. “It’s usually difficult to overset an incumbent who has only served one term.”

But the data used in forecasting is restrictive. “The issue with forecasting is that there isn’t a lot of data to go into the model,” McGowen said. “A model that explains why George Washington won may not be as effective in explaining why Richard Nixon won.”

McGowen then introduced the “horse race,” referring to the media battle that Americans see on television every day. “It’s our best snapshot on how particular social groups and demographics feel about the presidency,” he said.

Polls can show things that other measures cannot, such as abstract ideas about who is more in favor of the middle class or who you’d rather have a beer with, McGowen said.

The downside of this type of media coverage is that the constant updates and difficult-to-measure changes invite the media to distort what is happening, Palazzolo said. “You can look at who will win based on distribution of Democrats, Republicans and Independents,” he said, “but trying to forecast this election based on tracking polls all depends on what that sample looks like.”

This issue of media bias is complicated by the polarization of the media. “Whatever the sensational angle is, that’s what they’re going to take,” said Andrea Simpson, chair of the political science department. “Anything so you don’t change the channel. There are only a few entities that run all media outlets.”

The speakers then answered questions from the audience, which opened up the discussion to include the current election issues and candidates’ standings in battleground states.

“Prediction is a fool’s errand,” Palazzolo said. “Romney has enthusiasm on his side, and Obama has organization on his side.” Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania will be key states for the candidates to win, he said.

Presidential elections are portrayed as national, but are actually a series of statewide elections, McGowen said. “In battleground states, people say ‘what’s best for me?’” he said. “They feel that commonality.”

In response to the discussion of Ohio as a battleground state, audience member Caroline Moles, a senior, connected the Ohio senatorial race to the presidential race. “The candidate, Josh Mendel, mirrors what’s going on with Obama in the state,” Moles said.

Senior Natalie Perkins said she had made connections between the discussion and an election class she was taking for her rhetoric major. “It’s interesting to see political science take on the election and what the actual effect of campaigns and polls are,” Perkins said.

Before the event began, McGowen said one of his missions was to involve students in what was happening. “We want people to leave here more informed,” he said. “With myself and Dr. Palazzolo’s unique expertise, we decided to open up a forum for people to ask all kinds of questions they might have about the election.”

Josiah DelToro, a senior who attended the event, said it would have been more helpful to have understood the issues and effect of the media earlier in the process. “It’s difficult to say because it’s so late in the game and close to the actual election,” he said.

Simpson said she had been pleased with the number of students who came to talk about politics. “We’re a large major and department,” she said of political science. “So I think it’s important that we have a strong intellectual presence on campus through events like these.”

Contact staff writer Taylor Cloonan at taylor.cloonan@richmond.edu

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