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Voices from the Inside
SAS Professors, Pollsters, and Pundits Weigh In on the 2004 Election

Americans have absorbed a lot since President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry began campaigning in earnest over the summer. An improving job market indicates that economic recovery may be near. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal gave the nation a lasting black eye. Worries about terrorism have reemerged with the discovery of Al Qaeda plans to attack major financial buildings. With the presidential campaign in full swing, we asked SAS professors and politically involved alumni to riff on the election. They spoke candidly about each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, how they are approaching the issues, and what they must do to win in November.

Frank Luntz, C’84 | Pollster Frank Luntz was an adjunct professor at Penn from 1989 until 1996. Since forming the Luntz Research Companies in 1992, he has written, supervised, and conducted more than one thousand surveys and focus groups for corporations and politicians. A wordsmith who crafted the Republicans’ Contract with America in 1994, Luntz will be conducting focus groups on MSNBC after the candidate debates.

“ If I were advising Bush, the first thing I’d tell him is to change his ad campaign. I would tell him to remove the in-studio effects and replace them with real people and real sound. Right now, it lacks human emotion. It reminds me of a song from the 1980s, Cars by Gary Newman. There isn’t an actual instrument in the entire song. It’s all synthesizer. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Cars was the only hit Gary Newman ever had.

People want the real thing. They want drums; they want guitar; they want piano; they want voice. They want context to their music, and they want context to their politics. Beating your opponent over the head does provide facts, and it does provide information, but it doesn’t provide that human context.

Kerry has his own issues. Did he throw away his medals? Or were they not his medals? Or were they his medals, but he didn’t throw them away? Or did he throw them, but it was more of a toss? The public expects a candidate to say what he means and mean what he says. But it looks like John Kerry has more faces than Mount Rushmore. For all the bad news that the president’s had to endure, this is one reason why Kerry hasn’t pulled away.”

Thomas Sugrue | Sugrue, the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Endowed Team Professor of History and Sociology, studies American political and social history in the twentieth century, and more specifically, the relationship of voters to national politics and public policy. He is an award-winning teacher and the author of several books. His next, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Unfinished Struggle for Racial Equality in the North, is under contract with Random House.

“A real issue for each candidate is maintaining the support of his base while simultaneously playing to the undecided voters who are essential to winning the presidency. That requires walking a fine line between not being too partisan to alienate undecided voters and not being so moderate so as to risk a lack of turnout by those who are crucial to success.

Take Bush’s position on homosexual marriage. Because the constitutional amendment didn’t stand a chance, he was able to lob a softball to his base while not taking a great risk that this issue will bite him back. The fact that he took a stand likely will not have a big effect on swing voters, and it may energize conservatives who are feeling alienated by Bush’s nation building and disregard of fiscal conservatism. By October, the president has got to move center. Because he’s been governing pretty far to the right, it’s going to be difficult for him to reposition himself.”

William Martin, W’72 | Martin is the co-founder and chairman of Washington Policy and Analysis, an advisor to utility companies that are directly affected by U.S. energy policies. He was a special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and senior advisor to Bush/Cheney 2000. Presently, he is leading a United Nations working group to develop energy options for North Korea.

“Bush has a record, and it is a respectable one. He did not have a record against Gore, and in this regard I think Bush is in a pretty strong position now compared to 2000. And while Gore was known, Kerry is having trouble getting traction.

Kerry’s international leanings are com-mendable, and I believe in his ‘multilateral’ approach. In the end, it is nice to have a decisive president working hand in hand with the international community. This was the secret of Reagan. He listened to other leaders—and then told a joke, which relaxed the meeting. Reagan won the Cold War, but it was not an individual effort. It was a relay effort with other leaders joining him to take out communism. Both Kerry and Bush could learn from Reagan—and even Clinton, who had some of the same positive attributes.

Bottom line? I believe that George Bush will win this election. In many ways it is his to win or lose. Kerry is a contender, but many votes will be cast for or against Bush. Therefore, I don't think Bush should let up or change his direction; just say, ‘Here I am; this is what I have done. If you like it, vote for me. If you don’t, well, that is your choice. I’ve done the best I can.’ ”

Kenneth Baer, C’94 | Baer was the deputy director of speechwriting for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and runs Baer Communications, which provides speech-writing and editorial services to political and corporate clients. An occasional contributor to Washington Monthly and other publications, he is the author of Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton.

“There are two things a challenger needs to do to win a presidential election. The first is to convince the American people they need to hire somebody else, and that case has been made. We’ve lost thousands of jobs; we’re stuck in a mess in Iraq, and America is not safer today than it was four years ago.

The second thing is to convince Americans they need to hire you. John Kerry is beginning to tell the American people how he’s going to keep them safe and keep America strong in the world. To be the president of the United States, you have to meet the threshold of being commander in chief. Once that’s established, you can lead the nation on the economy, taxes, jobs, and other issues.

I would advise John Kerry not to under-estimate the president. Kerry must find a message and find out what he’s about and stick to it. Working on Al Gore’s campaign in 2000, I don’t think we had a consistent message, and I think we underestimated Bush. And I would tell Kerry not to take any vote for granted. That lesson has been well learned by the Democratic Party.”

Diana Mutz | Mutz, the Samuel A. Stouffer Professor of Political Science and Communication, does research on public opinion, political psychology, and mass political behavior, with a particular emphasis on political communication. She is the author of Impersonal Influence: How Perceptions of Mass Collectives Affect Political Attitudes, which won the Robert Lane Prize for the best book in political psychology by the American Political Science Association.

“What bothers me every election year is criticism about how campaigns are becoming increasingly negative. People forget that campaigns were quite negative in the past. Candidates have been flinging mud at one another forever. One advantage that we have now is that there’s at least some degree of accountability through the press, whereas in the past their accusations would go unchallenged. The idea that negativity is new and unique in contemporary American politics just doesn’t hold.

Thanks to television, many more people are likely to hear about a negative attack when it occurs. We certainly know that more people have access to news media than ever. You don’t even have to be literate now to get information, and yet at the same time, we live in a highly literate society. So negativity isn’t new; it’s just hard to avoid during an election year.”

Jefrey Pollock, C’93 | Pollock is founder and president of Global Strategy Group, a research and communications firm that advises the Democratic National Committee. He was one of MSNBC’s first on-air commentators and recently moderated focus groups for ABC’s This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts. When not consulting, Pollock is a lecturer in international and public affairs at Columbia University.

“ Certainly the situation in Iraq has not gone well for the Bush campaign. At the same time, you’ve got an economy that seems—on paper—to be recovering and in some places doing quite well. That’s normally good for the president, but Bush doesn’t seem to be able to capitalize on it. So you’ve got these mixed signals out there.

There’s an overarching theme of security that Americans are thinking about. There’s security of the home and security of a job. There’s security of finances as it relates to paying for things like healthcare and prescription drugs. At the end of the day, voters are going to ask themselves if they feel more secure in each one of those areas. There’s the classic Reagan question, Are you better off today than you were four years ago? But now it may be, Are you more secure today than you were before September 11?

Meanwhile, Kerry and Edwards are talking a lot about jobs and healthcare and how to insure people. That’s going to be a critical component: Who do people feel best represents them on the issues that they care about? Who do you trust more? Who do you think is better to handle the economy?”

— Joseph McLaughlin

Copyright ©2004 University of Pennsylvania
School of Arts and Sciences
Updated September 17, 2004