The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

"The Direct Line" - Winter Term 2005

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Rockefeller Center Director Andrew Samwick provides commentary on a variety of issues in the Direct Line, which is published at the start of each term.


The election of 1952 was the last time that neither major party had an incumbent President or Vice-President at the top of the ticket. Looking forward to the2008 primary elections, it is very likely that we will find ourselves in that position again. Americans have an interest in making that primary system work—encouraging interesting people to run, allowing them to connect with the voters and constructively distinguish themselves from each other, and expecting them to stay in the race long enough to give everyone the opportunity to help choose their party's nominee. As a nation, we continue to be confronted by several institutional features of our elections that deserve further attention.

First, we struggle with the prominence of money in Presidential campaigns. Even after the McCain-Feingold Act, few would doubt that big money was conspicuous in this campaign. By the time of the 2004 national conventions, each of the two major candidates and their surrogates had more than enough resources to sufficiently disparage the other. The unevenness of campaign resources manifested in two places: the inability of more candidates to sustain themselves in the Democratic primaries beyond the first few contests and the growing gap between the two major parties and the possibility of a third party entering the campaign on a national level.

Second, concerns about the accuracy of the vote counting that were brought to the fore in 2000 have not been adequately addressed in the intervening four years. Some of the concerns pertain to new technologies for voting that do not leave a paper trail. Other concerns refer to voter fraud: eligible voters being removed improperly from the voter registration rolls and ineligible voters being allowed to register and vote. The accuracy of the vote in each precinct is a matter of national importance and warrants attention at all levels of government, particularly if we hope to spread democracy abroad.

Third, and most important, we are losing our national motif. While I was in grade school, the image of America as a melting pot was reinforced at every opportunity. I was taught that America was a nation where honest and hard-working people of every background could not just co-exist but also mutually benefit from an open and tolerant society. I still believe that is true, despite the now common portrayal of America as three islands of blue floating in a sea of red. As a nation, we must find ways to acknowledge our differences but focus on our common interests.

For the typical citizen, addressing these issues might simply be a wish list for 2006 and 2008. For the director and staff of a Public Policy Center, they are the templates for years of research, programming, and deliberation. Laying out the weaknesses in the current system is a first step for thinking about ways to improve it. At the Rockefeller Center, we will look to address these and other critical public policy issues in the upcoming years. We all have a stake in making the electoral process work for all of the people in the country.

Andrew A. Samwick is the Director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences, the Sandra L. and Arthur L. Irving '72a, P'10 Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College, and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. In 2003 and 2004, he served as chief economist on the staff of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. 
Since joining the Dartmouth faculty in 1994, his scholarly work has covered a range of topics, including pensions, saving, taxation, portfolio choice, and executive compensation. Professor Samwick has been published in American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Journal of Finance, Journal of Public Economics, and a number of specialized journals and conference volumes. He graduated summa cum laude with a degree in economics from Harvard College and received his Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He blogs about economics, politics, and current events.

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