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

Student Summary: “What Now? Post-Election Opportunities and Challenges”

Article Type 

We encourage students to submit summaries of Rockefeller Center sponsored and co-sponsored programs.  Read a student's account of a recent panel discussion featuring Professor Bafumi, Professor Fowler, and Professor Nyhan and moderated by Professor Wheelan.  See article about the event from The Dartmouth here.

This post-election panel was one of the best talks that I’ve attended at Dartmouth. Ever since election night, I’ve read the news, watched political shows, and talked to friends about what Obama’s reelection means for what lies ahead. I came into the panel expecting to hear many of the same thoughts I’d heard already, yet its insights were new and sometimes completely different from what you hear in the media. Hearing about the election from an academic perspective was so refreshing.

Moderator Charles Wheelan ’88 remarked on some historical aspects of the election, including the legalization of marijuana in two states and referendums on gay marriage in four. The panelists were three esteemed members of the Government Department, and they each gave brief remarks before taking questions from the audience (which was a mix of students and members of the Hanover community).

Professor Brendan Nyhan said that the question of why presidential candidates fail or succeed comes down to the narrative they tell. He also stressed the importance of the economy: Obama has presided over a weak period of growth, during which incumbents tend to be narrowly reelected. That is exactly what happened. He said that newspapers often highlight gaffes and things like Romney’s “47 percent” comment as game-changers but ultimately these don’t move the numbers – “the polls were quite stable over the course of the election actually.” Nyhan’s emphasis on the structural factors of the election extended to Romney. Romney was seen as a “bad candidate”—rich, stiff, out of touch. But according to Professor Nyhan, he performed as well as any generic challenger would in this economy.

Professor Bafumi spoke mainly of our current debt levels and trillion dollar deficit. Apparently, we will not be able to grow out of it economically like we did after WWII. Like Professor Nyhan, Professor Bafumi emphasized structural problems. There are many entitlements owed in the future (Social Security, Medicaid) and there are fewer people paying into the system as baby boomers retire. Bafumi lamented how polarization has made solutions to these problems difficult. Simpson Bowles has not been adequately embraced, and the supercommittee “has failed to come up with any grand budget bargain.” What’s more, the fiscal cliff may drive us into another recession.

Following Professor Bafumi, Linda Fowler began her remarks with a joke: “Now that you’re depressed, we will talk about Congress … yet here things aren’t not cheery either.” Congress’s approval rating is at 9% -- theoretically the election should have thrown the losers out, said Professor Fowler, but we saw a status quo election. The same parties control the House and Senate, which stands in sharp contrast to the swing elections 2006, 2008, and 2010. Beneath appearance of calm, however, Fowler said there was much to remark on. This is the first time that white men are not the majority in the Democratic caucus. There was a notable increase in women in both chambers. The Tea Party faces declining influence. This should have been a very advantageous year for Republicans (23 Democratic seats were in play, compared to 10 Republican ones) but that was not the case.
Then Q&A began. One woman asked Professor Bafumi how the winding-down of war in Iraq and Afghanistan would affect the deficit and debt situation, but the picture is just as grim. Obama stated that half of the savings will go towards renewing infrastructure and education systems, but Professor Bafumi pointed out that all the spending was deficit spending. There were also several questions about the fiscal cliff. Professor Fowler said that personally she thinks kicking the can down the road is smartest: “You can’t trim $1 trillion out of complicated budget in a few weeks, with a lame duck Congress.” She encouraged embracing Simpson Bowles and pressuring Republicans in Congress. Professor Nyhan was optimistic and said we don’t face a cliff in the sense that we die when it’s over – the government can pass something on January 2nd.
Other questions were about: the Citizens United decision, voter suppression, the merits (or lack thereof) of voting along party lines, and cabinet appointments. 

-Melissa Yang '15

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