Professors analyze midterm elections

Lindsay Buchanan, Senior Writer

After what President Obama called a “shellacking” for Democrats in the recent midterm elections, a panel of Francis Marion professors discussed and analyzed the outcomes of races nationwide in a symposium last week.

The symposium, titled Change and Continuity in the 2010 Midterm Elections, was coordinated by Scott Kaufman, FMU associate professor of history and co-director of the McNair Center for Government and History. In his opening, Kaufman acknowledged the heavy losses Democrats suffered as a result of the election.

“‘Democrats are on the road to suffer a large loss in the midterm elections’ was heard all around the nation,” Kaufman said. “And they did.”

The panelists at Thursday night’s event included Alissa Warters, FMU associate professor of political science and co-director of the McNair Center; Maria Lundberg, FMU assistant professor of mass communication; and Richard Almeida, FMU assistant professor of political science. Each panelist analyzed a different aspect of the recent elections and then took questions from the audience.

Dr. Warters, who focused mostly on the political races in South Carolina, analyzed some of the reasons for Nikki Haley’s win over Vincent Sheheen for the governor’s seat.

“Haley became a national candidate with lots of media coverage, and no one knew who Sheheen was for a long time,” Warters explained. “Even so, Haley won by the smallest margin of all the [Republican] candidates – only four percent.”

According to Warters, neither candidate ran the best race. In fact, Sheheen took some time off from his campaign in the summer, but then came on strong towards the end. Warters said Sheheen, the Democratic nominee, has been quoted as having said that disapproval over Obama lost the election for him, and in fact exit polls show that is likely the case.

Warters said one of the biggest, yet hidden, headlines to come from the midterm elections is redistricting and reapportionment. Many states that are now in the running to gain seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are now under GOP control and new district lines will be drawn by the new majority in most cases. South Carolina may be one of the states to gain another seat.

Almeida gave analysis of the elections on a national front in what he called a role reversal from his typical duties as a political scientist.

“I get to myth bust the elections,” Almeida said. “Usually I’m asked to predict what’s going to happen and now I’m able to talk about what actually happened, so this is great.”

Almeida explained how the media played to the story of the rise of the Tea Party and an anti-incumbent wave sweeping the country. He said that both of these storylines were mostly myth in that they did not have as large an effect on the outcome of the elections as many expected.

According to Almeida’s calculations, the Tea Party movement may have actually cost the Republicans up to three winnable seats. Almeida also explained that incumbents, those who already hold a seat and are running for re-election, typically have anywhere from an 80-90 percent chance of retaining their seats in the U.S. House historically. In this election cycle 80 percent of incumbents kept their seats.

“If I were a Democratic strategist and an optimist, I would say that they [Democrats] lost seats they don’t normally have anyway,” Almeida said.

Lundberg discussed the effect that media played in the elections, including the rising use of social media to draw in voters to both news outlets and political campaigns.

“In the past, people got their news from traditional outlets,” Lundberg said. “Now they are getting it from bloggers and social media. Many voters got their news from untraditional sources, which means journalists had to change the way they do business.”

Lundberg said that it is very difficult for consumers of social media to know whether they are receiving valid news or someone’s opinion. According to Lundberg, in the past voters could typically rely with certainty that news consumed from a news outlet was unbiased fact, but with the advent of commentators and analysis it is now a consumer’s job to determine if what he or she is reading or hearing is based on fact or opinion.

After the panelists presented their information, members of the audience asked questions that sparked further debate on the topics. Questions asked ranged from whether or not the Tea Party movement will remain a strong force in American politics to whether or not media will continue to play a large role in political elections now that campaigns create their own news through social media.