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Pictured in the final National Agenda "Road to the Presidency" event of fall 2012 are (from left) Ralph Begleiter, David Plouffe and Steve Schmidt.
Two University of Delaware alumni from across the aisle – Democrat David Plouffe and Republican Steve Schmidt – offered their views on the 2012 election during a National Agenda "Road to the Presidency" presentation on Wednesday in Mitchell Hall.
Their verdict was that the electorate offered a mandate for the two parties to work together to solve important problems facing the nation, including the "fiscal cliff," and that the Republican Party must consider significant changes to attract support in a changing America.
Plouffe is a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and Schmidt is vice chairman for public affairs of Edelman, one of the world's largest public relations firms, who has served as a senior adviser for a number of GOP candidates, including 2008 presidential nominee John McCain. He has been seen frequently on television as an analyst for NBC and MSNBC.
The two Blue Hens were greeted enthusiastically by a large audience as key players in making UD the "epicenter" of national politics, and offered a lively and entertaining take on the election.
Plouffe said it is important not to "overlearn" the lessons of an election just over and that while the demographic makeup of the winning coalition – Obama captured a significant percentage of the vote among Latinos, African Americans, women and younger voters – is justifiably getting a lot of attention, he believes the race was decided just as much on policies. When it came time to cast ballots, he said the voters had more trust in Obama on issues such as the economy, education, the environment and social issues.
If there is one mandate for both parties, Plouffe said, "it is simply a mandate to work together" and he is hopeful this is a moment in history where the leaders of the two sides can put aside their differences to focus on the needs of the people.
Schmidt said Republicans should not underestimate the magnitude of the Democratic victory, quoting McCain who in turn quoted Mao Zedong: "It's always darkest before it's completely black."
And, Schmidt said, demographics is a huge problem. From the 40 percent of the Latino vote captured by Republican George W. Bush in 2004, the GOP has being steadily going downhill. "You are seeing the Republican policy of antagonizing the fastest growing group in America paying off," he said to laughter.
Beyond the presidential race, he lamented the fact that Republicans have lost five U.S. Senate seats in the last two election cycles by putting up unqualified candidates, including Christine O'Donnell in Delaware in 2010.
Where conservatism is in fact a serious governing philosophy, "conservatism has become synonymous in the voters' minds with absolute looniness," Schmidt said, making it difficult "to get to first base" with many voters.
For change to occur, Schmidt said it is vital that Republican leaders stand up to what he called the "conservative entertainment complex" – the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs who make a lot of money pushing polarization.
"We have a lot of soul searching to do as a political party," Schmidt said, adding that the GOP has not only a demographic problem but also a message problem and a policy problem.
"It may be that Republicans have to lose another election or two before thy figure out that they have to meet voters where they are at rather than the other way around," he said.
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David Plouffe discusses the 2012 election.
Ralph Begleiter, director of UD's Center for Political Communication who moderated the discussion, asked both Plouffe and Schmidt about moments – good and bad – that defined the campaign.
Plouffe discussed the abysmal first debate Obama had with Republican challenger Mitt Romney, which energized the GOP. "For us in the Barack Obama experience, we always have our moments of near death," he joked, adding that the campaign simply "did not execute" despite an understanding that Romney was a strong debater.
Schmidt was asked about Romney's infamous "47 percent" video, noting that in a close race it is unwise to write off that large a percentage of the electorate – particularly when many in that 47 percent are part of the Republican base.
He said it showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the country Romney wanted to lead, adding, "It was an awful statement and he paid an awful price for it."
Schmidt said the Republicans are behind the Democrats technologically in such areas as targeting, data mining and analysis and promoting voter turnout. Where Plouffe said the Obama campaign included dozens of engineers to insure that its computer systems worked properly to get out the vote, Schmidt pointed out that the Republicans had a small team and their system crashed on election day.
The Democrats were widely hailed for the use of email in the 2008 election – email, Plouffe said, is now "fossilized" – and this year turned to social media, in cases using Facebook to encourage voters in far flung states to reach out and make sure friends in battleground states such as Ohio had cast their ballots.
Social media has a huge impact, Schmidt said, because campaigns have lost the ability to control the message top down. He likened running campaigns in the social media age to navigating a "raging river."
The Twitterverse very quickly develops a consensus on what is happening, Plouffe said, pointing to the verdict on the first debate. "Within 10 minutes, the ‘referees' had decided."
Plouffe added that "video is king." Where investigative reports by influential newspapers once carried great weight in campaigns, he said that in these times a story without a video component is less likely to go viral and so does not gain traction.
Steve Schmidt discusses the 2012 election.
Both Plouffe and Schmidt agreed that the advent of the super PACs pumping vast sums of money into the election will have an impact. Because most super PACs are ideological in nature, they tend to weaken parties and candidates and polarize the electorate, Schmidt said.
"It's an uncontrollable beast," Plouffe said, adding that the people hurt most are those politicians who seek common ground.
Schmidt said he believes the solution is to allow the large contributions but that they be made to a campaign committee and that there be full and immediate disclosure.
Sandy and Christie
Asked whether Hurricane Sandy, and the appearance by UD alumnus and Republican governor of New Jersey Chris Christie with Obama, had impacted the presidential race, Plouffe said no. He said Democratic polling showed no movement in the electorate going into the storm and no movement coming out.
Plouffe said he was puzzled that Christie would take heat from Republicans about the appearance, saying his responsibility as governor was to do his best to assist the people of New Jersey at a difficult time. "It says something when a sitting Democratic president and Republican governor being civil to each other is news," he said.
Schmidt said Christie is a "dynamic leader" who took an oath to the people of New Jersey and he should be applauded for his actions. He added any Republican backlash against Christie, a possible presidential candidate in 2016, could "take off the table one of the solutions to the problems we have talked about."
Asked for predictions, both Plouffe and Schmidt said they believe Christie will run in 2016. Plouffe would not comment on possible Democratic candidates, but Schmidt said he did not think fellow UD alumnus Vice President Joe Biden would run but that Hilary Clinton would.