Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


The People Govern?

By Shawn Healy
Democracy at its very roots means government by the people, for the people. In practice we have departed from the Greek city-state given the expansive nation that the United States has become. Instead, we practice democracy through leaders we elect. More than a century ago, a national reform movement spawned a political party known as the Progressives, and among an array of reforms including the primary, they introduced a more direct form of democracy called the referendum. Here voters decide directly upon laws, constitutional amendments, even calling conventions to create new constitutions, in some cases bypassing their elected leaders altogether.

Next Tuesday, in addition to selecting the 44th president, our 111th Congress, and thousands of state legislators, voters in several states will decide upon referenda that may change the very complexion of civil rights, social welfare, and even government itself. Atop the radar is a pitched battle over the constitutionality of gay marriage in California, where state voters consider Proposition 8, a referendum to ban homosexual unions and overturn the May 2008 state supreme court decision that deemed them constitutional. To date, Connecticut and Massachusetts are the only other states where gay marriages are legal.

In Senator John McCain's home state of Arizona, voters may act preemptively on the issue of government-provided health care like that provided in his opponent's plan. Their southwestern neighbor, Colorado, and the adjacent Great Plains State of Nebraska, will consider anti-affirmative action ballot initiatives that have passed previously in California, Washington, and Michigan. These efforts are led by African-American businessman Ward Connerly, who believes that Senator Barack Obama's presidency could spell the end of race-based preferences if he chose to take a leadership role on this issue. Obama actually opposes these initiatives, while Connerly counts McCain as a supporter and his candidate of choice.

In Obama's Illinois, voters are asked to decide whether the state should hold another constitutional convention in 2010, forty years after the current document was drafted. For approval, 60 percent of voters who answer the question or a majority of voters overall must answer in the affirmative. The Illinois Constitution is viewed by many as one of the most progressive in the country. It protects the rights of women, individuals with disabilities, and forbids discrimination on the basis of religion, race or ethnicity.

Its detractors deplore its lack of a recall mechanism (especially with the wildly unpopular Governor Rod Blagojevich top of mind), its guarantee of a two party system given the winner-takes-all mechanism employed in legislative contests, therefore yielding unified party control as we have witnessed since 2002, and its failure to mandate state funding for education. The state has proceeded to pass the buck to local taxpayers, yielding major inequities by jurisdiction through differential property tax bases and the second lowest level of state-based education funding in the country.

Others lament the pervasive corruption that characterizes the state, and argue that the only way out is to scrap the document that employs these rascals. However, those in favor of retaining the current constitution offer a simple mechanism for change, namely throwing these same rascals out of office on Election Day. A diverse coalition has formed to protest the high costs of calling a convention and voice fear that the same power brokers who we detest and distrust will have their dirty hands upon any new document when the dust settles. They suggest that we use the amendment process instead, addressing our grievances against the state government one by one, and avoiding the take it or leave it document that a constitutional amendment would yield. Once created, it would be placed before voters for an up or down vote.

My two posts this week taken together, I urge you to scrutinize the races and ballot measures beneath our presidential candidates. A President McCain or Obama will likely bring change from the existing regime and offer dramatically different visions for America, but the matters that affect us on a daily basis happen closer to home.


Diving Down the Ballot

By Shawn Healy
Lost in the shuffle of this historic presidential contest are the contested races down the ballot, including races for Congress at the House and Senate level, where polling is suggesting a Democratic landslide not seen since Lyndon Johnson galloped to a blowout victory in 1964 with nearly two-thirds of each body in his reins. His Great Society programs were passed on the backs of this apparent mandate. I have asked many an audience this fall to name the Republican opponent of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the Senate's Majority Whip, who is running for a third term this November. Most respond with blank looks, and I follow with the answer: Dr. Steve Sauerberg. "Who?" inevitably echoes through the room.

I'm not going out on much of a limb to suggest that Durbin's return is all but inevitable, but there are a number of local House races that remain competitive, including Dan Seals' bid to upset Republican incumbent Mark Kirk in the 10th Illinois Congressional District, and the clash for Congressman Weller's vacant seat in the 11th District to our south between Republican businessman Marty Ozinga and Democratic state senator Debbie Halvorson. These outcomes, and many others across the nation, will go a long way in determining the ease by which President Obama will enact his ambitious agenda, or the strength of the opposition to President McCain's vision for America.

The outcome of several senate races outside of Illinois will yield a Democratic majority somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 seats to the Republican's 40, give or take one or two in either direction. Sixty is the magic number for Democrats, as they would have a filibuster-proof majority to basically steamroll their agenda over a powerless Republican minority. The contest in Minnesota between incumbent Republican Senator Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger, and former comedian Al Franken is one of many to eyeball as the results trickle in next Tuesday.

Unfortunately, media coverage focuses excessively on the race atop the ticket, and this blog is complicit on this count, too. Our Senate race in Illinois is not competitive and has thus been all-but-ignored by local and state media outlets. The Chicagoland area encompasses 14 different congressional districts. A handful of these races are competitive (including the two referenced above) and are afforded some ink in daily newspapers, but most are ignored given the time and resources necessary to covering each of these contests. We are left to sift through the ads interspersed on our nightly television programs, run mostly by incumbents who have war chests their challengers simply can't match.

Taken together, we enter the final stretch of this election fairly informed about our choices for president, but woefully ill-prepared as we move down the ballot. While the media certainly deserves credit for the former, any blame they rightly receive for the latter is misplaced at this stage of the game. It is up to us as citizens to actively seek this information. I recommend visiting Project Vote Smart, along with the League of Women Voters, for candidate responses to questionnaires administered by these organizations. Visits to the candidate web sites themselves are also helpful. Newspapers' scant coverage of the down ballot candidates are often cataloged on their web sites, along with their endorsements in each of these races.

I'll return on Thursday with a look at the referenda on the ballot in Illinois and several other key states across the country, including whether we should call another constitutional convention in the Prairie State. Until then, I encourage you to seek out facts that will better prepare you for your foremost role as citizen next Tuesday, that of serving as an informed voter.


Franchise in Foreclosure

By Shawn Healy
As voters across the nation calcify behind their candidates in the waning days of what has been a 23-month marathon to the White House, red flags rise in numerous locales where concerns of voter fraud and suppression surface. In presidential election years of late, we have become accustomed to such shenanigans, particularly in close contests when the decentralized nature of our election administration system reeks of antiquity, inconsistency, and amateurism. Depending upon which of the myriad of presidential polls one consults, the 2008 race may be a nail biter or a blowout, but it is wise to prepare for the former, and it appears that our country is failing on a front that many sacrificed their very lives to protect: the right to vote and citizens' very faith in democracy.

The two major political parties are both culprits in this battle over the franchise. Democrats seek to expand the pool of voters among demographics receptive to their message, namely the poor and members of racial minority groups, while challenging the absentee ballots of active members of the military stationed overseas who often affiliate with the Republican Party. Republicans counter by passing legislation that requires government-issued identification in order to vote, and charge partisan-affiliated organizations engaged in voter registration efforts with fraud. Democrats in turn label this ballot box suppression.

Both parties have legitimate gripes, but need to shed their blue and red shaded spectacles for the greater good of democracy with a small "d." Congress did pass the Help America Vote Act in 2002, in part a response to the irregularities that tainted Florida's 2000 presidential vote, but has since failed to provide promised funding to states and localities who administer elections, resulting in what some have labeled the "largest unfunded mandate in history."

For the sake of confidence in our government and its institutions, Americans of all partisan and ideological stripes must trust the legitimacy of election results. Voter fraud undermines the very premise of what this nation was founded upon and perpetrators must be duly prosecuted. Along the same lines, our country benefits from expanded political participation by our citizenry, for democracy, simply stated, means the people govern. In a democratic republic like our's, democracy is achieved through leaders we elect. We come closer to this ideal through strides toward universal participation.

The Freedom Museum sponsored an academic conference in September 2007 in partnership with the Center for the Study of the American Electorate titled "Civic Disengagement in Our Democracy." Several of the election-related phenomena specific to the administration of elections were detailed in the report that followed and is available here. I make brief mention of a handful of them below, but I am at a loss for immediate solutions, hopeful that our elected leaders have the foresight and independence to tackle the vexing problems that transcend Washington's partisan divisions and gridlock.

Our polls are run by minimally-trained amateurs, who preside over either dated equipment or new technologies that are beyond their grasp. They are underpaid and overworked, expected to spend a minimum of 14 hours at a polling location on Election Day for the sake of civic duty.

The vast majority balloting is administered by elected officials who identify with one party or the other. While most do their best to remain above the fray of partisan favoritism, is it fair to expect neutrality from party faithful who are elected themselves via the same channels?

On another level, we make it very difficult for voters to go to the polls on election day. In some states, Illinois included, voters must register one month in advance of the election. True, they have since made the process more lenient with a grace period after the deadline, but many voters fail to tune into the election until the waning days of the campaign and may thus be locked out of participating. It is no wonder that two of the states that allow on-site registration the day of the election, Minnesota and Wisconsin, lead the nation in voter turnout percentage.

Moreover, by holding elections on Tuesdays, we make it very difficult for those with familial and occupational obligations to make it to the polls during their defined hours of operation. Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) and American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norm Ornstein make a compelling case for weekend voting in today's New York Times. Tuesday voting, they contend, is a historical anachronism and Saturday and Sunday voting is a better fit for today's fast-paced world.

Taken together, this list of lamentations will certainly not be resolved in the 11 days that remain before Election Day, and I am hopeful that they are not decisive factors in determining the outcome any any contested race. I do know that our country wins when we exercise a fundamental right now bestowed upon all adult citizens, and therefore encourage you to make your vote count on November 4th.


Commander in Crisis

By Shawn Healy
Today marks the 46th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In a televised speech to the American people, President John F. Kennedy noted the presence of Soviet-installed, medium-range missiles stationed in Cuba capable of striking any number of American cities, including Washington, DC. He said the United States would not tolerate their continued presence a mere 80 miles away from the United States, and ordered a naval quarantine of the country to prevent further shipments from the Soviets. Our country stood on the cusp of nuclear war, and our young, relatively untested president refused to blink. The Soviet missiles were removed in exchange for a similar measure by the United States in Turkey, and a period of detente was ushered in as Cold War tensions thawed by necessity.

Fast forward to 2008. Vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, speaking at a fundraiser in Seattle this past Sunday, warned on an imminent attack on the United States should his youthful and relatively inexperienced running mate win on November 4. Biden said, “Mark my words. It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We’re about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America. Remember, I said it standing here, if you don’t remember anything else I said. Watch, we’re going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.” The Delaware senator went on to reassure his audience that Senator Obama is certainly up to the task.

This verbal gaffe, or backhanded compliment, drags the debate over foreign policy credentials back into the limelight during a time when domestic issues, namely our sagging economy, stand front and center. While Biden made a similar parallel to President Kennedy, the fact of the matter is that the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred nearly two years into his presidency. True, the Bay of Pigs incident landed in his inaugural year, but this was manufactured by the CIA and approved by Kennedy himself. A stronger parallel lies with President George W. Bush, who faced the horrific attacks of September 11 a mere eight months into his presidency.

The McCain campaign was quick to pounce on the opening provided by Biden. McCain uttered echoes of Senator Hillary Clinton's now famous 3am phone call during the Democratic primaries, suggesting that “We don't want a president who invites testing from the world at a time when our economy is in crisis and Americans are already fighting in two wars.”

At the same time, he also flaunted his own foreign policy bona fides: “Sen. Biden referred to how Jack Kennedy was tested in the Cuban missile crisis. My friends, I have a little personal experience in that. I was on board the USS Enterprise. I sat in the cockpit of the flight deck off of Cuba. I had a target. My friends, you know how close we came to a nuclear war. America will not have a president who needs to be tested. I've been tested, my friends.”

McCain, as I've said many times before, is more comfortable talking about foreign policy issues. Indeed, his call for additional troops in Iraq, the so-called surge, has been a defining staple of his second run for president. Poll numbers show Obama with a decided advantage on virtually every issue with the exception of the Iraq War and foreign policy more generally.

Obama's pick of Joe Biden was an acknowledgment of his weaknesses on this issue, reassuring voters that Biden will serve as a steady hand when the international chips are down as they inevitably fall during the first four years. However, Obama, too, based his campaign on issues of foreign policy, namely his early opposition to the Iraq invasion. He has continually cited this as evidence of his superior judgment, which in his mind, matters more than experience.

Biden's aside reminds us of the dual roles that our president serves. Not only is he head of government, helping to guide us through tumultuous economic times, but he is also head of state, managing our relationships with foreign powers. Our next commander-in-chief will face dual challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention an ever volatile Middle East more generally. He faces ripe political crises in Africa (Zimbabwe and Sudan top the list) and continued strides toward nuclear disarmament in North Korea. He must address a powder keg in Pakistan, and a rising nuclear power in India.

This is but a short list of the challenges awaiting either Senator McCain or Obama. A bright, sunny October morning brings back memories of a similar one 46 years ago when the world watched nervously as President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev clashed diplomatic swords. Thankfully, a young, charismatic chief executive stood firm and rose to the occasion. Here's hoping that our next commander-in-chief will continue this legacy, wherever and whenever duty calls.


Operation Objectivity

By Shawn Healy
A First Amendment controversy in New York City schools raises a broader question of the extent to which educators should make their political preferences known to students during an election year, or at any juncture for that matter. The United Federation of Teachers, who endorsed Senator Barack Obama for President, filed suit to challenge an ordinance that prohibits politicking among teachers on school grounds. A federal district judge upheld it in part, prohibiting an Obama button on an educator's lapel, for instance, while allowing the distribution of literature in staff mailboxes or the posting of fliers in common areas not accessed by students.

Social studies educators in particular are placed in a precarious position, as many of us are passionate about the very political parties, candidates, and issues we teach our students about on a daily basis. It is difficult to separate our subjective evaluations of each with objective lessons that present the facts before students so that they can come to their own conclusions. This phenomenon comes to a head during presidential election years when politics drives the discourse of even the most casual civic participants.

I taught about the 2000 presidential election during my second year as a teacher. My classes examined the candidates and major issues of the campaign in great detail. We studied the internal dynamics of each of the 50 states in the Union from the perspective of the Electoral College (I never could have anticipated the extent to which this exercise would resonate!). My seniors even orchestrated a school wide presidential election with real ballots and polling equipment, equating individual social studies classes with states and staging the race to 270 electoral votes. All along, my students peppered me with questions about my own preferences, and I promised to reveal them the day after the election.

I held true to this commitment, but the election was not decided for another 36 days. I provided daily updates of the Florida recount to my students, but my comments were colored hereafter by my presidential preference, for now I had visible skin in the game. I vowed to never make this mistake again, and even though I taught a civics course that asked students to declare their own party affiliations for the purpose of a semester-long government simulation, I held true to this policy.

However, I did have colleagues who felt otherwise and remained candid about their political preferences. Proponents argue that we cannot possibly separate our personal biases from the subject matter we teach, so it is better to make our preferences known and allow the chips to fall as they may. Others go so far as to suggest that if one truly believes the ideals to which we subscribe, it is our duty to dispense this sage advice to our students, shaping young minds and tomorrow's leaders.

I clearly subscribe to the position of classroom neutrality, no matter how difficult it may be to execute. I feel that we do our students a great disservice when we deny them the opportunity to encounter objective information and to arrive at their own conclusions after thorough analysis. On another level, to indoctrinate is to deny that our students enter the classroom with political information, familial influences, and biases of their own. In short, they are not empty vessels.

I must also admit that I have been forced to walk my own fine line throughout this election season. The Freedom Museum has positioned itself as a non-partisan source for political information about this election and a myriad of other freedom-related issues, and as our content expert, I must walk this walk throughout all of my official duties. I am also a passionate supporter of one of the presidential candidates, even serving as an alternate delegate at the nominating convention. All along, I have taken tremendous strides to keep these dueling hats on separate pegs of the proverbial coat rack. I'll leave the assessment of whether or not I have succeeded to readers of this blog, listeners of our podcasts, attendees of teacher seminars, lectures, and conference presentations, and visitors to the museum.

Soon enough, the yard signs will yield to winter snow, our campaign ephemera will be related to the memory box in our closets, and our country will get back to the day-to-day struggles of work, family, and society. Regardless of what side of the aisle or which candidate you associate with, political passion should be treasured, not scorned. However, personal and professional distinctions must remain, and I commend educators everywhere who aspire to neutrality while at work.


The Blame Game

By kgpatia
In the media aftermath of Wednesday night's presidential debate, it may be difficult to see beyond the dizzying effects of repeated references to "Joe the Plumber." However, many campaign behemoths were tackled in the debate, including the growing issue of negative campaign advertisements. Bob Schieffer proved to be a more pressing moderator than those in debates past, asking the candidates point-blank: "Are each of you tonight willing to sit at this table and say to each other's face what your campaigns and the people in your campaigns have said about each other?"

The squirm-inducing moments that followed were the result of weeks of negative campaign ads and heightened media coverage of this negative campaigning. The Project for Excellence in Journalism recently reported that "for the first time in a month, the 2008 campaign generated more coverage than the financial crisis." The story that trumped the financial crisis (between October 6-12)? Increased negative campaigning and attacks.

In the debate, Sen. John McCain hammered Sen. Barack Obama about his relationship with William C. Ayers. This came in light of weeks of McCain's campaign trying to make an issue of the relationship, with running mate Sarah Palin going so far as to claim that Obama "pals around with terrorists."

McCain also accused Obama in the debate as having "spent more money on negative ads than any political campaign in history," adding, "And I can prove it." Obama, for his part, countered that "100 percent" of McCain's ads "have been negative." Additionally, the Obama campaign recently released a 13-minute documentary-style campaign ad, complete with its own website, detailing John McCain's relationship to the so-called Keating Five.

However, it appears that the candidates may not be slinging mud in the same quantity or velocity. According to an article in the October 16 edition of the Wall Street Journal, an independent study reports that "higher proportion of Sen. McCain's ads are negative than Sen. Obama's." And voters are noticing. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll released on Wednesday - which Obama quoted in the debate - 61% of respondents felt that McCain engaged in more negative campaigning, compared to 31% of respondents who felt that Obama did.

These same voters are none too happy about the political mud-slinging going on, no matter who they feel is contributing the most to the heated political fray. However, the same Wall Street Journal article referenced above notes a silver lining to this flood of negativity. "Attack ads," the article notes, "are more likely to be about issues than are positive ads. They're likely to contain more information, back up their claims with evidence and delve into details."

It seems then, that despite the bad reputation attack ads get, there may be something good, or at least valid, in all that mud. Thus, as with all other campaign information, it behooves voters to neither accept nor reject an attack ad at face value, but rather investigate the claims it makes as much as possible on their own. With the election less than three weeks away, we all owe it to ourselves not to be thrown by the hype - campaign created, media-induced, or otherwise - and stick to the facts.


To watch current campaign ads, or view those from elections past (did you know campaigns used to have musical ads?) visit the Living Room Candidate.


Song Sung Blue

By Shawn Healy
During the immigration marches that blanketed American cities in 2006 and 2007, singer-songwriter Neil Diamond's "Coming to America" was co-opted by protesters who demanded expanded rights for immigrants, legal and illegal. When asked how he felt about his work serving as the emblem for a controversial cause, Diamond was agnostic, suggesting that this was the very nature of creative ventures. Artists place their work before the public and allow it to be interpreted and used by people and groups as they see fit.

However, other recording artists have not followed his lead in this polarizing election season. Candidates enter and leave the stage as rock stars, but the songs they play are the subject of intense controversy and in some cases, vehement protest. For instance, Heart's 1977 song "Barracuda" echoed through the Xcel Center during the Republican National Convention as Sarah "Barracuda" Palin (her nickname as a high school basketball player) claimed the vice presidential nomination.

Since taking to the campaign trail in the intervening weeks, the song has continually greeted Palin at successive stops, and Ann and Nancy Wilson, Heart's songwriters, in coordination with Sony BMG, issued a cease-and-desist letter to the McCain-Palin campaign. They suggested that Palin does not represent them as "American women."

Van Halen has voiced similar objections, asking McCain-Palin to pull "Right Now" from its play list, and it did the same in 2004 when President Bush warmed up crowds in his re-election bid. Van Halen wants to disassociate itself from politics altogether, ideological considerations aside.

As early as 1984, John Mellancamp (then Cougar) refused to allow Ronald Reagan to use the ditty "Pink Houses" as his election theme song, and he protested once more this year when McCain blasted the timeless hit. You might remember that Mellancamp campaigned this year for Senator John Edwards.

The list goes on and on, including Foo Fighters ("My Hero"), Jackson Browne ("Running on Empty"), and Warner Music Group for McCain's use of Franki Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."

I know of no similar protests among recording artists directed at the Democratic ticket, though I did find it ironic that shortly after Senator Obama's convention speech ended, Brooks and Dunn's "Only in America" blared throughout Investco Field. President Bush played the song repeatedly at campaign performances in 2004, and the band even performed at the Republican National Convention that year in New York City.

The McCain-Palin campaign has found an end-around for this dilemma, purchasing a so-called "blanket license" through the American Society of Composers, Authors and Performers (ASCAP), and thus continuing to play "Barracuda" and "My Hero" to the delight of fawning crowds.

As Sprigman and Vaidhyanathan argued in an op-ed piece that ran in yesterday's Washington Post, these conflicts pinpoint the tensions between copyright laws and the First Amendment. They clearly side with the latter protections, arguing that candidates should be allowed to use popular songs to make a point, for these actions constitute nothing less than political speech, the original basis for the First Amendment. They also seek to enable critics to raise their voices, writing "...if the Wilson sisters (from Heart) want to mock Republican misuse of a feminist anthem, them let them sing from the mountaintops."

John Rich, of the band "Big and Rich," took matters into his own hands. A devoted supporter of the Republican ticket, he penned a song for Senator McCain, titled "Raising McCain." Perhaps in this era of polarized politics, pop culture is but an extension of these battles. Thankfully, the First Amendment stands strong and the marketplace of ideas, not censors, dictate our discourse through music.


Polling Away?

By Shawn Healy
Senator Obama's separation from Senator John McCain in both national and battleground state polls is well-documented, and the cause arguably attributable to the economic jitters that have gripped the nation, even the world. Heading into the general election, the odds were stacked sharply against McCain to begin with given the unpopular president he is tethered to by political affiliation, an already sagging economy, and public dissatisfaction with the conduct of the separate wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The chaos on Wall Street has firmly gripped Main Street in recent weeks, and voters may be more willing to take a chance on Obama given their overall dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Public opinion, at least in the context of campaigns, can dart rapidly in one direction or the other, so this election is by no means a forgone conclusion. One presidential debate remains this Wednesday, and McCain will search once more for a "game-changer," however elusive this might be.

Three weeks of ads in targeted states will also provide additional contrasts between the candidates, and often resort to negative attacks. To date, McCain's attempts to link Obama to former Weather Underground domestic terrorist Bill Ayers and voter fraud perpetrated by ACORN have fallen mostly on deaf ears, but expect the campaign to continue to raise doubts about the junior Illinois senator.

Also, both campaigns are already turning to their so-called "ground games," the get-out-the-vote operations in swing states that focus on delivering the parties' respective bases to the polls on Election Day, or earlier (absentee balloting).

Poll numbers may move in response to a decisive debate performance by one candidate or the other, or a notable gaffe in this same environment. Attack ads may gain traction and push away undecided voters from one candidate to the other, or to sit out the election altogether. One party's 72-hour plan during the final three days of the campaign may defy so-called momentum and the suggestions of last-minute polls (I witnessed this myself in New Hampshire this year when Senator Hillary Clinton pulled off a narrow win over Obama when polls were suggesting a decisive win for the latter candidate).

A couple of poll-related phenomena also must be considered at this late hour of the 23-month campaign for president. One, the so-called "Bradley effect," named after the former Mayor of Los Angeles who lost a close election for governor despite polls predicting victory. Bradley was African-American, and the theory suggests that lower income voters overstate their support for black candidates in interviews with pollsters.

The academic community is split over the Bradley effect's continued relevance given that is surfaced in 1982 and Americans' views about race have arguably progressed in the intervening decades. Obama's candidacy itself is a testament to this, including his better-than-expected performances in Wisconsin and Virginia. However, he fared worse than anticipated in New Hampshire and California, and the primary electorate is vastly different than that of a general election.

Those who believe the Bradley effect lingers argue that lower income white voters are less likely to respond to pollsters questions to begin with, perhaps biasing the complexion of existing samples. Moreover, differences surface depending upon who is asking the questions. Individuals are more likely to express support for African-American candidates if and when they are questioned by a black survey administrator.

Others express skepticism, suggesting that polling techniques are increasingly refined nowadays, predicting the loss of African-American congressman Harold Ford in the 2006 race for Senate and the victory of Deveal Patrick as Governor of Massachusetts in the same year. Moreover, the Bradley effect is more likely to play a decisive role when an election has been "racialized," as wedge issues like affirmative action and welfare enter the fray. Although Reverend Wright has not yet been put to bed, this election is focused on the economy, gas prices, and health care, and to a lesser extent the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

A second variable to keep on our collective radar screens in the closing days of this election is the bandwagon effect. This occurs when one candidate assumes a decisive lead in the polls, inviting voters to climb aboard. Should Obama continue to build upon his narrow, but widening lead, we may witness a run toward the Illinois senator that results in a decisive victory in the popular vote and a blowout in the Electoral College. If, however, the race returns to its previous dynamic, a nail biter within the polls' margins of error, the bandwagon effect exits stage left, and a long night of election returns looms.


The Invisible Generation

By kgpatia
Twenty-four days remain before the November 4 elections. It has been an exhausting 22 months since the first candidates declared they were seeking their respective party's nomination for president. In this span of time, hundreds of stump speeches have been given, primaries were won and lost, political controversies have sparked and died out, dozens of debates have taken place, and the media has been flooded with punditry, analysis, and information about the 2008 presidential election. For those of us caught up in this political frenzy, regardless of which candidate one is supporting, it is difficult to imagine that there are people out there who, for one reason or another, are planning to sit this election out by not voting.

I was disheartened to read an article this morning in my school's paper, The Daily Northwestern, about university students and staff who were voluntarily disenfranchising themselves by vowing not to vote in the November 4 election. The reasons were varied but fell into familiar patterns, with students complaining about complicated procedures, purporting that one vote "never" matters, and expressing anger over the political process.

However, out of all the emotions this article inspired -- anger, despair, embarrassment (this is my university these students are representing, after all) -- the one I felt most acutely was frustration. Young people have consistently been the worst no-shows of any age group on election day. In 2004, 53% of 18-24 year-olds did not vote. In comparison, 44% of 25-34 year-olds, 36% of 35-44 year-olds, 31% of 45-54 year-olds, 27% of 55-64 year-olds, and 27% of 65-74 year-olds did not vote in 2004.

What is so frustrating about all this is that it is the consistent failure of young people to come through in significant numbers at the polls that leads to many of the symptoms of political diseffectedness that non-voters profess; thus, what many non-voters view as a reaction to political malaise is actually the cause of it. For better or for worse, a candidate must garner enough votes to win an election. In this context, the reality is that politicians will oftentimes tailor parts of their platforms to attract voters from certain demographics. However, this typically only applies to demographics that regularly turn out to vote. Since young people have shown in elections past that they can't be relied on to vote, they regularly get left out of the political process and virtually ignored by politicians.

It is understandable that students might feel upset about this negligence, but it is counter intuitive for this to translate into a failure to vote. It seems so obvious, but the reality is that if you want anyone in government to care about what you have to say, you have to make your voice heard. It is in this context that young people can become an catalyst for change in the political process and that a multitude of young people, contributing just their "one vote," can become a force to be reckoned with.

My generation is in need of a major attitude adjustment when it comes to voting. If civic duty doesn't appeal to them, perhaps self-interest will. I only hope that young people see the bigger picture in this election and cast off the cloak of political invisibility that has shrouded us as a generation, once and for all.


Town Hall Tussle

By Shawn Healy
Senators John McCain and Barack Obama engaged in a spirited town hall debate last evening at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. Both candidates largely stuck to their typical talking points, and rarely answered the questions from the audience directly. It was McCain who presented perhaps the lone new program of the evening, a plan to purchase mortgages from homeowners on the verge of default, to refinance them at their current value with more manageable interest rates. Obama, in response, provided general support for the idea, but suggested that it was already a component of the recent Wall Street "rescue" package.

If a packed arena with a podium at center stage is Obama's venue of choice, McCain's is the more intimate town hall where he can engage in back-and-forth bantering with attendees. It was disappointing that moderator Tom Brokaw filtered audience questions and the rules forbade give-and-take between the candidates and the undecided voters asking questions. Moreover, Brokaw frequently asked follow-up questions of his own, several of them quite wordy, further diminishing the effects of this alternative format.

These restrictions considered, both candidates interacted with the audience on a personal level, paying homage to the validity of their questions, and greeting them by their first names. Though they often dodged the question after an initial acknowledgment, it was refreshing to hear directly from voters about their issues of concern in this pivotal election. The economy was certainly top of mind, but health care, the environment, and entitlement reform also entered the fray. The final half hour of the evening centered on foreign policy.

McCain spent much of the evening making policy distinctions with his opponent, continually forcing Obama on the defensive, though the junior Illinois senator often returned with stunning counterpunches of his own, repeatedly tying McCain to President Bush and the "failed" economic policies of the past eight years. These exchanges never turned personal, and for that both candidates should be commended.

It was said that McCain needed a game changing performance on this early October evening four weeks out from Election Day given that he trails in national tracking polls and also in a number of key battleground states where the election will be won or lost. This was clearly not the case, though McCain was arguably a narrow victor when the outcome was sent to the judges otherwise known as the American people.

A moment late in the debate may indeed have stood as the clincher. McCain was asked a foreign policy-related question from a retired chief petty officer of the Navy. He greeted him warmly, saying something to the effect that he had learned a great deal from chief petty officers during his time in service, shaking his hand and offering an embrace that was warmly received. Obama's response lacked the same candor and bond. Taken together, this moment spoke to McCain's decided advantage entering the evening, and raises the stakes even further for the final presidential debate next Wednesday at Hoefstra University in NY.


From 'Too Much' to 'Just Right'

By Shawn Healy
I had the honor of serving as a panelist at the "Election 2008: New Voters, New Media, New Engagement" conference held at Northwestern University. In the process, I was exposed to a study published by the Media Management Center at Northwestern, titled "From 'Too Much' to 'Just Right': Engaging Millennials in Election News on the Web." A review of this August 2008 study follows.

The authors begin with the premise that young people are engaged in this historic presidential campaign at higher levels than in years past. They attribute this to increased attention from both the candidates themselves, but also the news media. The context of this campaign only ups the ante, with an exciting primary battle setting the stage for a hotly contested general election matchup.

Specific to following election-related news, the 89 first-time voters involved in this study ranging in age from 17-22, are following this election fairly or very closely for the most part (60%). Nearly half go online for news about the election (49%), politics (44%), and political candidates (also 44%) on a weekly basis. This said, most plan to vote this November and desire to be informed about where the candidates stand on the key issues of the day, but at the time of this study (April 2008), they were waiting until later in the process to fully tune in.

Election-related news itself is described by young voters as "too much." For them, news consumption is not a labor of love, but instead work, and merely another task they must fit into their already busy schedules. It isn't the subject of the news that is overwhelming, but its presentation and quality. This includes excessive text, too many stories without any intuitive organization, and excessively lengthy or trivial stories. In these situations, the knee-jerk reaction for young readers is to click away.

Given these concerns, the respondents favored news web sites that made choices for them. Google and Yahoo news aggregators work along these lines. They also like to make snap decisions based on story headlines, and favor well-designed web sites. is referenced at many junctures as a model of sorts. The participants were loathe to get sucked in to a web site, shying away from embedded video and other interactive features that might drain time, and preferring text instead. In sum, the authors conclude, that " Goldilocks, young adults are searching for a site that's 'just right'---that has the right mix of speed and depth, activity and passivity."

It may be surprising to some that young people favor name brand news sites over lesser known new media entries. General television news and local newspaper sites received the highest trust ratings. They place more stock into fact-based stories than opinion, and professional journalists more than amateurs. Moreover, attempts to get overtly cute or humorous in news presentations also fail. For instance, the cartoonish graphics of diminished the seriousness of the site's content.

Other Web 2.0 features also fell short in the eyes of this cohort of young voters. They are not interested in contributing to or perusing reader comments on news web sites, finding much of it ill-informed and not worth their time. They also shun the uncivil tone these dialogues often assume. While they are adherents of social networking sites, they feel that news should retain a separate identity.

Taken together, the authors conclude with a series of recommendations. News organizations should develop more simplistic, intuitive web sites, and offer information in more "manageable, bite-sized chunks and layers." They should develop content that appeals specifically to young voters, offering simple candidate comparisons on key issues, background information to provide context, defining complex terms, and featuring more graphical displays of complex information (maps, graphs, charts). News updates should be selective, and reader comments, if allowed, should be moderated, prioritized, and sortable. Perhaps most importantly, articles should address issues that young people care about, like student loans, high gas prices, or global warming.

The study offers a great service to news organizations at a time of great change in the media environment. An exciting presidential election is an excellent time to attract a new generation of readers, a cohort that has been slow to adopt the news habits of previous generations. The formula the authors prescribe seemingly appeals to all age groups and may represent the saving grace desperate newsrooms seek as they figuratively throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. I, for one, am hopeful that political news consumption among our youth are one of these "noodles."


The Eye of the Beholder

By Kelli
You say “potato,” and I say “potato.”
You say “tomato,” and I say “tomato.”

Ok, so maybe that doesn’t translate into print as well as I had hoped.

The point is that we all see things differently, even when we see the same thing. We all watched the same debate. We all saw the same two candidates. 52.4 million of us watched, but yet there are probably at least 52.4 million different takes on the evening (some of us have gone through several different opinions as we process everything). As we all talk around the proverbial water cooler (which currently probably means posting to our friends’ Facebook walls), it becomes apparent that even if we agree on who the winner of Friday’s debate was, we all saw different things, and have different reasons for our judgment. And the farther we are from each other on the political spectrum, the larger the differences loom. While some saw Barack Obama conceding to John McCain by agreeing with him on some issues, others saw it as a bold move to put his money where his mouth is and actually listen to what his opponent had to say, without the usual knee-jerk polarization. On Obama’s stance on Iran, some heard “diplomacy,” while some heard “weakness.” Both seemed to dodge questions about the economy, but depending on your perspective, some dodged better than others.

As the media is so fond of telling us, with their color-coded red and blue maps, the country is becoming ever more polarized on issues. These polarizations come from the fact that we all bring something different to the table when we watch a debate – or even when we watch American Idol. That’s the wonderful thing about living in such a large, diverse country, a country with a strong basis in freedom of thought and speech, where we can express ourselves and our differing opinions without fear of repercussion. At least, not repercussions from the government. There will probably be repercussions if you tell your colleagues you think the next debate should involve dunk tanks. Trust me on this.

With all of these issues, and all of these different opinions, it becomes increasingly important for us to do our job as citizens. That job is at the same time the hardest and easiest job you’ll ever have. That job is to think. Because we all can watch the same debate, listen to the same speech, read the same report, and come up with very different views, why would you trust someone else to make those judgments for you? This election year, and every year, we need to inform ourselves and think for ourselves. We can’t just listen to the pundits. We can’t just listen to the sound bites. We can’t just listen to (dare I say it?) the blogs. We have to know what we think, ourselves. Maybe we find we always agree with Bill O’Reilly – or Ariana Huffington. But we have to know why we agree, and that means not just taking their word for it. The pundits are human – just as human as you, or me, or even that weird guy in accounting. We all have our own take on things, and we should know what that take is, not just adopt someone else’s. Our democracy, our country, is built on dissent and discussion, and being an informed, active citizen, in this election season and going forward, is how we’ll all become stronger.

But don’t just take my word for it.


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at