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Conflict, Consensus at ‘Picking the President’ Forum

Former Gov. Dukakis Among Panelists

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Part of a panel, former Gov. Michael Dukakis spoke about the influx of money and effect of the electoral college in presidential elections.

By Sandra Seitz

A professor, a governor, a state rep and a reporter walk into a forum. “What’ll it be,” asks the moderator. “Light or Heat?”
Illuminating perspective and heated disagreement were both offered at the “Picking the President” panel discussion, held just two weeks before the national presidential election and moderated by Francis Talty, co-director of the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion.  
On the panel were the professor – Paul Jorgensen of Harvard University and UMass Lowell, an expert on the influence of political money; the governor – former Bay State Gov. and 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, currently a professor at Northeastern; the state rep – Dan Winslow of the 9th District and chief legal counsel during Mitt Romney’s term as governor; and the reporter – Hillary Chabot, chief political reporter at the Boston Herald. 
The Consensus: Changed Conditions

The panelists agreed that increased campaign spending due to changes in regulations and social media have dramatically changed the political landscape just since 2008.

Jorgensen compared total expenditures to date in this election with the figure for the same date in the last one. In 2008, the amount was $450 million. In 2012, it’s $912 million, with “nearly 80 percent going to opposition ads,” he said. 

Twitter has also changed the election landscape in just four short years.

“There is no more 24-hour news cycle,” said Chabot. “The presence of Twitter has a huge effect in showing the polarized aspects of the races and it’s speeded up the news cycle. Twitter is also a landmine [for reporters]. Everything you tweet will be scrutinized by both campaigns for bias.” 

Blogs are much more prevalent, says Chabot, and are “full of partisan comment and angry people looking for bias. There’s lots of splintering, people at the extremes, and that partisanship hurts the candidates.”

More Consensus: Electoral College

Despite different positions on the presidential candidates, the panelists were united in dislike of the electoral college.

“In a non-partisan way, we should all be troubled,” said Dukakis. “In this election, it’s possible that the winner of the popular vote won’t win the presidency. The election is determined by six states – Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. There’s no incentive for the other states to get involved. It should be one voter, one vote.” Dukakis pointed to the work of Common Cause, which is working state by state to build consensus for a national popular vote.

“Smaller states are disproportionately represented in the electoral college,” said Dukakis. “There ought to be a movement here to restore popular democracy.” Winslow agreed, pointing to his own efforts with, which proposes a national online primary.

During the last two months of the presidential campaigns, virtually all efforts (and expenditures) are concentrated on just a few states.

“Anything that would keep me from spending the next two weeks in Ohio, I’d be for it,” said Chabot.

Students Weigh In

Many students attended the panel discussion, which was sponsored by the UMass Lowell Center for Arts and Ideas, the Political Science Department, the Moses Greeley Parker Lectures and Middlesex Community College. 

Anton Chan, senior psychology major with a special interest in sports psychology, said, “I am just starting to digest all the information.” Registered to vote in his first presidential election, Chan emigrated from Hong Kong.

Maryann Ford, graduate student in Peace and Conflict Studies, thought the issues were most important.

“It seems that money is power,” she said. “Following the Citizens United decision [by the Supreme Court],” that ruled that spending by outside groups is a constitutionally protected form of free speech, “candidates are likely to say whatever donors want to hear. I’d like to see that decision reversed, also a shorter, set period of time for campaigning and less money in interest groups.”