A Long Season of Campaigns and Elections

December 12, 2012

-by Kathleen Dillon, Political Science Undergraduate

It’s hard to believe the fall semester is almost over! A lot has happened between September and December in the world of politics. As a nation we re-elected a president and the most diverse bodies of Congress this country has ever seen. Northeastern University was full of pre-election events and related activities, including students working for campaigns, faculty in the news, and cutting-edge research combining traditional social science approaches with visualized computational representations.

Faculty in the News

The Political Science Department faculty was deeply involved in discussions leading up to the election.  Professors William Mayer and William Crotty answered questions in late August regarding partisan politics and the Republican Party platform.  Mayer commented on the comments made by Republican nominee for Missouri Senate, Todd Akin, “Obvi­ously, the best out­come for the Repub­lican Party would be for Akin to with­draw and allow the party to put a more elec­table can­di­date in his place. Unfor­tu­nately, that will require Akin him­self to agree to step down and he appears to be quite stub­born on this point.”

Governor Mitt Romney and U.S. Rep Paul Ryan at an event just after Romney announced Ryan as his running-mate.

Professor Crotty answered questions about what party platforms meant to the average voter, “The Repub­lican party should pray that nobody reads its plat­form. It is an extremely con­ser­v­a­tive, fun­da­men­talist reli­gious doc­u­ment…For­tu­nately, no one reads the plat­form or cares about it beyond interest groups who invest in the party and con­stituency pro­po­nents who look to see if their inter­ests have been rep­re­sented.”

In late September, after Mitt Romney’s controversial video about the 47% was released Professor Robert Gilbert answered three questions about the possible ramifications of such comments. When asked how Romney’s “off-the-cuff” statements would affect the campaign and voters, Professor Gilbert answered: “Romney’s recent con­de­scending remarks about the “47 per­cent of Amer­i­cans” who (sup­pos­edly) pay no taxes con­tribute mate­ri­ally to the Democ­rats’ cam­paign to shape public per­cep­tions of Romney as an uncaring, harsh rich man out of touch with those who aren’t rich. The Democ­rats couldn’t have done this any better than Romney him­self now has.”

Professor Crotty was again featured in a discussion about the aggressiveness of the Vice Presidential debate. He was asked how each candidate performed in terms of differentiating his own party’s platform from that of his opponent and which candidate did so effectively. “Vice Pres­i­dent Biden over­whelmed an[d] out­matched Rep. Ryan. Biden is a smart and expe­ri­enced leg­is­lator, the former chair of two major Senate com­mit­tees… Rep. Ryan is not an espe­cially artic­u­late or com­pelling debater. He was placed in the awk­ward posi­tion of explaining away his votes as a leader of Tea Party Repub­li­cans on Medicare, the budget deficit reduc­tion, jobs, taxes, abor­tion and most every­thing that came up.”

Professor Robert Gilbert, an Expert of the American Presidency

Professor Robert Gilbert spoke in mid-October about the town-hall format of the second debate. He asserted that the town-hall format was the most “dramatic and lively TV debates between pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates in the 50 years…” He pointed out that having the candidates walking around each other in a freer, open space gave the impression of a battle, which made the debate more exciting. In his comments, Gilbert discusses the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses as well as Obama’s improvement from the first debate.

Professor David Lazer is a professor of Political Science and Computer Science at Northeastern University. This election cycle he and his lab led an effort to track Twitter activity throughout big moments in the campaign. They studied tweets during the three debates and on election night.  Professor Lazer also followed campaign contributions throughout the Boston area (these are referred to as “MoneyBombs.”), which he and his team turned into a visualized video map showing which areas were donating to which candidate when. The video representation of this research can be found here.  It is well worth a watch, as it identifies the size and location of campaign contributions in an aesthetically pleasing video.

Image via vispolitics; depicted here are the tweets tracked by the Lazer Lab.

Former governor of Massachusetts and distinguished professor, Michael Dukakis weighed in on Hurricane Sandy’s effects on the presidential election. He spoke of the positive impact Sandy had on President Obama’s image, citing Governor Chris Christie’s open praise of the president as an example. Professor Dukakis also touched on the issues with voter turnout. He said that New York and New Jersey were both considered safe states for Obama and therefore grassroots and field operations may be non-existent. Professor Dukakis also talked about failures of the Electoral College, and the implications of it.

Student Engagement

In addition to the faculty contributing opinions and extensive research on the subject of elections, students have also been actively involved in the 2012 campaigns. As an example, Kate Buckley and Mike Fox, two political science students worked actively in Elizabeth Warren’s and Scott Brown’s senate races. The students exclaimed that being involved with a political campaign helped them in their classroom studies. Fox was new to political campaigns and gained responsibility within the Brown campaign on the Northeastern campus. Buckley had experience working for Governor Deval Patrick’s administration and worked in engaging Northeastern students in the election.  Other students were actively involved in events and efforts to expand awareness related to important election issues.  For example, the Political Science Student Association co-sponsored several events with the Department, the International Relations Council sponsored the Elections Result Watch Party, the Young Republicans and NU Democrats held debates discussing important issues, and, the NU Political Science Review provided insightful articles related to the elections.


At the center of all the activity, the Political Science Department organized or helped organize campus-wide events. The topics ranged from “Electing the US President” to the Brown vs. Warren Senate debate, to discussions about the presence of religion at the ballot box.  Finally, on November 29th, most everything was summed up with a day-long conference, “The Presidential Election of 2012: A Red or Blue Future,” which would be a final presentation of the 2012 election and a discussion about the future of the country.

On Election Day, Professor William Crotty said that neither President Obama nor Governor Romney took a firm stance when it came to a plan for the economy. He also said that voter turnout would be instrumental in a win for either party. He felt encouraged by the students that participated in political campaigns. The Political Science Department was also greatly involved in a compilation of live election analyses for the day of the election, including several professors contributing their thoughts and ideas about the election.

Jeff Clements, author of “Corporations Are Not People” and president and co-founder of Free Speech for the People, spoke during the Thomas P O’Neill conference on the 2012 presidential election. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

In closing, on November 29th Professor William Crotty hosted the fourth Thomas P. O’Neill Conference on the future of presidential politics. Speakers included Jeff Clements, the author of “Corporations Are Not People” and president and co-founder of Free Speech for the People, which is a national, non-partisan campaign to challenge the Citizens United ruling.  Clements said that the ability of the wealthiest Americans to influence the election is unclear. Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts, 1988 presidential nominee and distinguished professor of political science at Northeastern University, speaking on this topic, used California as an example, saying that the shift from a predominantly white population to a more diverse one requires Democrats to get out a grassroots operation, and it requires the Republicans to try and connect with constituencies that have not been historically connected to the party’s mostly white base. This conference was a fitting culmination to the contentious election season. It didn’t definitively answer every burning question about the political future of the United States, but it did provide some theoretical answers to larger questions about the future of the country.


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