Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Start of the Campaign

The Olympics have ended. Several weeks of sports competition among athletes from around the world has now been replaced by American political competition. Today marks the beginning of two weeks of political conventions—first the Democrats in Denver and then the Republicans in St. Paul—and then the general campaign. From now until November 4, there is likely to be constant media talk and coverage of the American presidential election.

I have often wondered about how American elections are covered outside the United States, and how others interpret the way in which we conduct our presidential elections. Now I am going to see first-hand just how it occurs and viewed at least in one country—Hungary in 2008. While many observations are still to be made, several rather preliminary ones can nevertheless be made.

First, for American citizens abroad, there is certainly considerable coverage of the election on the cable news channels of CNN and BBC. Moreover, one can use the internet to log onto such website options as ABC news or MSNBC to receive full video clips of speeches made at the convention or listen to news talk shows such as Meet the Press. What is less clear is the extent of information Hungarians receive about the election on their own Hungarian television news programs. Since I do not speak Hungarian, it is more difficult to discern just what kind of coverage the election is receiving in terms of Hungarian news.

Second, there is one noticeable difference for Americans following the election in Hungary than for their fellow Americans doing so back home—namely, the absence of campaign commercials. The only campaign commercials we see are the occasional ones presented on news talk shows should they choose to discuss the content of such ads. But such discussion of ads is relatively rare (at least thus far).

Third, in my talking with various Hungarians who are administrators or professors associated with institutions of higher education here in Budapest, there have been frequent expressions of interest in, and reports of attention given to, American election campaigns. And certainly there is some recognition of the complexity of American elections (e.g., popular votes versus Electoral College votes; primaries versus caucus-convention systems). What is less evident, at least to this point, is some of the awareness of the dynamics of election campaigns, how different groups may be mobilized to vote, and what differences in voter turnout there may be among different types of social groups. But, perhaps more is known than might be initially revealed in some of our initial conversations.

Probably the thing that strikes me the most about this campaign at this point in time is what appears to be the relative closeness of the election. In many ways, this is an election that the Democratic nominee should win. After eight years of any administration, there are many Americans who feel it is “time for a change.” And Democrats were able to win control of the House and Senate in the 2006 congressional elections. Moreover, many Americans stand opposed to American involvement in Iraq, there is discontent over rising gas prices, the housing market has experienced difficulties, the sitting president is relatively unpopular, and the economy is sagging. All of this suggests that Democrats as the “out party” should be in the driver’s seat. Yet, poll after poll suggests that the race is relatively tight right now. Of course, all of this could change dramatically during the course of the next nine weeks. Yet, I have no doubts that McCain can only be pleased to be in the position he is at this point in time.

Should the Democrats lose this presidential election, my guess is that there will be a lot of discussion of whether the party’s new “play for religious voters” was really the right strategy to pursue in seeking victory. During this presidential campaign, Democratic presidential candidates have made a clear effort not to be perceived as being “hostile toward religion.” Democratic presidential candidates in 2008 have willingly talked about their religious faith, and they even participated in a joint “debate” about faith and politics at Messiah College earlier this spring. The general idea is that by winning back some of the “religious voters,” the Democratic candidate might be able to peel away enough votes from the Republican candidate to win the election. And Barack Obama has certainly not backed away from either talking about his religious faith or seeking the support of “religious voters.” But, should he fail to win the election, my guess is that this strategy will be the first to be criticized as not having worked and that many party activists and strategists will once again promote the idea that the party should pursue an agenda that reflects a “high wall” of separation between church and state. On the other hand, should Obama win, my guess is that this strategy will be praised as being a successful one and that Democratic candidates for president will continue to pursue such a strategy for the foreseeable future.

Of course, elections and election campaigns vary from country to country—as does the system of election employed. So do certain campaign issues. The American system of elections is relatively unique—both so too is the Hungarian system. Some political issues are relatively unique to American politics—but so are certain Hungarian political issues. Later I will talk about election campaigns in Hungary and the election laws that govern their campaigns—as well as some of the issues that make Hungarian politics somewhat distinctive in nature.

Corwin Smidt

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