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Campaign 2012: SMU's Experts Weigh in on the Big Issues

SMU Magazine Fall/Winter 2011


Uncertainty and high anxiety

Tom Fomby

What would an economist’s plan for the economy include, and what role does partisan politics play in voters’ apprehension about the future? Tom Fomby, professor of economics in Dedman College, offers these insights:

“One of the biggest inhibitors of economic growth is uncertainty in the minds of consumers concerning their jobs, taxes and retirement. There are several ways we can reduce that degree of uncertainty: Reform the Social Security system so as to make it actuarially sound for the next 50 years, invest in our country’s infrastructure as proposed in the bipartisan Kerry Hutchison Infrastructure Bank plan, and simplify the U.S. tax code to close special interest group tax loopholes.

“One of the greatest growth stimulators would be for Congress to move toward moderation and compromise in political views and away from purely ideological political stances.”

Fomby, a research associate with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, is an expert on the Texas economy and its role in national and global economies. He also serves as a research associate in the surgery and epidemiology departments at UT Southwestern Medical Center, where he has applied time series and data mining techniques to medical research.

‘Slumped shoulders and heavy hearts’

Cal Jillson

Political Science Professor Cal Jillson in Dedman College describes the mood of the American electorate this way:

“Most voters seem unenthused with their 2012 choices. As the economy continues to labor, voters must choose between Republican candidates and policies that many believe led to the economic collapse and Democratic candidates and policies that all see have not been able to resolve the difficulties. Voters will shuffle toward the polls with slumped shoulders and heavy hearts.”

Jillson is an author and frequent commentator on domestic and international politics. His next book, Lone Star Tarnished, which will be published early next year, is an analysis of the shortcomings of Texas public policy.

‘Personal, retail politics at its best’

Rita Kirk

The growing importance of social media and the impact of “ideological voters” have set the stage for a tempestuous election year, says communications expert Rita Kirk:

“Many people forget that the Obama campaign hired Chris Hughes, one of the Facebook founders, to create his 2008 social media campaign. It revolutionized modern campaigning because the voters were more engaged in the process; it was personal, retail politics at its best. The candidates in the 2012 primaries have not shown a similar interest in grassroots campaigning, but the Republican Party will have to assemble a top-notch team to compete.

“This has been a fascinating early campaign season. Ideological voters such as those who identify themselves with the Tea Party are much more aggressive in asserting their influence early in the campaign season as compared to similar groups in past elections. The result is that they have been able to set the agenda for the Republican debates.”

Kirk is director of SMU’s Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility and Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor of Communication Studies in Meadows School of the Arts. Kirk and Dan Schill, assistant professor conducted dial-testing focus groups for CNN.

Sin and ‘spinmeisters’

William B. Lawrence

In a recent Huffington Post column, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president, Union of Reform Judaism, wrote that Americans “fear the language of sin.” Would it be better if “sin” were part of the political vocabulary? Reporter Wayne Slater recently posed that question to theologian William B. Lawrence. Here is an excerpt from Lawrence’s answer, which was posted on The Dallas Morning News’ Texas Faith blog on October 25:

“I am opposed to adding the word ‘sin’ to the political vocabulary. … My opposition stems from my desire to prevent yet another theologically defined word from falling captive to the political classes and spinmeisters. We have already seen the word ‘evangelical’ become useless in its original theological context, because it has been so corrupted by political commentators and schemers that one can no longer utter it unless one intends to be understood as making a point about conservative political perspectives. Even the word ‘religion’ has lost its value in public discourse. …”

Lawrence is dean and professor of American church history at Perkins School of Theology. His newest book, Ordained Ministry in The United Methodist Church, was published this fall.

Surveying the polls

Lynne Stokes

Polling has become an important strategic tool in politics, but Lynne Stokes, professor of statistical science in Dedman College, warns consumers to look at the polling organizations as closely as they look at the candidates:

“New communication technologies have made data collection so much faster now that public opinion can be monitored nearly in real time. News organizations love this, because they are always looking for a story, preferably for a competitive edge. Advances in survey methods have also improved polling accuracy.

“The organization that conducts the poll is an important indicator of its validity. The best-performing pollsters are usually non-partisan survey research companies or university research centers. Organizations
that publish their methods, including sample sizes, margins of error and statements about how they limit nonresponse error, are usually more reliable.”

Stokes is an expert in surveys, polls and sampling, as well as in non-sampling survey errors, such as errors by interviewers and respondents. Her recent research for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has focused on the improvement of data collection and estimation of fish harvests.

Fueling the economy

Bernard L. “Bud” Weinstein

Independent voters will be drawn to a sound, economic recovery plan, according to economist Bernard L. Weinstein:

“Since we’re not likely to see much net job creation between now and election day, the dominant issue on the campaign trail will be the economy. The candidate who can put forward the most credible and affordable program for reviving the moribund economy should be able to attract the growing ranks of independent voters.

“A sound, domestically-focused energy strategy can also be a job creation plan. Though proposals to increase oil and gas production in the U.S. will appeal to voters in most Southern and Western states, energy development is not likely to resonate with voters in the northeast and California.”

Weinstein is associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute and an adjunct professor of business economics in the Cox School of Business.

Politics and religion

Matt Wilson

The presidential campaign may be as much about religion as it is about the economy, says political scientist Matt Wilson:

“Religion inevitably will be a major theme of the 2012 campaign, even if the economy is supposedly the central issue. As it has been for the past several electoral cycles, the partisan gap between regular church attenders and the nonreligious will be greater than that between rich and poor, men and women, the employed and the unemployed. Religious and secular Americans have simply come to see the world in very different ways and that has translated into their political preferences.

“If the Republican candidate is Mitt Romney, then we can expect a bevy of stories on Mormonism. We can also, unfortunately, expect a range of subtle and not-so-subtle anti-Mormon attacks, both in the primaries and the general election. … We’ll have to see if America is ready to once again expand its definition of what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ president.”

Wilson, associate professor of political science in Dedman College, specializes in religion and politics, as well as public opinion, elections and political psychology.

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