new media and the elections

Thursday, October 19, 2000
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.

Bartos Theater
MIT Media Lab

20 Ames Street


This Forum will discuss the 2000 presidential election and the media. What are the underlying dynamics of the election, and how has the race unfolded? Who is likely to win and why? How have political communications -- through traditional media such as television and new media such as the Internet -- shaped the 2000 election? What innovations in electoral politics and political communications have come about through the Internet? How does the American political experience with new media compare with that of other countries?


Stephen Ansolabehere is an MIT professor of political science who studies elections, democracy, and the mass media. He is coauthor (with Shanto Iyengar) of The Media Game and of Going Negative: How Political Advertising Alienates and Polarizes the American Electorate. His articles have appeared in The American Political Science Review, The British Journal of Politics, The Journal of Politics, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Public Opinion Quarterly, The Quill, and Chance. His current research projects include campaign finance, congressional elections, and party politics.

Chappell Lawson is an assistant professor of political science at MIT. His major interests include Latin American politics, Mexican politics, regime change, the mass media, and U.S. foreign policy. His dissertation, Building the Fourth Estate, addresses the role of the mass media in democratization. Lawson's current research focuses on voting behavior in Mexico. Before joining the MIT faculty, Lawson served as a director of Inter-American Affairs on the National Security Council and was a fellow at the Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies at the University of California, San Diego.

Anna Greenberg is assistant professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She specializes in public opinion, political participation, gender politics, and religion and politics. She is currently working on a book titled Divine Inspiration: Revealing Faith in Politics, which examines the role of congregations in politics and local communities. Her other research focuses on the gender gap and electoral politics. Greenberg is an expert on Web-based survey research and has conducted a variety of methodological and substantive studies using an Internet-based panel. Greenberg was a field worker for senators Christopher Dodd and Joe Lieberman, was Rosa DeLauro's deputy press secretary in her run for Congress, and worked in the polling unit of the 1992 Clinton/Gore campaign.


Stephen Ansolabehere likened the twists and turns of this year's U.S. presidential campaign to "Mr. Toad's wild ride," and said the result of the "surprisingly close" race will hinge on voter turnout.

Surprisingly close, the MIT political scientist said, because Vice President Al Gore is not taking advantage of the economic good times that have coincided with the Clinton presidency.

Gore's troubles in the election have political scientists questioning their own models for predicting election outcomes, Ansolabehere said. Those models predict that during peacetime and a strong economy, Gore should automatically be getting at least 53 percent of the vote as a member of the incumbent party. But many polls cited in the media indicate that both candidates are polling in the 40s and the difference is well within the margin of error, indicating "a race that is too close to call."

Why is Gore not cashing in on a healthy economy and no war in terms of getting high polling numbers?

Gore's "message moves around a lot," according to Ansolabehere, who is a Democrat, while Bush has been "on message always" pushing a less-government agenda that is "Reaganesque in its simplicity."

The U.S. Congressional elections are just as tight. Ansolabehere said there are 25 seats up for grabs in the U.S. House of Representatives - 20 are now held by Republicans, who hold an overall six-seat advantage, and five are held by Democrats - and that if they are split evenly between the parties, as he expects, the Democrats could pick up six or seven seats leaving an even narrower majority than now.


In the U.S. Senate, where the Republicans now hold a 54-46-seat advantage, Ansolabehere predicted the Democrats will pick up two seats, making it 52 to 48, Republican to Democrat.

A "president barely elected" by 10 electoral votes either way, and both a House and Senate narrowly held, will create "the most divided political scenario possible" in the U.S., he said.

"Weird things" will result from such an even split, Ansolabehere explained, as politicians jockey for power and position, making backroom deals and even switching parties in exchange for committee chairmanships. "Some pretty ugly things are going to happen." Dividing political communications into three groups, old-old media, new-old media and new-new media, Ansolabehere said that the word-of-mouth, grassroots, door-to-door, old-old politics will be the determining factor in this year's election. Saying that the old-new medium of television is rapidly fragmenting political messages with decreasing advertising costs, and the new-new medium of the Internet is "still waiting to become" in terms of a political coalition-building tool, he said grassroots efforts such as "union guys driving people to the polls" and the big spending of soft money trying to get voters to the polls in swing states will decide the race.


Anna Greenberg of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government said that the gender story of this year's election is that that there is no real gender story.

Every election year since 1980 has had its gender story, Greenberg explained. Nineteen-eighty was the gender gap; 1992 was the Year of Woman; 1994 was the angry, white young man; 1996 was the soccer mom; and 1998 was the waitress mom.

This election year's media assertion that women represent the undecided, swing vote, is a "made up story," according to Greenberg, who said the number of polls and surveys "is somewhat out of control" driven in part by technology and the Internet.

Greenberg, a pollster for the Gore campaign, was harshly critical of what she called "cagey" questionnaires, and "fake" for-profit sites such as [LINK:] that masquerade as forums for civic engagement, but that collect and sell data while claiming that their polling sample is representative of the American public.

It is hardly a random sample, Greenberg said, having been drawn from the group of people who register and agree to be polled at the Web site, which she said is similar to treating the callers to radio talk shows and their opinions as representative of the American populace.

"Be wary of these stories that women are swing voters. There really wasn't a soccer mom, and there was no waitress mom. There probably is a whip-sawed woman (in reference to a type identified by Democratic consultant Lucinda Lake), but it is probably most women," Greenberg joked.

"You can get anyone to say anything in a poll," she asserted. "We really don't know who the undecided voters are."

Chappell Lawson, an MIT political scientist who studies emerging democracies, pointed out "eerie" parallels between this year's U.S. presidential elections and the recently concluded Mexican elections.

First of all, Lawson said, the Mexican incumbent was a "kind of boring guy," the economy was good, there was some scandal, opposition voters were "chomping at the bit" to vote out the incumbent, and, ultimately, it was voter turnout that decided the election as Mexicans elected a new president.

The models suggested the incumbent would win, Lawson said, but incumbent partisans stayed home, and, as a result, the polls failed to predict the outcome of the election. Media coverage of polls in Mexico were "shockingly more responsible than what is being done in the U.S.," Lawson said. He explained that the Mexican media reported a poll's margin of error, sampling methodology, and the questions being asked, which "most American polls never do."

Voter turnout should matter similarly in the U.S. election, Lawson concluded, and "that's bad news for Al Gore."

Lawson went on to compare the media in the U.S. and developing nations such as Mexico. In America, he explained, we are used to using multiple information sources including newspapers, television, radio and the Internet. As a result, Americans won't see the same kind of dramatic cultural changes from the introduction of new media as will be seen in developing countries where there are long traditions of corruption in the media.

In Mexico, for example, the introduction of market competition and an infusion of journalistic norms and standards over the past decade have made the Mexican press "more independent, more aggressive, more assertive, independent and plural," Lawson said. Those changes dwarf what's happening in the U.S., he said.

But, whether it is online databases in the U.S., newspapers in Nigeria, or television in Mexico, Lawson said that the proliferation of media does give people an enhanced ability to monitor their government.

--Compiled by Brad Seawell