Election 2012 Roundup: Four Faculty Members on This Year's Campaign
Associate Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs
Q. What are some key differences between the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections?
There are three main differences. Organized labor is much weaker now than it was in 2008, especially in key states like Wisconsin and Ohio, where there have been attempts to roll back public employee collective bargaining rights. The second major change has been the role of money. Since the 2010 Citizens United decision, we’ve seen a wave of money come into this election cycle. The third difference is that voters—especially black, Latino and youth voters—are much less enthusiastic this time. The Obama campaign has a huge challenge trying to reclaim the excitement and the mobilization of 2008 and getting them to come out again in 2012.
Q. Who is investing in Obama’s campaign this time around?
Organized labor spent more money than they ever had to get a president elected to the White House and to get a Democratic Congress in 2008. Labor is probably going to end up spending more money this time to keep pace with the super PACs that have emerged mostly on the right. If labor spent about $150 million in the 2008 election, we can expect upwards of $250 million, maybe more, spent on this election.
Obama had a lot of big donors from Wall Street last time. But with the loss of much of that support because of financial reform and a perception that he’s antibusiness, it’s unclear where he is going to raise the additional money. And even though the Obama campaign raised a lot last month, overall the amount of super PAC money supporting Romney dwarfs the amount supporting Obama. So in terms of total money to be spent in this election, Obama is at a disadvantage.
Q. What role do minorities play in this election?
In key states, they’re going to make all the difference. Black voters are heavily Democratic, and they support the president upwards of 90-plus percent. Latino voters are around 70 percent in favor of re-electing Obama. Nevada, for instance, has a lot of Latino voters. Obama will need an overwhelming majority of those voters if he wants to win the state. The same goes in Florida, where there are a lot of Jewish voters who vote 70 percent or higher for Democratic candidates. In North Carolina, he needs exceptional turnout from African American voters.
Q. What role does organized labor play in this election?
The labor movement is one of the core constituencies of the Democratic Party and has been since the New Deal era in the 1930s. It serves as the party’s chief mobilizing force. For Democrats and for President Obama’s reelection campaign, labor is the biggest source of troops on the ground, as well as money. In a two-party system, the Democrats have traditionally been the party of labor, and the Republicans have been the party of business. Mitt Romney’s position is essentially the Republican position. Over the last few decades, American unions have lost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of members. A lot of that is due to the shifting nature of our economy—we used to be a manufacturing economy, and now we’re mostly service-based. At the same time, unions have also lost political power. The recent wave of legislation taking away collective bargaining rights from public employees in Wisconsin is an example. Having said that, American unions still punch above their weight in the electoral cycle. Even though unions only represent about 12 percent of the American workforce, they make up about 25 percent of the electorate.
Q. What has your research on Wal-Mart taught you about business in politics?
I’ve been working on a book about Wal-Mart, especially Wal-Mart’s attempt to enter big cities like New York and Los Angeles. In the 1990s, Wal-Mart avoided politics altogether. But in the last decade, we’ve seen it become much more engaged in the political system—making contributions to candidates and a lot more lobbying efforts. Wal-Mart is, in many ways, illustrative of the broader role that business plays in politics. We’ve seen lots of businesses get much more engaged and put much more money in the political system. It creates quite a different dynamic when you have a weakening labor movement and a stronger business sector engaging in politics.
—Interview by Meghan Berry
Four Columbia faculty were awarded Sloan Research Fellowships by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. They are Mark Churchland, assistant professor of neuroscience; Wei Min, assistant professor of chemistry; Simha Sethumadhavan, associate professor of computer science; and Wei Zhang, assistant professor of mathematics.
Alondra Nelson, associate professor of sociology, won the 2012 book award from the Association for Humanist Sociology for Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination.