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200 Attend Student Conference on Election '96

A.L.K. Peckett of Liverpool John Moores University reports on an outstanding day


Election conferenceThe Presidential Election in 1996 provided the theme of one of the best attended conferences the Centre has held for the last few years. The Merseyside Maritime Museum played host to 200 students and staff from schools and colleges around the country on Wednesday October 16th.

The rise of the soundbite

Niall Palmer, lecturer in American Politics at Brunel University College in Uxbridge

gave the keynote lecture on the use of the media during presidential elections. He concentrated on the ways in which the media manipulates politicians, and politicians use the media to gain advantage over their opponents. Television has transformed the way in which candidates campaign for high office, but critics cannot agree on whether this change is for the better or the worse. Sound bites have meant that comments are dramatically reduced in size to make them snappy, as in President Bush's "Read my lips - no new taxes". In 1968, the average length of a soundbite was 60 seconds - by 1989 it had shrunk to just 9.8 seconds. Television both combines and liberates candidates. On the one hand it gets them directly into the living rooms of the nation, enhancing their political message with visuals. On the down side it doesn't give them a second chance, so the need for dramatics is greater - 'infotainment' is now the order of the day. Television allows little, if any, reaction time, as Dan Quayle found to his cost when he was shown correcting a pupil's spelling of potato to include an 'e'. Dr Palmer concluded by saying "TV has altered the way in which campaigns are run. Candidates are slaves to the image makers, spontaneity has been lost and image has replaced substance. The length of the sound bite has been reduced to match an average attention span, reducing politics to image and slogan."

Changing coalitions

American Electoral Coalitions was the theme of the second speaker, Dean McSweeney of the University of the West of England. Politicians have found it increasingly difficult to put together like-minded groups to support their campaigns - hence the need to build coalitions; politics has thus become a constant struggle for hegemony. These coalitions could be constructed around a host of different issues, forming groups that have something in common, but not necessarily a great deal. For example, the Republicans targetted Middle America with connotations of respectability and homeliness rather than income or material status. There was a commitment to decency, morality, conventionality and defence. The manifesto was: less government, less tax.

With confidence in the economy higher than at any time during the past eight years, the campaign to gain support from middle America is paying off for President Clinton, and consequently he has tapped into other concerns such as crime, law and order and the quality and affordability of education. In conclusion McSweeney explained the geographical factors in the campaign. While some states appear to be consistently Republican, the Democrats have virtually no firm geographic base since President Clinton's victory in 1992.

Republicans v Democrats

The conference heated up in the afternoon with the introduction of representatives from the two main parties: Trooper Sanders from Democrats Abroad and Thomas Grant from the Republicans.

First on the platform was Thomas Grant, who put forward the case for electing a Republican President. "Republicans believe individuals are better at solving problems than distant politicians." He claimed that there are 51 possible solutions to the problem of poverty (50 states plus the District of Columbia). Senator Dole would establish a national computer data base of all convicted felons to prevent them from getting firearms and would challenge Hollywood to stop promoting sex, drugs and violence.

Turning to foreign policy, Mr Grant said that the cornerstone was a strong transatlantic policy. Senator Dole wants to extend NATO to include Poland, and the Czech and Slovak Republics. The United Kingdom is still a special friend of the US.

The day's final speaker was the Democrat, Trooper Sanders. He claimed that President Clinton had turned America round with the restoration of the American dream. The Government was now working with and for the people as part of the community and has cut federal bureaucracy.

The Conference ended with a lively question and answer session, which gave a degree of spontaneity and excitement to finish the day in style.

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