PUBLISHED:November 05, 2008

Post-election panel asks "What just happened?"

Nov. 5, 2008 – A panel of election experts discussed the mechanics and implications of Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential victory in a far-reaching and, at times, emotional post-mortem of the campaign.

Christopher Schroeder, Charles S. Murphy Professor of Law and Public Policy Studies at the Law School, moderated a panel composed of visiting professor Guy Uriel Charles, John Aldrich, Duke University Pfizer-Pratt Professor of Political Science, and Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling.

The panelists addressed topics ranging from the campaigns’ likely effect on public campaign financing to the changing population of North Carolina, and how a demographic shift is likely to affect local elections in the future.

Charles, the Russell M. and Elizabeth M. Bennett Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School, and Aldrich both choked back tears while describing the historic election.

Charles pointed out that, while much of the data was still being processed, it looked as if the difference in the election was made by African-American and Latino voters, who overwhelmingly chose Obama.

“With the help of a significant number of white voters, voters of color decided a presidential election in the United States of America,” said Charles, an expert on election law, politics and race. “When you go back over the history of this country, and you think about how far we have come now that the Voting Rights Act has been in place for almost 43 years, and you think about the civil rights movement, and you think about the fact that a coalition of white voters, and voters of color, and young people came together to decide a presidential election in our lifetimes, it’s something that most of us did not think that we would ever see.”

All three panelists pointed out how deftly Obama handled the issue of race during the campaign, which Aldrich likened to John F. Kennedy’s refusal to be ashamed of or pigeonholed by his Catholicism during the 1960 presidential race.

Aldrich also compared the Obama victory to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory. Like Obama, Reagan won with the help of new voters and many who viewed their 1980 vote as a condemnation of the Carter administration, he said. Similarly, Obama’s victory seems due, in part, to the Bush administration’s unpopularity.

Charles and Aldrich both suggested that public campaign financing could disappear in presidential elections, given the record amounts raised from private donors by Obama’s campaign.

Debnam talked about polling data during the race, mentioning a now-infamous ad run by Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina. Dole’s ad attempted to link her opponent, Kay Hagan, with an atheist group. Debnam said it is clear from the numbers that the ad may have cost Dole what was a close election. “Within two days [of the ad’s debut], Hagan went up four points in the polls,” he said.

Debnam, a native North Carolinian and veteran pollster, addressed how North Carolina politics have changed as new residents come to the state. He said polling data in rural North Carolina showed that a majority of white voters refused to consider a black candidate for elected office. “Statewide, the number was about 50 percent,” he said. “The people who felt that way have not changed their minds. What’s happened in North Carolina is that the population has changed.”

Held in the Law School’s new Star Commons, the panel is one of several community events held in celebration of Building Dedication Week at Duke Law.