Oberlin Blogs


December 21, 2008

Will Mason ’10

I should start off by saying that my finals week was neither the busiest nor the most stressful week I've had this semester. I had three exams, two of which required almost no studying, and one 25-page paper, which was--dare I say it--enjoyable to write. It was a suitably plain end to a semester in which only two of my six classes were particularly exciting; in anticipation of my declaring an independent major I loaded up on core requirements to try and get them out of the way early. It's an ugly truth about college that you won't always like all of your classes, and while I could rhapsodize at great length about some of the awesome courses I've had here, I also have enrolled in classes (including one of the aforementioned required courses this semester) that I did not attend except on days when there were quizzes and tests. It certainly casts some of my more romantic notions about the value of learning and academia into question, and my efforts to rationalize this habit ("you need to use that time for your other schoolwork, and for practicing!") are generally fruitless. I confess I try not to think about it too much.

But for all my whining about pre-requisites, my good classes this semester were really good. My favorite was the second half of the year-long Oberlin Initiatives in Electoral Politics seminar, also known as the Cole Scholars program. I wrote about the program at length here ; this semester's seminar was focused on the completion of an individual research project, based at least tangentially on observations and experiences from our summer internships. At the Tom Allen for Senate campaign, I interned with the communications department, and as a result my paper dealt with issues like marketing a candidate, advertisements, rhetoric, media relations, etc. I conducted a lit review of some of the wide pool of existing academic work pertinent to these themes, and then examined Tom Allen's unsuccessful Senate bid alongside Jeanne Shaheen's Senate victory in New Hampshire. The two campaigns are in many ways apt comparisons, with a lot of control variables between them: the demographics of Maine and New Hampshire are similar, and both Shaheen and Allen have long political histories in their states, which meant that they didn't face all the same hurdles usually present to challengers in races against an incumbent.

Though I did try to include an original research component to the paper, an inordinate amount of ink was devoted to a post-mortem on the Allen campaign. In an Associated Press article from April 30, 2007 entitled "Senate race in Maine drawing national attention," journalist Jerry Harkavy wrote that "U.S. Rep. Tom Allen has yet to announce his challenge to Sen. Susan Collins, but the Maine race is already shaping up as one of a handful likely to draw the national spotlight in 2008...Along with races in Colorado, Minnesota and New Hampshire, the contest between Collins and Allen has begun showing up on virtually everyone's watch list." By November 5th, 2008, however, things had changed dramatically. In Colorado, Democrat Mark Udall won the open Senate seat 52 percent to 42 percent. In New Hampshire, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen beat incumbent Republican Senator John Sununu 51 percent to 45 percent. In Minnesota, the results are still too close to call, with Democrat Al Franken leading over incumbent Republican senator Norm Coleman by a few hundred votes. In Maine, Susan Collins was re-elected by a margin of 61 percent to 38 percent. Of the four races to watch in 2007, three unfurled as planned while one ended so badly that it's hard to look at the results and think that there was ever a time when the race could have been close.

Distance from the election has tempered my disappointment about Allen's loss, which may account for my being unduly curt in discussing the campaign. I still think Allen was the better candidate, and I wish like hell he'd won. Additionally, my two months of work were wonderful. The people at the campaign were not just great at their jobs but were great people too, and I'm lucky to have met them. My investment of a paltry two months' time working for the campaign still had sufficient impact on me to tamp down my joy over Obama's victory on the 4th. I have no idea what it's like to spend a year, or two years, working full-time on a campaign only to have it end in defeat.

I attribute Allen's loss to three things: first, I think Susan Collins proved a savvier campaigner than anyone could have anticipated. Second, I think that despite trending Democratic in recent presidential elections Maine remains a center-right state. Third, I think that the Allen campaign didn't advertise early enough and didn't go negative hard enough. My respect for negative advertisements as an effective means of achieving victory is borderline Machiavellian. All throughout the campaign I heard talk--mostly in some half-baked "news analysis" piece in one of the daily dishrag newspapers with which Maine is so unfortunately burdened--that Mainers didn't want to sully their state with the kind of negative campaigning that characterizes elections in other parts of the nation. This isn't a false statement, exactly: Maine is an insular state and its residents certainly like to think that they are removed, both in geography and ideology, from the rough-and-tumble fray of political campaigns in other parts of the country. But implicit in the claim that Mainers don't want negative campaigns is the assumption that there are other parts of the country that do find such a campaign desirable. Imagine a family in Nebraska or Connecticut flipping through prime-time television in search of angry, defamatory advertisements!

Negative ads have nothing to do with where people live or what people want; candidates run them because they're effective. Some of the most famous advertisements from past presidential elections are the attack ads: Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy" advertisement, George H.W. Bush's "Willie Horton" ad, and the "Swiftboat Veterans for Truth" ads against John Kerry all contributed to the eventual defeat of their targets. I believe that had Allen been more willing to attack Collins earlier and with harsher rhetoric, he almost certainly would have closed the wide gap between the two candidates. Jeanne Shaheen's campaign in New Hampshire degenerated into detestable, grotesque mud-slinging in June and stayed that way right up until November. A Boston Globe article described one of the New Hampshire debates thusly: "The only thing civilized in the debate Tuesday night in Henniker was the brick fireplace in the background. The candidates repeatedly spoke over each other like bickering siblings." But through all this vitriol Shaheen managed to successfully tie her opponent to George W. Bush, a notion that Allen wasn't able to get Mainers to swallow.

Of course, this is just my amateur opinion. I'm sure that financial considerations weighed heavily on the mind of the campaign--it's hard to start advertising in May when your war chest only has enough for two months' worth of airtime. Nevertheless, I can't help but view the campaign's decision to go on the air in mid-August - after Collins aired her first advertisement - as a costly and avoidable tactical error.

Water under the bridge. Consolation exists in my feeling that, apart from his decision to bring Rick Warren into the inauguration ceremonies, Obama's been doing better than I'd hoped as president-elect. He's assembled a top-notch cabinet (and some top-notch entertainment at the inauguration) and conducted himself reasonably well through the Blagojevich scandal. I remain excited and optimistic about the first two years of his presidency, even if my brazen prediction during junior year of high school that I would graduate college having state-funded health insurance turned out to be naïve. (Maybe if I pursue a doctoral degree...)

This winter term I will be back in Oberlin, which is actually warmer than my home state of Maine by about 10 degrees this time of year. I'm going to practice, compose, read, and live the hermitic lifestyle that I've so long admired but so infrequently indulged. As of now, I'm sitting in a recording studio in Cleveland (where, I recently learned through this website, Jesse's awesome band Vitium has also just finished recording an album). Like Bells will be mastering our first full-length album in early January and after that I hope to put some of it up on the web to share with everyone. It's the most demanding musical project I've ever been involved with in terms of the sheer time commitment, but I'm excited about the results and happy to be here. Spending so much time looking at these 2008 Senate races has only reaffirmed my desire to get nowhere near them as a profession. There are no attack ads in music.

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