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WVU faculty looks at election, approaching fiscal cliff

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West Virginia University political watchers zeroed in on post-election results during a Nov. 26 discussion, particularly looking at whether voters in the 2012 general election got the ball rolling on a new political regime or entered "Stalemate 2.0." 

West Virginia University's Eberly College of Arts and Sciences hosted the post-election discussion in Charleston as part of several new Eberly Ideas Discussion Series to be held in the Capital City.

A panel of Eberly faculty headlined the event. Each speaker gave a brief presentation and then took questions from the audience and discussed whether they agreed or disagreed with the direction of the nation's political future.

Patrick Hickey, an assistant professor at West Virginia University, said he was optimistic change could come about even though election results largely produced the same power dynamic that was in place prior to the election. He said that while this was one of the more contentious races in history, voter demographics made it clear who won soon after the polls closed.

President Obama's victory, despite a major party turnover in the mid-terms, Hickey said, maybe shouldn't have been a surprise.

"Every time a president's party suffered such a big defeat two years into the president's presidency, that president has gone on to win the presidency," Hickey said. "... I think that's a really important trend to keep in mind it's how it worked through the 1900s and into the 21st Century."'

Scott Crichlow, an associate professor and department chairman, said models created by political scientists proved this election was largely predictable. He said many prominent political scientists used models based on known patterns of voter behavior to call the results of the election before voters went to the polls.

"Basically, the stuff that happens in the first three years doesn't matter all, except for how it affects what happens in year four," Crichlow said. "People are looking retrospectively at sort of how things are going right now."

A big part of Obama's win, Crichlow said, was a major turnout of younger voters. Those voters, he said, are starting to skew Democratic, and they're turning out to vote.

"They gave Obama gigantic margins," Crichlow said. "... If you're a Democratic politician and you're not activating that vote, you're missing out. It's a big problem for Republican voters." 

The election produced another phenomenon, as well. Women and minorities are rapidly taking their seats in the Democratic caucus while elected. Republicans are still mostly white men.

"When you look at the Democratic Caucus during the State of the Union in January, you'll notice a lot minority faces and female faces," Hickey said. "The Democratic Caucus … for the first time in history that either party's Congressional caucus was made up of women and minorities. White men are in the minority in the Democratic caucus in the incoming Congress for the first time in history."

But what about the "big question?" What everyone wants to know, Hickey said, is "are they going to anything?"

"If we look at policy making in a historical perspective, we realize that major legislation almost never passes along party lines alone," Hickey said.

The Civil Rights Act, National Free Trade Agreement, Bush tax cuts and the balanced budget bill from the Clinton presidency are all examples of bills Hickey pointed out that required a smudging of the party line to pass. He said partisanship has historically not gotten in the way of major legislation, despite common perception.

The big three issues Hickey said will likely be addressed is the approaching fiscal cliff, climate change and immigration reform.

Karen Kunz, assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration, specializes in public budget management, financial management and political economy. She said she was less convinced Congress would act, at least on the fiscal cliff.

"My bet, sorry, no change," Kunz said. "We'll still be talking about sequestration Jan. 1." 

The consequences, she pointed out, are drastic. Income taxes are set to increase and payroll deductions will go up on the average citizen.

"So, not only will you see less income, when you get your taxes you'll get to write off less," Kunz said. "The net result is you're going to take home less, there's going to be less for you to spend to affect the economy."

Politicians currently disagree on who should shoulder the burden of balancing the budget. If politicians are serious, Kunz said, they'll produce a real framework for addressing the deficit.

"Right now, it's rhetoric, and it's pretty vague rhetoric at that," she said.

So, despite all the concern projected in the media about the fiscal cliff, why is there no urgency to act?

"There's really no incentive for them to act this year," she said. "Even if the sequestration goes into effect in January, it's effects won't go into effect for a few months. They have some time. If they wait until January, they have political cover. By then, all of the tax cuts will expire and any action they take will not be raising taxes, it will actually be cutting taxes."

The problem lies in the behavior of Congress, Kunz said. Without their cooperation with each other, the problem of the fiscal cliff can not be solved.

"If this were a family, there would be serious counseling," Kunz said of Congress.

Elizabeth Cohen, an assistant professor at WVU's Department of Communication Studies, provided another big issue in political circles. Social media is penetrating and possibly morphing the way modern campaigns are run.

Cohen said, unsurprisingly, young adults are driving the social media political movement. However, patterns emerge as well.

Republicans are more likely to repost another person's content while Democrats are more likely to broadcast original thought or found political articles. Democrats are also more likely to promote campaign materials and encourage people to vote.

So, did social media affect the election?

"I'll be honest, I think people want to believe it does because it's cool to think new technology is having these impacts," Cohen said. "I will agree with that. I think it did, but I don't think … maybe these effects aren't as direct as we would like to believe them to be." 

She said traditional news sources still dominate in providing news to the American public despite the attention given to social media.

Internet sources are growing, but most people still obtain their news from local and cable television news, Cohen said.

Social media, Cohen said, strengthens political affiliations, influences the agenda and has taken a place as a metric for gauging political opinion.