Editor’s Note: Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, The Observer will sit down with Notre Dame experts to break down the election and its importance to students. In this third installment, News Writer Rachel O’Grady asks Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Chair in American Studies and Journalism and Director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy Robert Schmuhl about the implications of the Iowa caucuses and the role of the media in the upcoming election.
Rachel O’Grady: Iowa didn’t turn out (necessarily) as the polls predicted. What do you make of these results?
Robert Schmuhl: Polling before caucuses is notoriously chancy and usually less reliable than surveys before primaries. Evangelicals turned out in larger numbers for Ted Cruz, as did younger voters for Bernie Sanders.
ROG: What should we be looking for in New Hampshire?
RS: First, whether Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders do as well as they are expected to do. On the Republican side, it’ll be important to see which of the more mainstream candidates perform well and stake out a position to take on Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in future contests. For the Democrats, if Hillary Clinton gets beaten badly, the question will be: Is she more vulnerable than the pundits predicted a few months ago? Is she no longer inevitable — or, at least, severely damaged?
ROG: How has media played a particular role in this primary election? How will it play a role in the general?
RS: Without the media, Donald Trump would still be hustling real estate and worrying about his hair. He’s a performer, a very good one, and knows exactly how to attract attention. If there were a Nobel Prize for Self-Promotion, he’d win, hands-down. The media are accomplices and they project the way he dramatizes himself and his views. That said, he’s a messenger with appeal for people who feel America is letting them down. He speaks to the anger abroad in the land. Interestingly, so does Bernie Sanders — but from another ideological direction. In 2016, we have a billionaire and a socialist finding strong followings for giving expression to problems now facing the nation.
ROG: In your research and opinion, what do you think will be the most important issue in the general election?
RS: Much of the time the economy, broadly defined, plays a dominant role in voting decisions: economic security [and the] future of promise for the current generation and the next one and all the rest. But if there would be another act of terrorism or a major incident abroad, then national security might become a major concern that the candidates have to confront as they campaign.
ROG: Taking it back to college campuses, particularly here at ND, if students want to be informed, what’s the best way for them to stay informed? What should they be reading/watching?
RS: With the crowded and cluttered media universe that now exists, the trick for everyone is to look for and to find the sources of information that provide answers to questions a person might be seeking. It’s important to use the new media to meet your needs and to be active rather than passive in the pursuit. Partisan outlets take a person just so far. Looking beyond them to more in-depth treatment of the candidates and the issues leads to a more informed electorate. We all have to look beyond the slogans and sound bites.