Table of Contents
2 A Look at the American Presidential Elections of Today
2.1 Recent Changes in the Race forVotes
2.1.1 The Low Voter Participation and Its Consequences
2.1.2 Youth Voters in Focus
2.2 The Mass Media's Influence - a Contemporary Form of 06 Propaganda?
3 How 'Vote or Die!' Lured Youths to Vote in the 2004 Presidential Elections
3.1 Whatls'Vote or Die!'Actually?
3.2 How Did the Campaign Work?
3.3 What an Influence Had It?
3.4 Did 'Vote or Die!' Prefer a Certain Party?
5 Works Cited
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States of America remain the only undisputed world power. On a political level, the American president is often referred to as the 'most powerful man in the world' in a colloquial manner. He is not only the official head of state of the military and economic most powerful country on the globe but also the leader of the executive authority, commander-in-chief of the American army, first diplomat of his country, and the leader of his party (cf. Losche [b] 17f). Consequently, the American president incorporates two roles that are mostly divided in parliamentary systems - namely the role as head of state and as the leader of administration (cf. Shell 228). Yet, the leader of the country of both unlimited possibilities and unlimited contradictions is also restricted in his influence by other political organs like the Congress or the Supreme Court: "The two defining characteristics of American democracy are the separation of powers (with constitutionally guaranteed checks and balances) and federalism" (Maisel 3).
Within the more than 200 years since the American state was established, tremendous changes have taken place on its soil. Logically, also the presidential chair with all its authorities and rights must be assessed as different in contrast to the beginnings of the American nation. The American cosmopolitan Kurt L. Shell argues that historical necessities gave the president more and more power over the decades - even to an extent definitely not being planned by the founding fathers of the United States of America (cf. Shell 227). With such a mighty price on the line, the battle for the presidential chair is undoubtedly a hard and long-lasting one. In the two-party system, which is an essential part of the United States' political system for more than 150 years (cf. Maisel 23), the Democrats and Republicans compete to attract the majority of US citizens to get their vote in the multitude of elections that have taken place on the North American continent. As voting participation has dramatically fallen over the last decades, the two parties are nowadays forced to appeal to new voter blocs on the one hand, and activate their existing voter bases on the other hand. In the 2004 presidential elections, especially youth voters stood in the spotlight of medial coverage, as their percentaged participation in elections has been notably low in the past. That is why, many public campaigns were started to attract their attention and get them to cast their ballot. One organization is called Citizen Change. It gained international recognition with their catchy but also populist claim 'Vote or Die!' in the course of the 2004 elections. The 'Vote or Die!' campaign will be in the focus of this term paper, as I will outline and explain this campaign's motives, methods, and its influence on the electoral behavior of American youths.
2 A Look at the American Presidential Elections of Today
Before an in-depth look at the motivation, the functioning, the results, and also the failures of Citizen Change's campaign is possible, it is unambiguously necessary to clarify some theoretical aspects at first. As it is perceived worldwide, "the presidency is the largest prize in the system, the quadrennial election of the president of the United States dominates all other elections" (Maisel 5). In most countries on other continents, the long-lasting and spectacular race for the White House is thoroughly observed by the media. Not only the intensity and the media coverage make the American presidential elections something special, but also the qualities that a successful aspirant for the presidency has to demonstrate. To finally win the majority of votes in the Electoral College and hence, be able to rule the most significant country in the world for at least four years, candidates have to show multiple strengths. The Austrian scholars Filzmaier and Plasser point out four key factors that heavily influence the voting behavior of American voters: party identification, candidate image, of course also political issues, and last but not least campaign events that can alter the outcome of an election tremendously (cf. Filzmaier and Plasser [a] 42). Though it is named as one of the decisive aspects, party identification ultimately does not play such an important role as it does for example in Europe. The highly individualized election campaigns in the US are the main factor for the phenomenon that an individual candidate's appearance and political as well as social competences can be deemed as more important to many voters than the actual party a candidate belongs to (cf. Filzmaier and Plasser [b] 195). Being charismatic and enthusiastic partly seems to be the key quality to achieve political goals in the USA these days. Therefore, it is not very surprising that candidates do not have to prove a lot of political experience (cf. Losche [b] 25). The comet-like rise of Barack Obama to become the 44th president of the United States demonstrates that concretely.
Another peculiarity concerning the presidential elections can be found in the length, way, and fuss of campaigning. Peter Losche, a German expert on American politics, explains as follows:
Nowadays, election campaigns begin four years before the actual Election Day for a candidate for the presidential chair. He collects donations, establishes ties for a political network all around the country, and hires professional campaign con- sultants. Further stations on the way to become president are: the declaration as official candidate (one or two years before the election), the campaigning for preelections within the respective political party, then this pre-elections that last from January to June in the year of the presidential elections and finally the main campaign from September to October (translated from: Losche [b] 25).
So, the path to become president appears to be long and complicated. The same appears to be true for media coverage of and the hustings itself.
2.1 Recent Changes in the Race for Votes
To give an introduction to the development and changes of the presidential campaigns throughout the history ofthe USA, I want to cite L. Sandy Maisel:
One hundred years ago politicians reached citizens on a one-on-one basis. Personal contact was the only possible means of contact. [...] Since that time we have seen [...] technological revolutions in campaigning. First, candidates now communicate differently with the electorate. Radio has been replaced by television as the principle means of communication with potential voters. [...] Internet appeals - via websites and e-mail - further refine the ways in which candidates communicate their messages to prospective voters and raise funds (Maisel 52f).
Due to technological inventions, today's campaigning tactics and strategies cannot be compared to those means of getting the attention and approval of the people two centuries ago. Not the personal face-to-face communication between a presidential candidate and his or her possible voter or a speech on a public square are the most effective ways to persuade people to cast their ballot for a certain candidate anymore, but recorded, nationwide-broadcasted speeches or daily updated internet videos. Hustings of today have taken a completely different approach than they did in former times. This brings along some positive, though also a plenty of negative aspects with it.
2.1.1 The Low Voter Participation and Its Consequences
Unfortunately, the United States have developed into a low turnout culture regarding voting, as Maisel states: "In a listing of democracies sorted by turnout in national elections, the United States falls in the bottom quintile" (Maisel 136). Reasons for this behavior are multiple: a starting point can be found in the fact that "since voting is not compulsory in the United States, individuals must choose to cast a ballot" (Kornbluh 1). Yet, this is also the case in many other states, where the turnout rates are much higher. Hence, other arguments have to be pointed out. One among them is the missing connection between citizens and politicians which people often criticize. Mark Lawrence Kornbluh calls it the parties' "inability [...] to continue to integrate the American public into electoral politics" (Kornbluh 118). In consequence, the voting behavior of the American people has changed drastically, or as this author puts it in a minimalist way: "Americans today rarely vote" (Kornbluh XI). He further points out that voter participation has never ever reached the high levels established in the nineteenth century (cf. Kornbluh XI). There is a big amount of facts that must be blamed for this degression. First and foremost, the registration laws in the USA lead to a lot of bureaucratic effort for the voters, which is kind of unnecessary as many other states display (e.g. Germany). Additionally, the Election Day is always held during the workweek due to tradition. Having to work, most citizens are hence limited in their free time (and in this case: to be able to go voting). Further on, the frequency of elections being held from city, to state- and nationwide level can obviously lead to some sort of tiredness in political events (cf. Maisel 136f). Besides, some people will also be frustrated because of the peculiar situation that a candidate can have more votes than his opponent, but does not necessarily become the American president, as Al Gore had to witness in 2000, when George Bush achieved more electoral votes by electoral delegates without receiving a majority in total votes.
This dramatic decline in factual numbers was also strengthened by a more and more mixed up electorate. Again, Kornbluh adds: "The demographic composition of the voting public became increasingly skewed along socioeconomic, regional, racial, ethnic, and age lines" (Kornbluh 89). But that is not the worst aspect of that trend: he moreover argues that significant parts of the American population are excluded from political events and that "the political realm has been sharply divided along gender and racial lines" (Kornbluh 4). I suggest that demographic and social aspects can be complemented to his enumeration as well.
The name of this - by the way international - crisis in low voting turnouts is called dealignment. This process describes a trend whereby a large proportion of the electorate abandons its previously partisan affiliation without developing a new one to replace it. This phenomenon can be found especially in Western, liberal democracies. Those undetermined voters, who are also called swing voters, can be seen as the personification of the instability of individual voting behavior of the late 20th and beginning 21st century (cf. Zelle 14). The social reorganization is recognized as the basis for this recent phenomenon of dwindling loyalty towards political parties (cf. Zelle 15), while heavy political crises (e.g. the Vietnam War or the Watergate Scandal in case of the USA) add up to that difficult situation (cf. Zelle 49f) as well. Zelle moreover delivers another genuinely promising explanation for the dealignment process - the fact that the social environment coins not only a person's character but also his or her electoral behavior:
The job and the education of an individual as well as his or her bond to a religion, a labor union, their age and gender determine both the interests and the formation of the character in a vital manner. Those traits have proven to be of significance concerning the prediction of a person's voting behavior (translated from: Zelle 24f).
With an urbanization of society and huge masses of immigrants coming to the United States, a mass demobilization of voters took place due to tremendous social changes. Consequently for today's multilateral society, the numbers of devoted voter bases deteriorate while the process of an individualization of society can be transferred on politics, too. Traditional party affiliation is hence decreasing.
2.1.2 Youth Voters in Focus
Now, the question remains how parties adapted to this negative trend of less voters and how they generated new strategies in the 'Battle for the White House'. As the United States are assumed to be one of the first countries to witness the symptoms of dealignment (cf. Zelle 49f), strategies are used to counter this process. A first step of the two major parties was to particularly attract new voter blocs to remain capable of winning the majority (cf. Zelle 27). One group that has been often neglected or overseen in the past are youth voters. Their turnout rates have mostly been the lowest in comparison to other demographic groups, as Powell underlines: "Over the long run, young voters rarely vote in percentages as high as older voters" (Powell). Yet, they can play an eminent role, as they can decisively tip the scale into the direction of either the Democrats or the Republicans.
But why have political parties often 'forgotten' to address the most inexperienced among all demographic groups? Primarily, it is simply a consequence of their relatively low voter participation - both Democrats and Republicans (or any other party) will rather address and elate demographic or social groups that will eventually vote for them. Appreciation only - but not the actual casting of the ballot for them (or even worse: not even registering for an election) - is logically not desired by political parties. As a result, some generations get more attention and focus than others (cf. Filzmaier and Plasser [b] 66). Very cynical journalists even go that far of judging any effort and energy being put into luring young people to vote as useless; Andrew Romano for example ironically wrote before the 2008 pre-elections: "Barack Obama and young voters - specifically, whether they can actually help him win the nomination or whether they'll just stay home, you know, watching MTV and eating Doritos as they have in the past" (Romano). As time went by, actual turnouts proved him wrong. Yet, his allusion to television and advertisement bridges the gap to the topic of manipulation and propaganda which are terms that scholars sometimes connect to the influence of the media during the election period.
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- Technische Universität Chemnitz – Anglistik / Amerikanistik
- 2010 (April)
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