Research News

2008 presidential election signals transition: Vanderbilt experts

Presidential transition: A smooth presidential transition with an emphasis on advance preparation and avoidance of past pitfalls is crucial to a strong start for the next administration, says political scientist David E. Lewis. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush received high marks for beginning the process well in advance of the election, getting the mechanics right and salting their teams with experienced Washington insiders. In contrast, Bill Clinton was criticized for being too slow to get a process in place and selecting too many inexperienced campaign aides and Arkansas friends who did not know their way around Washington. However, the candidate has to be careful to keep the process under wraps during the campaign so it won’t become a distraction or seem presumptuous. Other lessons learned include the need to prioritize positions associated with public safety and the president’s agenda. Senior White House staff should be in place before other positions are filled. Lewis says the good news is that presidential transitions, which fill about 3,500 positions, have become more professional today, although the paperwork keeps expanding. Lewis, professor of political science, is the author of The Politics of Presidential Appointments: Political Control and Bureaucratic Performance. He can be reached at

Mandate in 2008? All candidates want to claim a mandate once they win elected office, says political scientist John Geer, but it is hard to know based on just the raw vote whether they earned one. Lopsided wins are usually an indicator of such a statement by the public. Reagan in 1984 probably earned a mandate, as did Johnson in 1964.But there is always uncertainty.Let’s assume Obama wins by eight points and secures more than 350 Electoral College votes. Many will claim that is a mandate for his policies.But is it? Perhaps it is a statement of unhappiness with the Bush administration, and the election only means: “don’t do what Bush did.”Mandates are tricky, partly because election results are not easy to read.If Obama wins big, there will be a tendency by the media to over-interpret what the election means.If McCain wins in a surprise, that will require even more thoughtful analysis.There will be a rush to claim “race” drove Obama’s loss. Perhaps, but we need to not make hasty conclusions. It will be important, in short, that sober and data-based assessments be made once the votes are tallied—whoever wins. Geer, Distinguished Professor of Political Science, can be reached at

Race and the Election: Whether Obama wins or loses his presidential bid, the outcome of this election will forever change the racial dynamics between blacks and whites in America, says political scientist Carol Swain. She can discuss the racial factors that affected the election and why some anticipate tumultuous days ahead. Swain’s books include Contemporary Voices of White Nationalism in America and The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration. The professor of law and political science can be reached at

60 Not a Magic Number:
Democrats are likely to have full operating control of the U.S. Senate next year even if they don’t pick up as many as nine additional seats, says political scientist Bruce Oppenheimer. The conventional wisdom would be that the Democrats need 60 Senate seats to block Republican filibusters. However, a big victory for Obama and large Democratic gains in Congress would likely dissuade moderate Republicans from standing in the way of many Democratic initiatives anyway. On the other hand, conservative Democrats might not always go along with their party leaders either. Oppenheimer, professor of political science, can be reached at

Coattails Factor: Increased voter turnout in this year’s presidential election is expected to benefit the congressional Democrats, says political scientist Christian Grose, who is researching some of the U.S. House races. Obama’s core constituencies are likely to vote a straight Democratic ticket, while some of McCain’s more moderate supporters could decide to split their tickets. Grose, assistant professor of political science, can be reached at

First 100 days crucial: Regardless of who is elected president, similarities will be drawn between the first 100 days of the new administration and that of FDR, says 20th-century historian Devin Fergus. How the new president works with Congress in handling the economic and financial crisis will set the tone for the rest of the term. If Obama is elected as a post-racial candidate, he must balance the competing concerns of the investor class with those of working and middle-class voters. Obama’s advisers should look to what lessons could be learned from the successes and failures of the New Deal. Fergus, assistant professor of history, is the author of the forthcoming book Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980. He can be reached at

Independents Played Starring Role: With 42 percent of Americans self-identifying themselves as independent of the two major parties, independents deservedly received more attention this year from the candidates of the two major parties, says Omar H. Ali, who studies independent and third party movements in the United States. He can discuss how independents – across the racial and ideological spectrum – helped to determine both the Democratic and Republican nominees for president, and have helped to usher in a new era of political change and reform. Ali, assistant professor in African American and Diaspora Studies, wrote In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third Party Movements in the United States. He can be reached at

Media Contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS