ProfTalk: Adrienne Christiansen on the GOP Primary

By Diego Ruiz

To make sense of the GOP primary election so far the Mac Weekly sat down with Adrienne Christiansen, an associate professor of Political Science who teaches classes on Cyberpolitics and the Rhetoric of Campaigns and Elections, Christiansen talked about why Newt Gingrich’s marital history should not be a subject of debate, how Twitter and other social media platforms are unproven campaign tools, and whether it’s too early to tell if Republican infighting will leave Barack Obama with an easy road to re-election. The Mac Weekly: What’s been most surprising to you about this campaign so far? Adrienne Christiansen: There are some structural things that I think are very interesting which are different this election than in the past. It’s shocking to see how many debates there are for the Republicans trying to get the nomination – they are well-watched, well-covered, and so that’s one of the first things that’s surprising to me. The second thing that I think has been interesting is the extent to which the Republican candidates are going after each other on personal matters. Now that’s not new. What’s new, it seems to me, is that you get a national televised display of this again and again. The sober, civic-minded, person inside me recoils from hearing about Newt Gingrich’s marital conversations on national TV. I’m appalled by that. But, boy we’re getting a lot of that. And then the third thing that’s been really interesting to me about the campaign has been the churn of candidates coming in, and the churn of candidates going out. I suspect that our ex-governor Tim Pawlenty is kicking himself from here to there, for having dropped out so fast. On the other hand, he wasn’t getting any campaign contributions, and you can’t run a national campaign without lots of cash. But as one candidate has self-immolated after another, I’ll bet Pawlenty is just kicking himself about that. But for my sake, the most shocking thing about the race so far has been the prospects of Newt Gingrich. When I heard that Newt Gingrich was going to run for president it was a little bit like the kind of incredulity I had when I heard that Michelle Bachmann was. What’s he been smoking? Really? Newt’s day has come and gone. And boy, was I wrong. Now I don’t think he’s going to make it. I don’t think he has the structure or the organization or the money or the patience, or what we call the campaign discipline to stay on message. He likes to fly solo, fly by the seat of his pants. Do you think Gingrich’s prominent role in the race has been aided by the debates? You bet. Debate is contest. It’s about clash, it’s about conflict. It’s verbal warfare. And it’s kind of hard to do – to both kill your opponents, metaphorically, and still be likeable enough that people will support you. And, you know that conflict has got to bear some connection to the truth, it’s got to be “truthy.” But the capacity to turn a phrase, to succinctly say something – this is a venue that Gingrich is pretty good at, in part because he’s combative, in part because he has a colossal ego and sense of grandiosity. He thinks of himself as a transformative political figure on the world stage. Subtlety is not his model. And so far, it’s served him very well. Perhaps this has never been better seen than in the way he turned the audience in his favor when John King asked him the question about his wife’s claim that he had asked for an open marriage. He came out swinging, and said, in essence, “How dare you ask such a question on a national stage?” I actually agreed with Gingrich. I thought it was an entirely inappropriate place. I don’t think that’s a purpose of a debate. What are some of the reasons for the rhetoric in this primary becoming so much more heated than in past campaigns? Well, I think there was a widespread belief that this was in fact a kind of coronation of Mitt Romney. As Romney started stumbling, I think the other candidates perceived rightly that he was weaker than he appeared to be on the surface. And so they went for it. I would also point to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. It unleashed really big money. I don’t want to suggest that politics and political rhetoric has always been nice in the past, and that this year is different. That’s not true. But what is true is that you have some new players in the game, these independent agents who are technically not connected to the campaign who can say whatever they darn well please, in support of or opposing a candidate. We don’t know who they are, we can’t hold those entities accountable, we don’t know necessarily where the money has come from to support it. It’s not new this year, but we’re seeing a whole lot more development of advertisements for the Internet. The kinds of things that a campaign or an organization might not want to put on television, they’re putting out there on the Internet. And those things are relatively inexpensive to do, and they have the capacity to go viral. But it also means that people who have cognitive surplus time on their hands can take those ads and dub new words over them, put music behind them and make fun of them. The technology has benefitted candidates but it’s also hurt them. That brings up social media. Have these new, more participatory mediums caused a paradigm shift for campaigns? In my Cyberpolitics class last semester, I had the whole class do one research project, studying the most reviled, most made fun of social media tool out there: Twitter. I had my students collect every single tweet by the presidential candidates, and then do a content analysis to see what they were saying in those tweets, and then categorize what political-rhetorical functions they were serving. Candidates are using them quite creatively, in very interesting and compelling ways, but not to do anything new: they are using Twitter to do the same thing that they’ve been doing in campaigns forever. Fundamentally, it’s an advertising tool, and advertising is not new. In the main, Twitter is simply a new tool to do the same things of the past. It could be done differently, but at a presidential candidate level, the stakes, I would argue, are too high for them to use it for very much innovation. We’re in a period where social media has yet to prove itself. It’s one thing that you have a couple million followers, but if they don’t give you money, don’t tell other people about you, and don’t go vote for you, it doesn’t do you much good. Political scientists and rhetoricians are all over this campaign. Do you think the infighting of this primary election has weakened the Republican field so much that Obama will be easily re-elected? I think it’s too soon to know. Political scientists would tell you that the data show that you can predict the likely winner of the presidential race on the basis of unemployment and the economy. So, then why are we spending so many millions of dollars on campaigns? It’s because that bit of flexibility can be the difference in the turnout. So, as I would describe it, the role of campaign rhetoric is not so much to convince or to persuade a voter to vote for me as opposed to him, it’s mostly to get the voter to get out and vote at all. Those communication messages are fundamentally designed to reinforce and to activate. Four months ago, I would have said that Obama was on the ropes, that the economy was in such dire straits, and that Obama wasn’t doing a very good job selling his message of his accomplishments. That’s starting to change. Surprisingly, I think the Occupy movement, the 99% and 1% kind of memes and rhetoric in the discourse of the country have put some air under Obama’s wings and given him some lift. But the Republicans haven’t done so much to help themselves in the way they’ve been self-destructing. But my point is that there are events that could profoundly affect the US economy that could turn the election against Obama regardless of the clownish antics of the Republicans. So, it’s not that I’m afraid to prognosticate. It’s just that it’s too early. It’s commonly said that Americans don’t pay attention to the presidential race until aft
er the summer. We’ve got a long ways to go until summer. refresh –>