The Conversation

By Nicole Hemmer

Nine weeks out, we’re in the home stretch of a presidential election that has been going on for well over a year. (At this point in 2011, the Republicans had already held three of their twenty debates.) But with Barack Obama’s official nomination on Wednesday, the general election kicks off and the campaign heats up. The rallies will be bigger, the ads starker, the punches harder.

I’ll be following the action from the heart of it all: Florida. A key swing state, Florida sees it all. The candidates stump from town to town while their ads flood the airwaves. Last week the Republicans held their national convention in Tampa, just up the road from where I work as a visiting historian at the University of Miami.

I’m also a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, where I spent the last year writing on American media, politics, and conservatism. For The Conversation’s election blog, I’ll be keeping an eye on the following:

The Narrative. Campaigns should be about issues: what each side will do for the country. But increasingly they’re about impressions. Take Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech last Wednesday. Mendacity and misrepresentation from start to finish – but if a viewer didn’t know he was lying to them, the impression he left was of a smart, likeable politician brimming with Midwestern earnestness. He sounded honest. Truth matters. But in a campaign, what comedian Stephen Colbert called “truthiness” – those statements that feel right regardless of facts – sometimes matter more.

The Media. Why does “truthiness” often win out over truth in a campaign? These days, a fair share of the blame falls on the American media. Constantly distracted by shiny objects, they end up covering the ephemeral rather than the essential. So we hear more about Clint Eastwood’s empty chair than Mitt Romney’s empty speech, more about the “war on women” than the war in Afghanistan. Democracies function not just on the free flow of information but of good information. It’s no coincidence American media and governance are failing at the same time.

The Micro-Campaign. The national campaigns dominate the news, but just as fascinating – and just as important – are the micro-campaigns: the state- and local-level efforts to sway swing voters and propel people to the polls. Unlike Oz, the US has no compulsory voting laws, so Get Out the Vote drives are a key part of campaign strategy.

There’s a darker side to this as well: the “keep out the vote” drive. In swing states across America, Republican legislators are slashing early voting hours, imposing new voting requirements, and purging voter rolls in an effort to tamp down Democratic turnout. As one GOP legislator explained his voter ID law: it will “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania” – by disenfranchising some 700,000 eligible voters. That’s a story I’ll be following, too.

Let me just add one more thing by way of introduction: why I love election season so. It’s not the bunting and balloons, the speeches and spectacle. Even with imperfect candidates, our elections reveal something essential about us as a people. What we fear, what we love. What we understand our country to be, and what we hope it can become. They are exercises in civic engagement, participative moments in a society that has too few. That’s part of the election story, too – in both America and Australia – and one that deserves to be told.