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Visitors from Haiti Explore Campaigns and Elections in the U.S.

Visitors from Haiti Explore Campaigns and Elections in the U.S.

Delegation of Haitian political figures and activists meet with Professor Thomas Schwartz

Samantha O. Popoy Email Samantha O.Popoy

A fifteen-member delegation of politically active Haitians from a range of parties along with well-known journalists met with Professor Thomas Schwartz of the Department of Political Science on August 2 to discuss the current U.S. presidential election campaign and specifically the recently held Democratic National Convention.

Funded by the Department of State, coordinated by the Academy for Educational Development, and administered locally by the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles, the program under which the delegation visited UCLA provided the visitors with a three-week study tour focusing on a key event in American democracy—the presidential campaign. The Department of State believes the 2004 presidential campaign presents an excellent opportunity to demonstrate how the nation's top leaders contend for power in a way that promotes stability and legitimacy. In other words: it can be a model for a country like Haiti, trying to build democracy.

Primary Elections: Building Toward the Presidency

The meeting began with discussion of the primary electoral system. Professor Schwartz, a specialist in social choice theory and mathematical political science who draws upon philosophy, mathematics, and economics to study problems of collective choice, institutional design, and constitutional politics, reviewed the important role played by the Democratic and Republican parties, not only in a general election, but also during the primaries. Beginning in January, candidates start competing in the primaries and caucuses and though only a few states vote in those early primaries, they are watched by the rest of the country as a bellwether. The first few primaries can determine who will become the nominees. Funding sources choose early whom they will support, thus only a few candidates are able to continue on to primaries in the other states.

The primaries are like experiments, Schwartz declared. When a new medicine has been developed, it is not initially given to everyone, but rather to a small group of people as a test. In essence, the early primaries and caucuses perform the same function.

For the Democrats, the 2004 primary season was very exciting. That is in contrast to the 2000 primaries, in which the Republican leaders gave their support to George Bush early in the campaign, creating a situation where there was not much of a contest between nominees. In 2004, Schwartz said, the campaign has been much more about popular choice. Thus, from election year to election year things will vary: sometimes the contest within one of the parties, or both of the parties, is heated and simulates the public's interest; sometimes not. Schwartz also mentioned that watching the conventions has declined in popularity in recent elections. This is simply because since the mid-1960s the conventions have become less of a contest: the early primaries usually guarantee that the nominees are known before the convention.

Regarding the recent Democratic National Convention, Schwartz discussed the problems facing Senator John Kerry. Schwartz pointed out one problem in particular: the effort of the Republicans to portray the Democrats as too liberal and extreme. In the mid-1980 a movement within the Democratic Party sought to shift the public's perception of the Democrats as leftist party to one that is centrist. Former president Clinton was one of the main forces behind this movement, which was called the Democratic Leadership Conference.

Problems Facing the Democrats

Schwartz spoke of two other problems facing Democrats. The first is the “rally phenomenon,” which holds that during wartime the public rallies around the president, which of course helps the incumbent. He explained, “People don’t usually want to change horses midstream.” According to Schwartz, Kerry is trying to appeal to undecided voters and position himself in the center. Voter turnout in the U.S. is quite low, Schwartz noted, raising the question, who should candidates court? In most cases, candidates can either try to increase support among their core supporters, hoping they will stimulate voter turnout, or they can try to turn to the center to please a wider population. It seems that Kerry is trying the latter in the hope that the unpopularity of George W. Bush will contribute of a Democratic victory.

After the convention, Schwartz explained, the nominee usually enjoys a “bump” in the polls. But this did not happen for Kerry. Why a boost in the polls did not materialize presents a mystery. In the past, Schwartz noted, though a phenomenon known as retrospective economic voting, during the six months leading up to an election, if the economy is suffering in the sense that there is abnormal inflation and unemployment, the incumbent party always losses the popular vote. If the economy is doing well, the incumbent party always wins the popular vote and the election, except of course in the 2000 election when the incumbent party won the popular vote, but lost the election.

One of the delegates asked, “Is it a bad sign for Kerry that he didn’t receive a bump in the polls?” To that Schwartz replied that it is unusual. Kerry deliberately took a risk by giving a nonsubstantive acceptance speech. Evidently, he thought that the unpopularity of President Bush alone should be enough to assure a Democratic victory. His speech did succeed in making Kerry appear “presidential” but, Schwartz asked, is that sufficient to win?

Competition between candidates in the United States is a friendly contest. People get along fine, so the normal thing is to be friends, friends who occasionally compete against each other. But it is unusual to simply hate members of the opposition, Schwartz declared. It seems implausible that one can win an election on the basis of hatred.

Another question was asked regarding the movement of the Democratic Party to the center. “Is this a new phenomenon or does it usually happen that parties shift to the center? And if so, doesn’t that mean that there are two parties that ideologically are the same?” Schwartz replied that in the short run, this has happened with the Democrats, specifically with the Democratic Leadership Conference. The democrats suffered from a popular perception that they are “extreme” and subject to the control of special interests. Over time the Republicans might have to worry about the same thing. For example, in 1992, at the Republican National Convention, it was commonly said that too many right wingers spoke, so in the 2000 convention, the party leaders made sure that right winders were less in view.

A final question asked by one of the delegates: “What is the weight of the fight against terrorism in this election?” Schwartz responded by arguing that most American believe Bush did a good job responding to Al Queda and the Taliban and that he acted skillfully. The president was able to reverse the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, though that relationship remains troubled. In this regard, the problem for the Democrats is that they argue that the fight against Iraq is not legitimate. When one takes into consideration the rally phenomenon, such argument can be problematic.

* * *

Members of the delegation:

Administrative Secretary, Conseil Electoral Provisoire

Ms. Marie Lucie BONHOMME
Information Director, Radio Vision 2000

Mr. Elidor CLERVIL
Cabinet Director, Conseil Electorale Provisoire

Mr. Jean François Annibal COFFY
Attorney, Coffy Law Firm

Ms. Florence ELOI
Journalist, Radio Cap-Haitien

Ms. Marie Velia GREFFIN
Electoral Operations, Conseil Electoral Provisoire/Executive Secretary

Mr. Freud JEAN
Executive Secretary, Catholic Church

Mr. Genard JOSEPH
Teacher, Lycée Alexandre Petion

Ms. Marie Roselor JULIEN JUSMA
Independant consultant, Conference Episcopale d'Haïti
Catholic Church, Port-au-Prince

Ms. Anne Marie LOISEAU
Journalist, Radio Vision 2000

Inspector, Ministry of Justice

Mr. Edouard-Laporte PAULTRE
General Secretary, Protestant Federation of Haiti

Ms. Marie Marcelle PIERRE-LOUIS
Judge Substitute, Ministry of Justice

Mr. Louis Guerson RICHME
Member of the CEP, Port-au-Prince

Ms. Carline Simon MORANCIE
Coordinator, Fanm Soley Leve

Coordinator, Council National Observation of Elections in the South

Mr. Jean Prisca VILFORT
Political analyst, Radio Caraïbes

Ms. Mirlande YLOPHENE
Head of Recruitment, Fanm yo la

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