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A Student’s Guide to Keeping up on the 2012 Presidential Election

September 24, 2012

Many of you who read Ike’s Anvil regularly stay up-to-date on the minute details of everyday campaign activities: he tweeted this, she said that, they had this for dinner– and here’s how it all impacts the overall election. However, most people don’t follow politics like a political scientist should. We have lives for Pete’s sake. So how would you break down this election, its issues, all the characters associated with it, and most importantly, the significance of these events to people whose heads are outside the beltway?

This is one of the aims of “Pizza & Politics,” a program based on open discussion of current political news and events. How can political minutiae be communicated in an interesting, comprehensible manner so that all citizens can obtain at least some bit of reliable information to inform their decision every four years? Fortunately for us, today we have the internet, and it’s chock full of helpful resources.

As part of Pizza & Politics’ online presence, I’m proud to present a helpful list of web sites, articles, and videos.
The New York Times has a number of election resources, though they’re a bit hidden to those who may not check the web site daily. I’ve listed some of the best within this article.

Today’s Political Parties

Where do you fall within the current political spectrum? At the end of August, The New York Times published pieces on what types of voters make up both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. These voting blocs described in the guides should clue you in as to why certain topics are being talked about in the news and why others may not be. Short informational videos accompany each link.

The Campaign in Photos

Each week NYT publishes a collection of photos from the election campaign. The collections are topical and are centered on the big news or events of each week. This is a really easy way to brush up on what’s been going on, and the photos look fantastic!

The Electoral College

The Electoral College is ultimately how presidential races are decided, and that’s why you start to hear about the number ‘270’ during election campaigns: a presidential candidate needs 270 votes out of the 538 electors in order to win the election. If you aren’t too familiar with how the Electoral College works, About.com (a NYT company) summarizes the process, its importance, and its criticisms quite nicely.

If you’re not up for some reading, you can always check this short video on the Electoral College and how it works.

However, the guy who created this may overstate the danger of electors defecting from their state’s popular vote. While he says it has happened over 400 times over past elections, About.com mentions that these defections don’t really affect the outcome anyway since they happen relatively infrequently. He also understates the reason why the Electoral College was originally put in place. Yes, information moved much slower in the 1800s than in today’s world but this system has more support than that. In an article from ABCNews, David Chalian writes, “A common argument in favor of the Electoral College is that it forces the candidates to pay more attention to less-populated states that they would otherwise ignore. Those who are proponents of the two-party system claim the winner-takes-all result of the Electoral College helps avoid political instability and deadlock that would arise should the system be broken. Some argue the Electoral College system gives power to minority groups by allowing a relatively small number of voters in each state to make a difference in determining which candidate gets that state’s electoral votes. Others argue the Electoral College maintains the federal system of government, which was designed to reserve such important political powers to the states as making a choice for the presidency and vice presidency.”

So how could these electors vote in this upcoming election? NYT has published an interesting feature that outlines how the Romney and Obama campaigns may be strategizing in these last couple of months. Click through the numbers at the top of the page and the paper will lead you through some of the different possible outcomes. This page also features short descriptions of the “toss-up” states in this election underneath the electoral map.

The Issues

What about the issues? So much of political reporting today has come down to the insignificant details of campaign strategy that many people can turn on the news or open a newspaper without learning one detail about how our candidates would lead.

However, turning your attention directly to the candidates instead of the media, you’ll see that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama both dedicate substantial portions of their campaign websites to how they stand on The Issues.

  • Here’s Mitt Romney’s Issues homepage
  • And here’s Barack Obama’s page on Jobs and the Economy. Click along the top menu bar for more topics

If you don’t know much about any issues, I would suggest checking out NYT’s “The Agenda.” This is a website that aggregates all issue news within the NYT into one place. It’s a bit in-depth, but my suggestion would be to just click a topic that interests you and browse around. Even just scrolling down the page, you’ll be able to recognize from the headlines the breadth of issues that are important today. Compare what’s being talked about here to what’s listed on the candidates’ websites.

True or False?

While running for office, politicians don’t always lay out their views in the most direct way. Instead, voters can expect to receive some ambiguous answers to questions on issues that are important to them. OnTheIssues.org is a web site that aims to clear up this ambiguousness. It’s a non-profit, non-partisan organization that parses through a multitude of different media including speeches, newspapers, press releases, books, etc., and aggregates politicians’ stances on a wide range of issues into short sentences with sources to support them. This is a great place to go if you’re looking for a quick reference for where a politician stands on certain topics.

Continuing on with politicians’ issue with ambiguity, fact-checking has become a useful tool for countering questionable claims made by both pundits and politicians alike. Politifact.com is a good place to review such claims. They rate statements on a scale between “True” and “False” and provide detailed explanations to validate their grade. While some may point out that websites like these can often focus on unimportant factoids in an election rather than the larger significance of an argument, we’ve seen over the past years how erroneous quotes can propagate and be repeated so often that they’re taken for truth by the larger public.

  • Learn how the website works here
  • Here’s their page for statements involving Mitt Romney
  • Here’s their page for statements involving Barack Obama
  • And check out their page for statements regarding the 2012 Presidential Election in general here

Videos and News

For the latest videos and news clips, check out YouTube’s Election 2012 hub. The videos come from a range of sources including the politicians themselves, different political organizations, and established news organizations and news pundits including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, Buzzfeed, Larry King, and more.

Google also has its own hub for the 2012 Election that aggregates relevant news articles and videos. You can separate news based on the candidate or the issue, and along the bottom of the page they feature different political search trends within Google. Click along the top menu bar for Google Trends, surveys and, especially important, voter information for each state with links to where you can find more information that’s relevant to you.

So where do we go now that the conventions are done with and the elections are coming up? Read this convenient article, “Five Crucial Factors to Watch, Just 58 Days From the Election” from The New York Times to get a clue about where the campaigns are going from here and what you can expect some of the main topics you’ll be seeing in the news to be.
Although this Ike’s Anvil post may not reflect it too well, the best way to get your news is to pay attention to a variety of news sources. Information is so accessible today that it’s easy to find a range of sources that reflect multiple viewpoints. These differing views enrich your holistic comprehension and ultimately illuminate the many different facets a discussion can contain. Pay attention to the larger conclusions and look past the petty talking points.

Hopefully the links listed in this post will serve as reference points and help you get some grounding in this election cycle. Even though it may sometimes seem that this election has been plodding on forever, there’s still plenty of time to learn about the issues, the candidates, and the system that frames it all.

Where do you get your news from? Would you add anything to this list? I encourage you to share your recommendations and thoughts in the comments section underneath!

Pizza & Politics is a weekly roundtable discussion program co-hosted by The Eisenhower Institute and the Gettysburg College Political Science Department.

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