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'Historic' election motivates students, engages Indiana

The 2008 presidential campaign has been packed with political drama from start to finish. And with three weeks left to Election Day, the story line is far from over.

Come January, the nation will have either its first African-American president in Barack Obama or its first female vice president in Sarah Palin. A new leader will take over promising reform but will be forced to deal with an economic crisis as a first order of business.

"It certainly is historic. I don't think there's any question about that," said Ted Carmines, the Warner O. Chapman professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington.

Election edition

In a nod to the importance of the election, this month's Perspectives on Policy looks at policy issues in the campaign, asking IU experts to help make sense of the candidates' positions and the challenges that the winner will face.

Carmines, an expert on political behavior and public opinion, teaches "Elections 2008," an undergraduate political science course that focuses on the presidential race. He has been teaching the class since the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan contest of 1980. This fall, 250 students are enrolled, twice as many as last spring, when it focused on the presidential primaries.

Students are deeply interested in the election, Carmines said, all the more so because Hoosier votes seem to matter. Although Indiana hasn't backed a Democrat for president since 1964, Obama is campaigning hard in Indiana, and polls suggest the state is up for grabs.

"What strikes me when I look back at this election was how neither of these candidates was expected to get the nomination," Carmines said. "I think Sen. Obama, two years ago, would probably have been happy to make a good showing and perhaps be asked to be the vice presidential candidate. And I think John McCain's rise to the nomination has been equally surprising. Last year, his candidacy was nearly given up for dead."

Carmines said it is also striking that Republicans McCain and Palin are nearly as critical of the George W. Bush administration as Democrats Obama and Joe Biden.

Ted Carmines

Photo by: Chris Meyer

Ted Carmines

Print-Quality Photo

"I think it became clear to Sen. McCain that he had to not just decline to embrace President Bush, but to explicitly reject him," he said. "You look for a presidential campaign where the candidate of the incumbent president's party has so distanced himself, and I find it really difficult to find a precedent for that in history."

Both presidential candidates have made "change" their theme, and their positions sometimes overlap, especially on issues such as energy independence, foreign policy and diplomacy and the recently approved rescue plan for the financial sector.

"Even on Iraq, where at the beginning of the campaign they looked diametrically opposed, there's a difference in emphasis but not really a striking difference in position as it's emerged," Carmines said. "They're both being forced to come up with plans for lots of different issues."

While the nominees were surprising, there have also been surprises in the campaigns, Carmines said -- most notably McCain's choice of Palin, the first-term governor of Alaska, as his running mate. Obama, as a first-term U.S. senator, was expected to pick an experienced partner such as Delaware Sen. Biden, he said.

"But Gov. Palin's selection was a real shock to everyone," Carmines said. "For two weeks, that changed the course of the campaign. She sucked up all the political oxygen the country had and really became a phenomenon."

In recent weeks, the economic crisis has swept other issues out of the news, appearing to hurt McCain -- whose party has held the White House for eight years -- more than Obama.

"By the time Jan. 20 comes, whichever candidate wins the election is likely to be taking over in the midst of a full-blown recession," Carmines said. "That's going to have a major impact on what they can do."