Posted by: lcowie | September 30, 2008

Jonathan Alter

Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter discusses upcoming election challenges with Elon community

by Lesley Cowie

Jonathan Alter uses his lecture time to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each presidential and vice presidential candidate.

Jonathan Alter uses his lecture time to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each presidential and vice presidential candidate.

The Elon community gathered in McCrary Theatre Monday evening to listen to Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter speak about the challenges facing the candidates in the upcoming presidential election.

“The old notion of, ‘It really doesn’t matter if I vote or not’ is really obsolete,” Alter said. He then commented on the 2000 presidential election, where only 500 votes separated Al Gore from George W. Bush in the state of Florida. Of over 100 million votes cast, Alter said, that election came down to a tiny number of voters.

According to Alter, voters can conceivably have a situation where North Carolina holds the balance of the election in its hands. If it comes down to one state, Alter said, every community matters.

One of the main points Alter touched on was the impact, and increasing number of, young voters. He believes that 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina caused an increase of understanding among young people about the importance of elections.

Senator Barack Obama’s knowledge impresses youth

There is something extraordinary between Sen. Barack Obama and younger voters, Alter said.

The Newsweek editor described an incident where he brought his son to an interview with Obama, back in 2001, when Newsweek was preparing to put Obama on its cover for the first time. Alter’s son was impressed by Obama and claimed that Obama should run for president.

“I started to realize then that Obama had an unusual connection to younger voters,” Alter said. “…partly because he was cool and fit in with a sense of hipness that a lot of people connected to. Then it turned out that there was something behind that cool…a surface and a depth there that young people were faster to connect with than older people.”

When analyzing each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, Alter pointed out that Obama’s connection was tied with knowledge. Many voters, he said, say they care about experience, but there is very little evidence that they do.

“Knowledge and experience are often confused,” Alter said. “Obama is not very experienced, but he does have knowledge.”

Struggling to show knowledge with Governor Sarah Palin

According to Alter, Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, faces challenges in knowledge and experience, but to varying degrees. Palin’s challenge, he said, is not all lack of experience, but lack of knowledge.

Palin’s other challenge, Alter said, is to show that she is not George W. Bush.

“It’s strange how these comparisons sometimes develop,” he said. “Palin must show that she has a sophisticated understanding of a series of complex issues. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Alter went on to say that Sen. John McCain’s choice for vice president was not fair. When a governor is plucked out of obscurities, Alter said, the standings and expectations are unfair for that person to be deemed a credible vice presidential candidate.

“How can she [Palin] know more than a Cliff’s Notes version of vice presidency?” Alter asked.

Senator Joe Biden must put best face forward

To balance his argument, Alter discussed the challenges facing Sen. Joe Biden, the Democratic vice presidential candidate. These challenges focused on Biden’s personality, more so than knowledge or experience.

“If he’s patronizing or condescending, he’ll lose,” Alter said. “He must show that knowledge, show that he is better prepared…”

Following his analyses, Alter emphasized the importance of this year’s vice presidential candidates. He discussed that these figures were the second most important people to focus on.

At this point in history, Alter said, the African-American candidate is the most at risk for assassination. Obama’s pick for vice president, he said, is very important. With Biden, Alter added, nobody thinks he is not prepared to step up and be president.

While he may be the oldest, Senator John McCain must not act that way

“John McCain would be the oldest president ever elected,” Alter said. He then pointed out that McCain’s hero is Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest president ever elected.

“McCain has said on more than a dozen occasions that his first criteria in selecting a running mate was that he or she step in as commander in chief at a moment’s notice,” Alter said. Confronting Islamic extremism, he said, was McCain’s number one issue.

According to Alter, it would be reasonable to expect McCain’s running mate to be immediately qualified in confronting Islamic extremism. He then noted that it was “politically shrewd” to nominate a fresh face like Palin for vice president.

The last challenge in the election is for McCain to appeal to the masses.

“McCain’s challenge is to not come across as a grumpy, old man,” Alter said. “While he had an effective debate performance, I’m not so sure he did enough to counter that aggression.”

Alter concludes his lecture with vague predictions about the upcoming presidential election.

Alter concludes his lecture with vague predictions about the upcoming presidential election.

Alter said that he had gotten to know McCain in the 1990s and admired him for his sense of humor. McCain does not seem to be showing that sense of humor as of late, according to Alter.

“John McCain wants us to think he’s a man of great character,” Alter said, “but he’s really just a character.” Alter went on to define a character, saying that he might be amusing or disturbing. “A character can be very funny, or very unsettling, depending on the context.”

Polls show possible election shifts

Following these character judgments, Alter left the audience with vague predictions. Although he seems to find a shift in the beliefs of the older white men, Alter believes the election will be very close.

“I sense movement, partly based on analyzing polls,” Alter said. “People forget that these national polls are not nearly as important as the state polls.”

Alter mentioned the website 538.com in order to help voters understand the polls.

“It’s a great place to go, after newsweek.com, of course, to get some of these smart state-by-state breakdowns,” Alter said. “…quite sophisticated statistical analysis in plain English to help make sense of moving parts.”

Despite his research, Alter still concedes that he is not sure where the election is going to go.

“At this point, I would put 5 dollars on Obama,” he said, “but I wouldn’t put 10 dollars on him….[This election] could end up being extraordinarily close.”

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