By Nicole Hemmer
The centre of American politics this week is right here at the University of Miami. Over the next twenty-four hours, the university will host both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama as they make their pitch to college students. In an only-in-Florida twist, the students must ask the questions in Spanish. The candidates, neither of whom actually speaks Spanish, will answer in English.
Why the convoluted process? College students have notoriously low turnout. In 2008, fewer than 50 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds voted, and polls have indicated they’re far less likely to come out in 2012. So Romney and Obama may as well use the time to target the critical Latino vote as well. (Each session will air on Univision, the Spanish-language network.)
Romney, fresh from opening the latest front in the class wars, lands tonight to field questions from the students. Obama arrives tomorrow. Originally tickets for each event were to be distributed to students through an open lottery. The campaigns objected; now the tickets will be available only to members of the campus’s partisan groups. A person in the mood to make metaphors would have a field day.
…Ah, why not? Both campaigns have become so tightly controlled and micromanaged it hardly matters that students are asking questions in a language the candidates don’t understand. Each candidate has his message and no plans to deviate. No wonder the press only focuses on the gaffes. It’s the only time a sense of authenticity creeps into the proceedings.
And friendly audiences? Mitt Romney logs most of his interviews with Fox News. Barack Obama’s press conferences are few and far between. The president has a prickly relationship with the White House press corps and often turns instead to one-on-ones with columnists and online journalists.
The candidates’ limited access antagonises the press, who end up writing increasingly critical stories that cause the candidates to withdraw even further. So far both candidates are receiving more negative coverage than previous campaigns, though at least they’re getting it in equal measure (72 per cent of the master narrative for the Obama campaign has been negative, 71 per cent for Romney, according to a Pew Research study).
That negativity won’t be in evidence here, where both campaigns have engineered friendly crowds. But the set-up seems like a missed opportunity. Members of partisan groups are the likeliest of voters. Opening the event to a broad cross-section of students may have resulted in rowdier audiences, but it may also have helped boost youth turnout come election day.
Then again, if there’s one thing voters want, it’s the feeling they’re being heard. And given how controlled the campaigns have become, that feeling will likely be the most important thing to get lost in translation.
20 September 2012