With Election Day less than a year away, the national conversation on the 2012 presidential election is buzzing, and University students are joining in.

While Republicans are still in the process of nominating a candidate to face President Barack Obama, Democrats are laying the groundwork for the president’s re-election bid. Despite conflicting views on the outcome of the race, University professors and members of campus political groups all agree on one aspect of the election — the economy will be the deal breaker.

Michael Traugott, a research professor at the University’s Institute for Social Research, said public opinion polls this early before the election are not good indicators of the chances of the president’s re-election bid, but give insight into trends.

“There’s two main contesting theories about reelection prospects,” Traugott said. “One of them is that the incumbent president’s chances are highly correlated with how the economy is doing, and of course there, the president would be in trouble I think.”

Similarly, Traugott said polls for the Republican nomination are not reliable at this point since most polls are taken at a national scale for the presidential election, not primaries. If candidates are not successful in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, for example, they may run out of funds and begin receiving negative press coverage, according to Traugott. As a result, support for the candidate wanes, and his or her chances decrease.

Polls fail to account for candidates’ “relative standing” in the early states and are “quite misleading,” Traugott said.

Traugott noted that while Obama may struggle with re-election because of the economic climate, he may prevail depending on who is chosen as the Republican candidate.

“An election is not a referendum — it’s a matchup, and … the president’s chances really depend more on who the Republican nominee is,” Traugott said. “By that criteria, he is not in as bad a shape.”

In terms of congressional races, Traugott said he doesn’t see big changes on the horizon, but hypothesized that Democrats may lose more seats to Republicans. The new redistricting resulting from the 2010 U.S. Census will also play a role in the election.

“The recent history of redistricting has been that more and more seats are homogeneous and safe for one party or the other,” Traugott said. “So redistricting is not going to be able to radically alter that particular part of the calculation. There has been a continuation of population shifts from the North and the Midwest down to the South and the Southwest, and these areas have generally become more Republican.”

Democrats are more vulnerable in the Senate because more of them are up for re-election in this cycle than Republicans, Traugott added.

Political Science Prof. Vincent Hutchings said the core of the coalition that brought Obama to power in 2008 will essentially stay faithful, but the electoral map will change noticeably from the 2008 election. This will make it difficult for Obama to regain the support of states such as Virginia and North Carolina. However, Hutchings said the assessment that the electoral map “has been permanently redrawn” since 2008 is “vastly overblown.”

Hutchings echoed Tragott’s sentiment that the economy is the dominant issue going into the election. He said the Obama campaign will likely try to steer the conversation away from economics, while the GOP candidate will probably focus almost exclusively on it.

“If I’m Obama, I try to focus on the bad qualities of my opponent, and if I’m the GOP candidate, I focus on the inability of the current administration to solve the economic problems,” Hutchings said.

For Republican students on campus, the nomination process is not about endorsing one candidate. According to LSA junior Brian Koziara, vice chair of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, the organization’s members have formed subgroups within the group to campaign for their favored GOP candidates, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

“These are interest groups, they talk about the candidates and they’ve done grassroots stuff for those candidates here in Michigan,” Koziara said. “It’s just the mobilization stage, getting people involved, getting people recruited for next year.”

After the primaries, Koziara said the College Republicans will begin registering voters, canvassing door to door and taking trips to other districts in the state to campaign not just for the presidential race, but for “races down the ticket.”

“The presidential candidate is like the general in the battlefield, and he or she will help to rally the troops and turn out the vote for those tickets farther down the ballot,” Koziara said.

For politically active Democratic students, the procedure is the same, but the goal is different — campaigning to keep the president in office and spreading the word about what they see as the administration’s successes. LSA senior Amanda Caldwell, chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, is leading her group to promote the president’s policies as a way to secure re-election.

“We had record-breaking phone banks with students on campus making calls in support of health care reform,” Caldwell said. “We’ve also been out on the Diag handing out some information about the stuff that (Obama has) done for student loan reform.”

The College Democrats also held an event called the “Youth Launch Campaign” to form a general plan for the campaign and motivate its members. For Caldwell, issues such as health care and student loans play into the broader economic debate, and she believes Obama can win on those issues.

“History has shown us that Democrats do better when the economy is the top issue,” Caldwell said.

In the 2008 election, more than 70 percent of University students voted for Obama, according to Public Policy senior Joe Sandman, spokesman for College Democrats.

Sandman said issues that were important in the 2008 campaign, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are receiving less attention. While these issues are still important to some voters, he said domestic economic issues have overshadowed them.

However, both Caldwell and Sandman said they are optimistic about the chances of the Democrats in congressional races, particularly in Michigan. Members of the organization plan to work for Democratic candidates and assist to register voters at the University in a program called District Invasions.

“Our number one issue is registering students to vote and making sure that everyone has all the correct information about what they need to go to the polls, where the polling locations are, what their rights are as a student voter,” Caldwell said.

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