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Sunday Sit-Down: Robert Rupp

November 4, 2012
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

Editor's note: West Virginia Wesleyan College Professor Dr. Robert Rupp is one of the state's leading figures when it comes to the history of politics. With Tuesday's general election just a few days away, Rupp discusses the presidential race, state politics and the nation's current political divide as he joins us in the Sunday Sit-Down.

-- Let's start with national politics. We're down to the final hours before the nation elects a new president. What are your thoughts on this year's presidential contest between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama?

Rupp: I think if we put it in context, it means once again this nation shows itself severely divided. Not since the decades after the Civil War have we been so divided. We're divided by party, Democrats and Republicans, we're divided on the candidates. We're also divided sectionally, in terms of the bicoast, in terms of the South, we're divided in terms of gender. Romney has a 30 percent lead in white males, and Obama has an almost double-digit lead (among women.) So what we're seeing here is America is almost slicing itself into key divisions, whether it be sectional, be it ideological, partisanship. And we're going to have probably what we had in 2000 when we flipped a coin and it landed right on the edge. ...

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Basically, what we appear to be on the verge of is not electing a president of the United States, but a president of Ohio, a president of one of those remaining swing states when most of America and most of the states have already made up their mind. ... In 2008 we had a sort of a landslide, but two years later the Democrats had their biggest loss in more than 100 years in the Congressional elections. So we're right back to this 50-50 - a divided nation is holding a close election.

-- Ohio again appears to be playing a pivotal role in presidential politics. What is it about the Buckeye State?

Rupp: As a native of Ohio, I can speak with some bias. First of all, Ohio is the home of presidents. It was a swing state back in the 19th century so the best way you could get the swing state was to nominate a presidential candidate. In 1920 you had (President Warren G.) Harding but you also had from Dayton (James M.) Cox, so both candidates came from Ohio. The other thing about Ohio is its central location is midwest, but Ohio also is a good mix in terms of population, in terms of agriculture and industry. It's a better reflection of the majority profile of America than any of the other states. So I'm not surprised for a number of reasons that it's all coming back to Ohio.

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Another reason is that Ohio has a very competitive system. ... I'm not surprised because the attention and being a swing state is part of the Buckeye legacy.

-- How do you see Ohio playing out this year? Any predictions?

Rupp: It appears that right now, in this sense, I think Ohio kind of mirrors what's happening in the United States. That is Romney, since the first debate, has the momentum, but in key states Obama has the mobilization. That's the question. Because this election seems to come down to a question of get out the vote, then it may well be that Obama's "infrastructure" - if it's really as good as they say - will provide a key pattern. In that case, as Ohio goes so will go the nation.

Remember, Romney could lose Ohio and get a cluster of other states like Wisconsin and Iowa to win.

-- What was it about the first debate that helped Romney connect with so many Americans?

Rupp: Let's look at the whole issue of televised debates. I teach televised debates, my students research and make presentations. Usually, televised debates don't make key differences. They did in 1960, the very first one, when you were able to compare Nixon and Kennedy side-by-side and we had been told that Kennedy was an inexperienced person who couldn't be president.

He showed in terms of image that credibility. It appeared that the same thing happened in (the first) 2012 debate. You have to realize, Obama spent three months and millions of dollars demonizing Romney. And instead of saying he's a flip-flopper he just demonized him. And what Romney did in 90 minutes is just show that he didn't have horns, he wasn't a terrible person. In 90 minutes he dispelled all that effort that tried to portray him as this mean businessman. The other question is why wasn't the president prepared for this. I'm surprised when competitive, ambitious people don't rise up to the occasion. I can say this - most of the time presidents lose their first debate. They're not used to people attacking them one on one, they're not used to the whole situation. ... But never has an incumbent president lose (the first debate) by so much by showing us this one thing: he didn't appear engaged.

-- You spoke earlier of the demonizing of candidates. We often hear that this year's presidential race is the most contentious in history. What are your thoughts about that statement?

Rupp: I'm alarmed by this debate. There are two ways that you can win, that you can get the 50.1 percent or, in this case, the 270 electoral votes. One is the conversion model, in which you go after those few independents and try to woo them to your side. The other is mobilization, in that case all you want to do is get your base ... moving. See how that changes - because when you're going after independents, you come to the middle, but when you mobilize your base, you're more extreme and, in this case, you're more partisan. Instead of telling people who you are and what you do, you talk about how terrible your opponent is. ... We are getting more and more attack-driven and less moderate and less positive kind of campaign out of both of them.

... The good thing about American electoral politics is that every January (after an election), we push the restart button and give the new president or a second term president a fresh start. A president will gain 10 percent support once he takes that oath of office. My hope is that we will continue that tradition by starting fresh and putting aside these partisan concerns.

But you're right, we've never seen two major candidates be so mean to each other as we have in this. They've taken this to a personal level, which was not expected. In the old days, the candidate would talk in platitudes and maybe some issues, and the vice president would be the hatchet man. In 2012, both Romney and Obama are the hatchet men. They are the ones who are spending their entire times apparently attacking their opponent (which) is a new phase in presidential elections, to have them both attacking their opponent.

-- Overall, many political pundits would have us believe that the nation, in general, is more divided than ever. From a historical perspective, is that correct?

Rupp: I have to go back to the post-Civil War, when we started fighting the battle not with bullets, but with ballots. You had the Democratic South versus the North, and vote as you shot. For those two decades afterwards the nation was very divided.

I find us just as divided now, in terms of Democrats and Republicans, in terms of geographic North and south, or the coast and the inland. Just take this experiment: take virtually any major issue, and we find a divide. If it's on the question of abortion, the question of raising taxes, for some reason we keep splitting this 50-50. It goes beyond just party identification, party vote. It comes to a lot of key issues that this nation seems to be highly divided. I'm waiting for a consensus or majority to emerge, and I've been waiting since 2000. We thought 2000 was an exception, we found in terms of presidential elections it wasn't. My only hope is this is a period we're going through and we will emerge and reflect the standard America, which is far more moderate and far less divisive.

-- About 90 million people in this country did not vote in the 2008 election - roughly half of the eligible voters - and it appears a similar number will not vote this year. What does that say about our country at this point in time?

Rupp: When we look at voter turnout we see another division and this division is between voters and non-voters. Unlike countries such as Belgium with a 90 percent turnout, England has a 75 percent turnout, America barely has a 50 percent turnout of eligible voters. Now some of those are not registered, but many of those are and simply do not want to vote. ... Notice what we've done over the past 10 years - we've made it so easy to vote. You can register at the DMV, instead of one day of voting we extend it, Oregon mails out ballot, we'll probably be voting on the Internet at some point ... so you can't say I'm too busy on election day. But the trouble is, two-thirds of all those non-voters don't do it because of ease or logistics, they do it because they just don't care. ... Really a psychological difference between them and the system. And when you have that many people voting with their feet to not be engaged, then that's another very ominous sign particularly in the world's oldest and most successful democracy.

In terms of recent voting, starting in 1960, we had about 60 percent (voter turnout), so there's been a strong contingent of not voting. ... This is probably a drop of 10-15 percent recently. We have not really been that engaged. If you go back to recent history, say 50 years or so, election days were important, they were stressed. Here in West Virginia, it was kind of like having a state fair. People invested, institutions invested in the importance of the election. And now, by making it so easy, by diluting it, by having the robocalls come to you instead of the candidates ... I'm not surprised with the decline, but I'm alarmed.

-- Let's move to state matters. Republicans have fielded a solid slate of candidates this year for state office in West Virginia. Do you see the state Republican Party as being on the upswing in terms of finding good candidates?

Rupp: West Virginia has not had a two-party system since 1932. We've basically had one and one-half parties - a dominant Democrat and a very weak Republican. And how weak it was could be seen by the statewide races.

This year, 2012, the Republican Party is doing a full statewide office slate, probably the strongest slate in a generation. But they're still outnumbered two-to-one in both houses of the legislature. There will be a resurgence of the Republican Party, but unlike what happened in the south with Georgia and Mississippi that was very quick, there seems to be only a slow and measured increase for the Republicans here. A lot of Republicans hold great hope for this year mainly because the state's going to go overwhelmingly against Obama, and they think that might go all the way down, that the Romney coattails will carry to the legislature. There does not yet seem to be evidence of that. I think there will continue to be a measured climb for the Republican Party.

As for the Democrat Party, you have to realize in West Virginia our politics is different from most politics. And I think that's best seen by the dominant Democratic Party. I tell people there are three parties in the United States - there's a Republican Party, there's a Democrat Party, and there's the West Virginia Democrat. And what has happened is that in West Virginia the Democratic Party is such a large tent, it includes all of the conservative Democrats who in other states would be Republicans. And we see that in that the governor and a U.S. senator have virtually walked away from a Democrat president, and I think that's an indication their focus is not on the national party, their focus is on surviving in West Virginia politics.

Let me make a further note about West Virginia itself and its politics, I've been looking at it for 20 years. The key to West Virginia is not geography, we're not a southern state ... and we're certainly not a northern state. They try to call us mid-Atlantic, but we only have one natural lake, we don't have anything to do with water. I say the key to understanding West Virginia is topography, not geography. We are a mountain state, and the best way to understand this is to go over to Scotland, in which you're having fighting clans rather than parties, provincialism, a lot of personal politics. Which leads me to the cliche that the best way to understand politics is to understand this about it: in West Virginia, everything is political except for politics, which is personal. We haven't yet become the Ohio and Pennsylvania where it's ... wholesale politics and TV ads. We still require the face-to-face. ... I think that's what makes West Virginia unique - we're transitioning from that retail, personal politics to the wholesale and we're only halfway there.

-- It appears as if the state's Republican stronghold can now be found in the Eastern Panhandle. Can you provide us with a perspective on party politics in West Virginia in 2012?

Rupp: For a small state, we have a severe case of regionalism. We can break up into five or six sections, very different from each other. For the last 80 years, the key to this state are what we call the southern coal counties, those south of the Kanawha River. That was where coal was king, where money was king. ... You always looked at the turnout in the coal counties to see what would happen.

What seems to be happening is that the state is moving not just politically but economically in a northeast direction. The future of this state is in the Eastern Panhandle. In the last 10 years, Kanawha County ... lost 3 percent of its population. Monongalia County, where WVU is, gained 18 percent, and the Eastern Panhandle county of Jefferson gained 27 percent in population. While most of that is Republican, the Eastern Panhandle is not well developed, particularly politically. We've yet to see political leaders come out of the area, but that appears to be the future. Again, one more piece of evidence that West Virginia's in transition economically, politically and socially.

-- Independents in West Virginia - is there a standard profile? Are they conservative? Liberal? What exactly defines an independent in West Virginia?

Rupp: Independents, first of all, in West Virginia and other states is the fastest growing group. If I had to classify them, I'd simply term them as more skeptical than anybody else. They distrust both party labels and they want to stay independent. As they grow, we're going to watch the dynamic, because in West Virginia, as has already happened in other states, parties will try to woo those independents, and again they're less partisan, less ideological and therefore the campaigns will be less partisan and less ideological.

-- Third party candidates in West Virginia - do we need to make more of a place for them in the process? How could that be done?

Rupp: I was not surprised to see a third party arise particularly with the nature of both the Republican and the Democrat, nor was I surprised with the name - Mountain Party. So far it has not caught hold because major politicians have not run on their tickets. So the fate of the Mountain Party is like the fate of other parties in other states, it simply not growing rapidly and has not become a home for those that are disenchanted.

-- Sen. Joe Manchin is making a strong push for bipartisanship in Washington. Does he have any chance for success in his efforts?

Rupp: It does not appear so at this time. It is interesting, because what Joe Manchin has done - he's probably the most successful campaigner in West Virginia in a generation, since Arch Moore - is that in order to thrive in West Virginia, he's had to distance himself from the national Democratic Party. And now he finds himself in D.C. with the national party, trying again to send a message that seems to be going against the grain, and that is let's work in a bipartisan manner. So the irony of Sen. Manchin is he's very successful in his state, but he hasn't been very successful in the Senate because he's not playing along with their game. He's sort of like the third-party candidate, saying there's got to be a better way. Maybe we could say the future of American politics will have to come down to bipartisanship, and we'll have to accept the kind of model Sen. Manchin is pushing, but at this point in time he's, as my grandmother would say, 'Whopperjawwed.' He's not in tune with Washington while he is in tune with Charleston and West Virginia.

-- If you look at the leaders of both the Democrat and Republican parties in the U.S. House and Senate, they are extremely partisan. Is there any hope moving forward for the two parties to find common ground, or are we just going to become more polarized in the future?

Rupp: We are really entering an era of intense partisanship not just in campaigns, but in Congress. Usually the mode of Congress is they come together, they work out deals, they compromise. The trouble is neither side is doing that.

We all know what's going to happen in six months. We're going to reach a moderate deal to solve the budget through a combination of cuts and increased revenue. But right now neither side is saying that and right now it doesn't feel if they're ready to do what we know is inevitable. ... Congress used to have the knock that they compromised too much; now they have the knock that they don't even bother with ... compromise at all, which has translated into a 7 percent approval rating. They appear out of sync with the voters.

-- Any final thoughts as we head toward Election Day?

Rupp: I've been a student of past presidential elections, and usually I've been alarmed that they haven't been going as well as I think they should, and I think other voters share the same idea. Instead of being a campaign about a choice of ideas, we seem to have a (campaign) of a choice of smearing the candidates. I would say this, looking back in a historical perspective: the Republic has always prevailed. The voters have always ended up making that kind of decision by sending in the end sensible people. What seems to be a consensus among the majority, not the very extreme, is that we have two talented people trying to be the most powerful person on the planet. Again, I have to trust the voters as I have in the past and that's worked out. Vote, but trust the country.

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