UNIVERSITY — With this year’s social-media dominated presidential campaign as a backdrop, panelists on a Mississippi Today conversation here urged their audience to research the candidates carefully.
“What’s changed is the party structure does not have nearly the clamp on the party or the candidates as it once had,” said former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw. “People (in 2016) must be informed consumers and informed voters.”
Brokaw said the key is for voters to sift through the multiple sources of information available on the internet and elsewhere and determine for themselves which places can be trusted to give them the most balanced information about the candidates.
The event, sponsored by Mississippi Today in conjunction with the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at the University of Mississippi, featured Brokaw, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford and NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack.
The group offered insight on presidential politics and answered questions from a standing-room-only crowd of about 400 at the Nutt Auditorium on campus.
WLBT anchor Maggie Wade, who served as the event’s moderator, posed questions ranging from the impact of social media on this presidential election to whether the media has pressed candidates enough on important issues to why this presidential election has been labeled one of the wildest in our country’s history.
Lack, founder of Mississippi Today, discussed the role of social media in the 2016 election.
“This was billed as the social media election going in,” Lack said. “If you’re in the press, getting that unfiltered Donald (Trump tweets), often first thing in the morning … we haven’t seen anything like this and likely won’t again.”
Ford spoke about how presidential politics should work. Instead of focusing campaign efforts on attacking the other candidates, Ford said, candidates should prove that they are willing to work with those on the opposite side of the aisle.
“In order to get things done, you not only have to learn to work together, but you have to learn to listen to each other,” Ford said. “Public policy work is not necessarily about liking someone, it’s about working with them.”
Barbour, a Mississippi Today donor, who served as chairman of the Republican National Committee and worked as an aide to former President Ronald Reagan, quipped about his time serving Mississippi and his time working in national politics.
“The nominating process has become so weird they had to come up with a new name for it: electile dysfunction,” Barbour said, garnering laughs and applause from the audience.
A number of students raised questions about the viability of third party candidates and the effort by Sen. Bernie Sanders to upset the Democratic Party’s effort to select former secretary of State Hillary Clinton as presidential nominee.
Barbour cautioned that in the current political system, third party candidates can’t win an election, although they can influence the outcome and throw an election to one of the two major party candidates.
Ford suggested, using the current model of open primaries being used in California, that the presidential election process might benefit from open primaries, with the top two candidates, regardless of party, advancing to the final vote.
Such an approach might open the way for alternative candidates, he said.
Panelists did not predict how the 2016 presidential campaign would end, but most agreed that the contest was far from over and difficult to predict at this point.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, they said, candidates would need to position themselves to meet the needs of the American people.
But Barbour cautioned that with two candidates who have such high negative opinion ratings — the highest combined negatives of any presidential candidates since formal polling began — voters are more likely to hear in the closing weeks of the campaign from the Clinton camp about all the things wrong with Trump and from the Trump camp all the reasons not to vote for Clinton instead of an in-depth discussion of the issues.
Asked by a student how to choose a candidate to vote for if they are both considered to be such poor candidates, Ford urged the student to “write down the three things most important to you” and then use those to judge the candidates on which would best address those issues.
“I think the defining issue of our time is how to deal with ISIS,” Brokaw said. “The next three weeks will likely determine the outcome. … This is a defining time in America and the western political culture.”
Panelists spent about 40 minutes answering questions from Wade, then the floor was opened to Ole Miss students. Questions posed to the moderators ranged from what regional and international problems would surface in the coming months to what candidates can learn from a place like Mississippi.
The event drew a star-studded group of Mississippi political figures. U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, former governor Ronnie Musgrove, Attorney General Jim Hood, and state Sens. Hob Bryan and Gray Tollison were in attendance. Ole Miss Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter welcomed the crowd, and Mississippi journalist and author Curtis Wilkie, an Overby Center fellow, introduced the panel.