April Hot Topics Luncheon Report

By Carol Nikov

“It is a hard time to talk about Politics—it is so visceral”

Dr. Kevin Wagner, Phd, professor at FAU, former attorney, and lecturer on American Politics started his April Hot Topics on a serious note, but succeeded in making all in attendance laugh while learning how modern media has transformed the political process in America. In talking about his 2014 book Tweeting to Power: Social Media Revolution in American Politics  (Oxford University Press, 2014), Dr. Wagner quipped that he did not predict the rise of President Trump through the use of twitter, but did say the phenomenon has been good for his book sales. That was the first of many humorous statements he made while informing all in attendance about how media has changed and will continue to affect the political process.

Approval Ratings of Presidents

The first subject tackled was the misinformation spread by poor television reporting on polls. He explained that Presidents have high approval ratings immediately after they come into office and as they are leaving. “The highest Approval ratings are associated with hope and decline as the public gets to know [the President]”. While the media makes a great deal out of the ‘low poll numbers’ of President Trump, Dr. Wagner stipulated that other recent Presidents have had poll numbers that low and the numbers themselves are not unusual. However, he did note that President Trump’s low poll numbers have come very early in his term and that is unusual and unprecedented in recent history.

Determining Factor of the 2016 Presidential Race

Dr. Wagner also covered early data available on the 2016 election that showed that although voter turnout was slightly down from the previous two elections, it was not enough to surmise that low turnout alone was the factor that determined the winner of the election. The big difference that arose in the past election is that more voters than expected voted for Trump that had traditionally voted for a Democratic candidate in past elections. Dr. Wagner discussed data regarding racism and discussed how certain voters favored one candidate over the other based on whether that voter was more or less inclined to favor equality.

The Changing Media Landscape

Perceptions are shaped by the media that is consumed by viewers and Dr. Wagner had several slides that stated key economic facts under Presidents Reagan and Obama that differed greatly from how those Presidents are portrayed in various media outlets. In the golden age of television, with the three main media outlets of ABC, CBS, and NBC, news programs tried to gain the highest percentage of ALL viewers and, therefore, tailored reporting to present both sides of a story, remaining basically neutral in their reporting on political events and issues. The advent of cable news, talk radio, and the internet has changed the model to one that spends much less on reporting, research, and production and is able to be profitable with a much smaller audience. For instance, the O’Reilly Factor, Fox News highest rated show, has normal viewership of less than 4 million, and the Rachel Maddow Show has normal viewership of about 2.3 million. These audiences are significantly less than what major network evening news programs attract every night with ABC at 7.6 million, NBC at 7.5 million and CBS at 6.6 million. Dr. Wagner also cited demographic data that highlighted the preference of younger consumers for news from the internet, social media, and other non- traditional news outlets. He noted the pitfalls of using solely those sources as  fact- gathering mechanisms.

You Are What You See

This splintering of the TV news watching public has allowed existing news programs to become politically slanted in an effort to attract a much smaller number of like minded regular viewers and has created a confirmation bias in the consumption of news. Confirmation bias, or the desire to hear something you already believe to be true, regardless of competing information, causes extremism in viewpoints that are a root cause in the political polarization we experience today. Dr. Wagner encouraged all attendees to “watch news we normally do not” and he joked that we should look upon the exercise as “opposition research.”

Gerrymandering

Lastly, Dr. Wagner tackled the issue of Gerrymandering, or the drawing of voting district lines to create an advantage for one party or the other. While each party has participated in the practice of gerrymandering, it does create an unfair advantage and skews median voter intent in any geographic area.

The League–a Real Favorite!

The lecture was over well before the audience was ready for it to end. Dr. Wagner indicated at the beginning of his lecture that he does not accept many speaking engagements because “It is a hard time to talk about politics—it is so visceral,” but he also said that the League of Women Voters is one of his favorite organizations and promised to come back at a future time to share more information and data analysis in the future.