Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, June 13, 2004
by Susan Ives

MADISON, N.J. — The long banner stretched across the Erie-Lackawanna railroad tracks crossing Route 124 said, “Welcome Drew University Alumni/Alumnae.”

“What’s this alumni/alumnae stuff?” my husband asked, as we turned into the college parking lot.

“Alumni is the plural of the Latin alumnus, the male form of the noun; alumnae is plural of alumna, the female,” I answered pedantically. I get that way when I’m near my alma mater (Latin for “bountiful mother,” in case you wondered).

He rolled his eyes. “At St. Mary’s we are all alumni,” he said.

I read his mind. “Pretentious East Coast politically correct liberal nonsense. I hate these people already. We’ll stand around sipping sherry, trading jokes about Aristotle. Where’s the beer?” His hands tightened on the steering wheel.

He read my mind. “You’d think a Catholic university would take more pains over its Latin constructions. Perhaps it’s a Texas thing. Entirely too much beer.”

I stared out the side window. Maybe it was a mistake bringing my husband to my 30th college reunion.

Mirabile dicta, it is wondrous to relate, that the first classmate my husband sat down to chat with was a Republican. They had beer — his brand. He calmed down.

A highlight of the weekend was the alumni/alumnae university, five class sessions on topics of current interest, taught by our favorite professors.

Dr. J. Perry Leavell, the culprit who taught me 20th century history my freshman year, kicked off a panel discussion on the presidential elections.

When the Cold War ended and attention focused on domestic policy, he said, many argued that the presidency had become less important. This is a similar to what the nation experienced at the close of the 19th century, from 1876 to 1892.

There was keen partisanship, and elections were close. The election of 1888, Benjamin Harrison vs. Grover Cleveland, was won by fewer than 2,000 votes. Only one presidential candidate — Samuel Tilden — managed to get more than 50 percent of the popular vote, and he lost in the Electoral College.

In the 1800s, a good candidate was a safe candidate, someone you didn’t know a lot about so there was nothing to attack. Look at Cleveland — elected mayor of Buffalo in 1881, governor of New York a year later and, 18 months after that, nominated by the Democratic Party to run for president. What’s to hate?

Sounds a lot like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Leavell said. Clinton was the governor of a state that most people can’t find on a map, and Bush hailed from a state where the governorship is constitutionally among the weakest in the country. What’s to hate?

Sept. 11, 2001, changed all that, Leavell said. With the attention of the nation back on foreign affairs, the Democrats nominated John Kerry, an unsafe candidate, someone with a voting record that can be challenged, a potentially strong president.

I didn’t take any political science classes from Dr. Joe Romance. He was in middle school when I graduated from Drew. He speculated about the kind of campaigns the candidates would run.

In the 2000 election, he said, the Democrats concentrated on mobilizing their base. They identified Democratic voters, got them registered and made sure they got to the polls. This paid off, especially in Florida. President Bush’s campaign adviser, Karl Rove, expected to win Florida by 5 percent or 6 percent. We all know that didn’t happen.

The Republicans went for the swing voters: more independent, less ideological, personality-based, paying more attention to TV ads. You know: soccer moms.

They learned from the Democrats. In the midterm elections they poured resources into mobilizing their base and gained seats.

It’s not an either/or effort, he cautioned. The parties will both appeal to the swing voters and mobilize their base. It’s a matter of emphasis.

A clue from the Democrats will be whom they nominate for vice president. A strong party candidate such as Dick Gephardt will mean they are appealing to the base; a mystery man like John Edwards will mean they’re going for the swing.

If Dr. Leavell’s historical analysis holds true, look for both parties running media-based campaigns that target the swing voters.

Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas — fortunate is the person who knows the causes of things. And I’ll have another one of those beers, please.

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