Remarks by Ambassador John R. Phillips on the 2016 U.S. Elections at the Sassari University

Ambassador Phillips at Sassari University

Sassari, May 11, 2016

(As prepared for delivery)

Good morning.  Rector Carpinelli, professors, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak about the U.S. Presidential Election.  I am very pleased to be here today and have the chance to visit your beautiful island.

I am pleased to discuss the U.S. presidential election today; it is attracting a great deal of attention around the world and in Italy and I’m happy to be able to share a certain perspective about the process and issues.

I’ve been involved in U.S. politics most of my adult life, most recently in support of the Obama campaign and now serving in President Obama’s administration as Ambassador to Italy.  My wife, Linda Douglass, in her capacity as a journalist has also covered U.S. politics and the election process for many years.

Today I am not here as a partisan representative, however, but to share some observations which may be of interest and to try to answer your questions about the U.S. political process.

Every four years, Americans are blessed with the opportunity and duty to exercise our vote and elect a new president, reconfirming the strength and vibrancy of our democracy.  We are privileged to live in a democratic country, just like you do here in Italy.

More than half of the world’s population lives under autocratic or partly free governments, denied full civil liberties and unable to freely participate in political life.  A country cannot be truly democratic until its citizens have the opportunity to choose their representatives through elections that are free and fair.  Elections provide an important opportunity to advance democratization and encourage political liberalization.

One issue that is particularly important in this U.S. presidential election is the youth vote.  A number of key issues in this year’s election are directly related to the concerns of students and young professionals, making it essential that young people vote in November’s election.  Young people have made a difference in the primary elections already, leading to the strong showing of Senator Sanders among youth, for example.
In the last few electoral cycles, the Internet has played a huge part in informing and involving young people in the electoral campaign and thanks to improved outreach to young voters, the percentage of those voting has slightly increased.

The 2012 campaign is considered the first digital election — social media was an accepted and valuable tool to influence voters and supplement traditional news coverage – especially for the Obama campaign.  The rise in smartphones transformed the digital landscape, allowing mobile-based social media and technologies.

Ambassador Phillips at Sassari University
Ambassador Phillips at Sassari University

In the 2016 campaign, learning from Obama’s successful use of digital campaigns, the current candidates all employ social media extensively to engage the increasingly wired American constituency – especially millennials.

Money has become an increasingly important factor in recent elections.  The 2008 presidential election saw a huge jump in dollars raised from four years prior and then the 2012 election saw another significant increase on top of that with each new election becoming the most expensive in history.

For instance, the total amount spent on the 2012 election was $6 billion according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which is $700 million more than the cost of the 2008 election and includes money spent by the campaigns, outside groups, and independent organizations.
It is too early to effectively compare the money flow for the 2016 election with the 2012 and 2008 figures.  A comparison of the amounts raised by 2012 and 2016 candidates through the March of each election year, however, suggests a slower current rate.

Historically, fundraising increases significantly in April and May and peaks at the end of summer.

For the 2012 race, the share of contribution from Small Individual Contributors raised by the Obama campaign was significantly higher than that raised by the Romney campaign.  This year, too, the Internet plays an important role for many candidates who get small donations.
Interestingly, particularly on the Republican side, success in fundraising, and higher spending on advertising and campaign events has not translated to an overwhelming advantage at the ballot box.  You could say that not only can money not buy love, it can’t buy votes, at least in 2016.

However, the issue of money in politics – how much is raised, by whom and the potential influence it wields is a source of deep concern.
In 2010, a Supreme Court ruling drastically changed campaign finance law.  Before the ruling, corporations and labor unions were prohibited from spending directly to support or oppose candidates for president and Congress.  Groups of individuals were allowed to establish separate funds of up to $ 5,000 in PACs (political action committees) to make contributions to political parties or candidates’ campaigns.

After the controversial ruling, corporations and unions were allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money to elect or defeat candidates as long as they do not do so in coordination with the candidates’ campaign organizations.

These legal rulings have offered new opportunities for political spending by corporations, unions, and non-profit organizations.

The 2012 elections were the first to have the so-called Super PACs which are allowed to raise an unlimited amount of money from donors who can choose to remain anonymous.

The decision of the Supreme Court also affirmed that corporations are people.   Shareholders and other groups of people legally enjoy the same rights that they would have if they were acting as individuals.
The court also ruled that the government cannot restrict how much such groups can spend to support or criticize political candidates.
In terms of domestic policy, many of the issues in the current race focus on the economy. This is a sensible issue for both Democrats and Republicans.  Democrats are trying to capitalize on what has been a fairly successful economy under President Obama. About 10 million new jobs have been created, growth has been sustained, financial systems have stabilized, and the values of leading stock markets have doubled.
According to Republicans, economic growth has been very slow and recovery has been weak and insufficient and many Americans remain unemployed.  Moreover, those who have found new jobs are earning less money than before the 2008 recession.  Republicans are tapping into a general sense among many that America is not thriving and their quality of life and future prospects are in decline.

There is also a strong frustration among many Americans with political gridlock in Washington.  Some think this is one reason Donald Trump has been doing so well.  He is perceived as “outside” the system and deploys provocative rhetoric which plays well in some circles.

Foreign policy is also playing an important role in both parties’ campaigns.  The foreign policy issues being discussed in the 2016 race are very broad.  They include cybersecurity, nuclear issues with North Korea, relations with Russia and the case of Ukraine, TTIP and, of course, stability in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, ISIS and its attacks in Western countries, including the United States.

The foreign policy experience and qualifications of the leading candidates are being hotly debated in the current race and will likely continue to be a hot topic.

The challenges that we face together around the world will continue to demand strong U.S. leadership, and international leadership will be one of the most important roles for the U.S. president.

In order to secure their parties’ nomination for President, Republican and Democrat candidates must compete for votes at the state level in a race for delegates.  There are complicated rules for awarding delegates and they differ in each state, but at this point in the process, Donald Trump is the de-facto nominee of the Republican party because all the other candidates have dropped out of the race.

The race on the Democratic side goes on, but Hillary Clinton has amassed such a lead in delegates that most pundits see her as the eventual nominee.

The two political conventions at the end of July will formally confirm the nominees and the party platforms.

And then it will be non-stop campaigning for American hearts and minds up until November 8.  It’s been a fascinating and unpredictable process up to now and I’m sure will continue to be so.

Let me stop here.  I’ve raised many issues which I hope will be discussed during the Q&A.  I expect to field some very interesting and challenging questions from you, and will try to be non-partisan in my answers!
I welcome your questions.