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Scholars Weigh in on Presidential Campaign

Faculty Experts Weigh in on Presidential Campaign

Scholars are available to talk about the importance of charisma, the role of religion and why this race is so wide open.

(January 24, 2008)

Why does Barack Obama have charisma but Hillary Clinton does not? How can religious people enter the public square as religious and not violate the separation of church and state? Why would Bill Clinton be an effective “first lady”? Why is this presidential race more wide open than at any time in the past 30 years? As candidates gear up for February primaries, when more than 20 states will hold elections, faculty at the University of California, Riverside are available to discuss these and other issues related to the campaign.

Catherine Allgor, professor of history

Allgor is available to speak about the role of political women in the formation of U.S. government and the importance of the nation's first ladies. She is the author of “Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington City Help Build a City and a Government” and a biography of Dolley Madison. “Successful first ladies run the unofficial machine of politics — the social sphere — where much business is accomplished,” Allgor says. “The Democrats who quarrel among themselves over the ‘winnability’ of a Hillary Clinton presidential bid are overlooking one of the greatest assets — First Lady Bill. Bill Clinton has an undisputed gift for evincing powerful emotions in individuals and crowds, inspiring deep loyalty in his followers. Unhampered by the exigencies of official office, he would be free to use those talents to make connections and win adherents, shoring up his wife's administration.” Allgor recently was featured in a PBS documentary about Andrew Jackson.

Reza Aslan, assistant professor of creative writing
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An internationally known Iranian-American writer and scholar of religions, Aslan is a regular commentator for American Public Media’s Marketplace and the Middle East analyst for CBS News. “The next president will have to try to build a successful, economically viable Palestinian state while protecting the safety and sovereignty of Israel,” Aslan says. “He or she will have to slowly and responsibly withdraw forces from Iraq without allowing the country to implode. He or she will have to bring Iraq's neighbors, Syria and Iran, to the negotiating table while simultaneously reining in Iran's nuclear ambitions, keeping Syria out of Lebanon, reassuring Washington's Sunni Arab allies that they have not been abandoned, coaxing Russia into becoming part of the solution (rather than part of the problem) in the region, saving an independent and democratic Afghanistan from the resurgent Taliban, preparing for an inevitable succession of leadership in Saudi Arabia, persuading China to play a more constructive role in the Middle East and keeping a nuclear-armed Pakistan from self-destructing in the wake of Benazir Bhutto's assassination.”

Shaun Bowler, professor of political science

Bowler studies third parties and voter behavior. He has been following the 2008 presidential closely and can provide commentary on the latest developments. “There's obviously lots of energy on the Democratic side, and the result of the recent Iowa Caucuses did underscore the problems facing the GOP this cycle. The GOP vote will recover a bit by election day, of course, as the faithful rally, but the general message is people want a change — and the GOP candidates just have a hard time selling that. McCain should be pleased by the result coming out of Iowa. Ron Paul was a big winner too. He did almost as well as McCain. Paul, for example, seems to have been squeezed out of being covered by Republican media outlets like Fox and despite that did almost as well as McCain, who is the 'inside guy' for the GOP and Fox. But that's a story that is getting lost in the coverage.” Bowler is the co-author of “Demanding Choices: Opinion Voting and Direct Democracy,” with Todd Donovan (University of Michigan Press, 1998).

Erica Edwards, assistant professor of English

Charisma as a form of authority has become an organizing myth of black social organizations, which raises some key questions, Edwards says. For example, is charismatic authority an acceptable means for black leadership? Charisma is important because it determines who gets to speak and who is visible. Among Edwards’ research interests are black political culture and the role of charisma and masculinity in the construction of black political leaders. Edwards is working on a book project titled “Contesting Charisma: Fictions of Political Leadership in Contemporary African American Culture.”

Martin Johnson, assistant professor of political science

Johnson is available to discuss local, state, and national elections, as well as public opinion, polling and survey research, and the news media’s role in politics. Johnson’s research has investigated the role of public opinion in the policy process, as well as how people learn about policy issues and what motivates people to vote. He teaches courses on American political behavior, public opinion, and research methods. “The fact that Vice President Dick Cheney isn't running means there isn't an heir apparent, which means the whole race is a lot more wide open than we have seen in more than 30 years,” he says. “Californians are going to see TV commercials and read profiles on the candidates but no hand-shaking with candidates. That's what happens in Iowa.” Johnson’s research has been recognized by the National Opinion Research Center.

Vorris Nunley, assistant professor of English

Among Nunley’s research interests is the study of rhetoric. He is available to discuss how the content and style of candidates’ speeches may change to appeal to different constituencies, how a candidate such as Rudy Giuliani may take celebrity status and convert it to social capital, and why Barack Obama has charisma and Hilary Clinton does not. “Charisma is so important in who can and can’t be president,” Nunley says. “If charisma’s not working, you don’t even get a hearing. One reason you don’t have women running for president is because charisma is masculinized.” Nunley also can speak about the tradition of African American hush harbors, spheres such as beauty shops, barbershops and women’s clubs where congregants could speak freely and obtain knowledge useful in everyday life. Hush harbors may occur within different groups and cultures, from NASCAR and churches to the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements. “They produce knowledge in ways that doesn’t occur publicly,” Nunley says. “To overlook hush harbors is to overlook a substantial part of democracy.”

Karthick Ramakrishnan, assistant professor of political science

Ramakrishnan is available to discuss immigration in the United States, political participation, civic voluntarism and the politics of race and ethnicity. He is a principal investigator on a multi-site research project on immigrant civic voluntarism funded by the Russell Sage Foundation. He joined UCR from the Public Policy Institute of California, where he authored several peer-reviewed reports on immigrant adaptation, local governance and civic engagement. He is the author of “Democracy in Immigrant America” (Stanford University Press, 2005), and is co-editor of “Transforming Politics, Transforming America,” a forthcoming book on immigrant politics, and of Policy Matters, a quarterly public-policy research journal published by UC Riverside. With regard to the immigrant civic volunteerism survey, Ramakrishnan said, “You definitely see more of a balance. They seem to be more open to the Democratic Party or at least haven’t yet formed their party allegiances.” It’s still an open question as to what kind of political and civic identity the Inland Empire will take, he said. “I think it’s going to continue to be a moving target.”

Ivan Strenski, Holstein Family and Community Professor of Religious Studies

Among Strenski’s research interests are the history of religions and religion, religion and science, and the religious roots of economic globalization and international law. He teaches a course in political religions and religious politics. Questions about the role of religion abound in the 2008 presidential campaign, he says. For example: How can religious people enter the public square as religious and not violate the separation of church and state? Does Mike Huckabee representing himself as a “Christian leader” rub one the wrong way? When religious people enter the public square but tone down their beliefs, are they, in doing so, changing their religion? Why are Catholics or Jews less likely to be vocal about their religious beliefs, commitments, etc.? Are Mormons Christians? Is America a Christian nation, and in what sense, or not? What were the religions of the founders? “The assumption that religion is necessarily good is something I reject,” Strenski says. “This assumption emerges from people thinking that a reasonable requirement of a president is that they be a religious believer, especially a Christian.. Otherwise put, knowing that a person is religious gives one greater confidence that they would be a good leader. Wrong on all counts.”

Antoine Yoshinaka, assistant professor of political science

Yoshinaka has won a Congressional Research Award from the Dirksen Congressional Center. His project, “The Rise of Incivility in the U.S. Senate,” focuses on party leaders’ strategies and the previous political experience of individual senators as the reason for a perceived rise in incivility and decline of comity in the U.S. Senate, a subject he has been studying for some time.

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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