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On presidential campaigns, a look forward

Fewer than 2,000 people donated approximately 97 percent of the billions of dollars spent on this year’s election, a major shift in how campaigns at all levels of government are financed and run.

“It’d be one thing if the $6 billion was coming from every man, woman and child in this country,” said Jeff Clements, president and co-founder of Free Speech for People, a national, nonpartisan campaign seeking to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the case between Citizens United and the Federal Election Commission. “But that’s not what’s happening.”

Clements spoke at Northeastern University on Thursday at the fourth annual Thomas P. O’Neill Conference on presidential campaigns and politics titled “The Presidential Election of 2012: A Red or Blue Future?”

He noted that the ability of wealthy Americans, corporations and unions to influence elections remains unclear and may never be fully understood, especially because of the dearth of information gathered about campaign expenditures by the Federal Election Commission.

The author of the book “Corporations Are Not People,” Clements argued that major legal changes including a Constitutional amendment are required to prevent the United States from becoming a plutocracy, oligarchy or a society reminiscent of the Gilded Age.

“Now, this kind of spending is not immoral or illegal,” as it was when tough campaign legislation was enacted following President Nixon’s resignation, Clements said. “At this point, it’s become sacrosanct — a core part of our democracy.

Conference host William Crotty, a political science professor and the Thomas P. O’Neill Chair in Public Life, noted that the event gave experts and audience members one of the first opportunities to take an academic look at the presidential election and its implications for the future.

“Now that some of us have managed to tear ourselves away from Nate Silver’s website, I think it only appropriate to analyze what happened and where we are going,” said Laura L. Frader, a history professor and the associate dean of faculty in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities in reference to the popular New York Times polling-aggregation website and blog.

Crotty kicked off the daylong conference with an analysis of the candidates and the campaign, noting that both the Obama and Romney camps focused exclusively on the battleground states that could swing the outcome of the Electoral College.

“The candidates looked not at the popular vote but at the 10 states that would make a difference in the electoral campaign,” Crotty said. “This was where the election would be fought, they decided. This is where the election would be won or lost. And neither candidate made a personal appearance outside this handful of states.”

Jobs and unemployment were the driving issues on the campaign trail, Crotty said, adding that the positive results of the last two jobs reports in the campaign season helped lock in the incumbent’s re-election.

“Those results added some legitimacy to the administration’s claim that things were getting better,” he said.

Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee for president and a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Northeastern, noted that this year’s election results show a nation with dramatically shifting demographics. He pointed to California, whose growing influence of minority voters has shifted the state from a Republican stronghold to a Democratic lock

“The entire country is moving demographically in this direction,” Dukakis said, adding that the shift requires Democrats to mobilize and Republicans to reach out to constituencies that have not historically been part of the party’s largely white base. “The opportunities for the Democrats are huge. But like all opportunities, you have to seize them.”