The Obama administration’s agenda, the next presidential campaign, and political behavior on social media are among the topics assistant professor of political science Nick Beauchamp will be closely following this year. We asked Beauchamp, who specializes in U.S. politics and political opinion and social media, to discuss these and other political stories he expects to draw attention in 2015, ahead of the president’s State of the Union address Tuesday night.
What stood out to you about U.S. politics in 2014, and how has that influenced what you’ll be following closely this year?
It was striking to me that several major events President Obama responded to in 2014 were quite unpredictable, such as the Ebola outbreak, the rise of ISIS, the Russia-Ukraine situation, and the events of Ferguson, Missouri. So when you look back on it, it’s interesting to consider to what degree these were driven by external or random events, and whether there was a way to predict them. In particular, one of the advantages of using social media is that you have a tap into ground-level events. In my research, I observe discussions of politics on Twitter, particularly around and leading up to elections. More broadly, social media offers a window into how social movements form around political campaigns and, in recent months, in response to the events in Ferguson and New York City. Long term, I want to look at how the action crystallizes on the street via social media and how that action can be predicted.
In my research examining public opinion, another area I’ve been looking at closely is polarization and how “political sorting,” meaning how people choose where they stand on multiple issues, is intensifying. We can measure this via social media. Most people think polarization is a bad thing and leads to gridlock in Washington. But it’s also a sign that people are becoming more informed about politics. This year I’m looking forward to examining this issue further and exploring if there is in fact an upside to political polarization.
Now that the midterm elections are over, what’s in store for Obama’s presidency in 2015?
Obama has already given us a glimpse into this with his brokering a historic deal to normalize relations with Cuba and his executive action on immigration. While he’s a lame duck president, he has a number of months to act as he pleases by taking executive action or pushing certain issues that might draw considerable political heat. With that in mind, will there be other bold moves on his part? One could be the Obama administration’s continued push to empty the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, not withstanding that Congress has passed measures to prevent it. On the legislative side, the Keystone pipeline will also likely come to his desk, though I expect he’ll veto it.
On a broader level, what big issues do you see playing out in the political landscape this year?
On one level, given the unpredictability of many of the key events of 2014, it is very hard to prognosticate about even a year in the future. But certainly the 2016 elections and the associated political races will begin taking shape this year. Leading up to the 2012 elections, one trend with the Republican party was that one presidential candidate would soar in popularity but then collapse and be replaced by another candidate as the new frontrunner. This process also was intensified by media coverage. So it will be interesting to see if this process plays out again, with Republican candidates rotating through the public eye. Some of this is already happening, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie having held the spotlight and now former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush getting more attention, while U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is also in the mix. On the Democratic side, I’m fascinated to see how the Elizabeth Warren factor plays out. Will she gain in popularity? Will she declare she won’t run? It will be interesting to see how this plays out with her left-wing faction compared to the more centrist faction for Hillary Clinton, who is presumably going to run.
Outside of the 2016 elections, I’m curious to see if the U.S. Supreme Court revisits the issue of gay marriage, and whether there’s a push for a national policy on this issue or whether it will remain up to the states. The Supreme Court will also be making a major decision affecting the Affordable Care Act health program, and it’s anyone’s guess how that will turn out.