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The Citizen

Views from Abroad

By Citizen Staff

International HKS students have had a healthy dose of the American campaign season and electoral culture over the past two months.  They have been inundated with campaign ads; the latest polling news; a Forum flooded with students to watch and discuss the  presidential debates; invitations to fund-raisers; and heated discussions about which candidate ‘won’ a debate, made a serious gaffe or looked more ‘presidential’.  They have likely overheard heated conversations about the Electoral College, voter turn-out, campaign strategies, media biases and negative ads.

American students are used to this culture.  After all, this is how election season is in the United States.  However, few American students likely have time or make time to reflect upon election season and think about how it is perceived by the rest of the world.  We have taken this opportunity to ask our international friends and colleagues to share their thoughts.  Fortunately, many of them agreed to do so.

Please view this as an opportunity to reflect upon the American culture of campaign season and to allow this to be the beginning of many interesting conversations.  Emotions tend to run high during election season, so while reading our international friends’ reflections, please keep in mind that we are all here at HKS to be part of an open and mindful learning culture where we can respectfully agree or disagree and where we are willing to listen to each other and exchange ideas.

Christina Marin MPP’14, Jaya Bhagat MC/MPA’13, Jennifer Hoegen MC/MPA’13

Witnessing the 2012 Presidential Elections unfold, I am surprised at the resources pumped into political advertising.  Fancy YouTube videos and TV commercials that laud the successes of one candidate while ridiculing the follies of another are certainly not conventional publicity activities I am familiar with back in Singapore.

My intuitive reaction was to think that such endeavors seem to frame the elections as an overly-expensive popularity contest.  Wouldn’t candidates with more resources at their disposal have a natural advantage in reaching out to a wider audience?  I could not reconcile how such expenditures could possibly be justifiable, regardless of the sources of funding.

Yet as Nov. 6 approaches, I start to realize that perhaps the fact that US elections are intricately braided with populism, accounts for the level of political engagement with the citizenry; many people seem genuinely concerned with the political outcomes of the upcoming elections.  Just a couple of days ago, an off-the-cuff conversation with the cashier at a local supermarket on different aspects of living in the US converged into a brief discussion on healthcare policies advocated by the candidates!

I suppose such excitement has rubbed off on me too as I find myself increasingly interested in the elections.  Even though I won’t be voting, I can’t wait for Nov. 6 to come!

Marvin Kang, Singapore, MPP ’14

Never have I witnessed as much fanfare around elections as I got to see in the last two months at Kennedy School. From watching every presidential debate to religiously monitoring each and every political poll that exists in cyber space and everything in between, the enthusiasm of people at the school is just phenomenal. It’s amazing how everyone is so passionate about the elections that even in the face of the impending hurricane, people were discussing the possible effect of the hurricane on the election results. For some, this question was as important as whether food would be served in the dining hall during the storm. I would have never have guessed or fathomed that these two questions would be ranked the same on the priority level.

What has surprised me the most is the inclination of the majority of the students towards one political party. I was expecting more diversity of opinion among the students, but on the contrary I found a large number of people leaning towards Democrats. I never realized that there were so many liberals at the Kennedy School.

Saadia Qayyum, Pakistan, MPP ’14

Initially I thought the presidential debates belittled the candidates, reducing them to hapless gladiators engaging unwillingly in a demeaning fight just to earn a meal, and that it dumbed down the election process and the critical issues at stake by creating an atmosphere which appealed more to America’s fixation with reality shows than to serious debate.  But by the time I had watched the third debate, I held a different view.  It is admirable that presidential candidates engage in public debate, making themselves vulnerable and requiring them to reveal far more of themselves than they ordinarily do.  The debates give voters the opportunity to hear directly from the candidates, to hear them address issues in a (largely) unscripted setting.  In its crudest form it is a sales pitch for votes, but it also serves as a reminder to politicians that they are accountable to the people; this serves to strengthen the American democracy.

I also think there is great danger in the debates if voters judge the candidates on their performance on the night, much like they would a singing or dancing reality show, rather than on their ability to lead and deliver a government that truly represents the desires and hopes of its people.  So I would caution that the winner of a debate does not necessarily point to the best president.

Athol Williams, South Africa, MC/MPA ’13



The Presidency is there for the taking and I’ve been surprised that more HKS students aren’t spending their weekends campaigning in New Hampshire or Ohio. For those Obama supporters of 2008 who campaigned hard for change and were unhappy with the results, there seems to be nowhere to channel their energy or frustration.

Is the real problem that every vote for a minor party or independent amounts to a betrayal of the Republicans or Democrats? I guess it’s better to be disillusioned and silent than to usher in the opposition, right?

This is puzzling to me, having grown up with preferential voting. In Australia, the mediocrity of our Labour Party can never be used as an excuse for progressives to sit the election out. At our last federal election, the uninspired public split the major party vote down the middle and threw their support behind the minor parties.

The public seems to hate the minority government they’ve created, but nobody really knows why: far from being a legislative disaster, the parliament has managed to keep the lights on and pass some pretty serious reforms in the process!

Elle Wood, Australia, MPP ’14

What is most striking about this election is the gap between the rhetoric, and the mood of the voter. The US is in the bleak second Act of an epic economic drama. People are tired. Belts are tight. Fatigue and frustration have replaced hope and change, and trust in politicians is lower than ever.

In the face of this, both sides need to fire up their base to win. That is why they are desperate to convince the public that they face a fight for the soul of the country. But whether that turns out to be true after the election depends more on the House, and what happens within the Supreme Court and the Republican Party. The truth is that there is less difference between the candidates than anyone cares to admit.

America puzzled the world in 2000, left us gasping for expletives in 2004, and inspired us profoundly in 2008. In 2012 the world, and Americans, are too busy surviving to let the pantomime affect them too much. It is still winter in America. Expect a lot more emails, a low turnout and a wafer-thin margin.”

Peter Harrington, England, MPP ’14


Presidential elections in America are very interesting because there are facets to the process that a foreigner is exposed to for the first time. For starters, the battle is only between the candidates of two parties and there are only three types of voters – the Democrats, the Republicans and the undecided. The electoral debate is also focused on issues and platforms rather than personalities, which unfortunately is the case in my country.

I was surprised to learn in my digital class that the total percentage of negative television advertisements for both candidates is as high as 80 percent and that these are designed to target the undecided voters. The extent to which the candidates use technology to obtain data, to fundraise or to market themselves is also very enlightening.

Needless to say, it is a fantastic learning experience to be observing this electoral process while in the United States, especially at the Kennedy School


Gianna Montinola, Philippines, MC-MPA and Mason Fellow ’13

Just as in the US – and mostly everywhere else – in Mexico, media plays a critical role in the presidential election. Through their editorial line, the prediction polls they present and the amount of coverage, media has become not only the stage where the presidential campaigns develop but an important influence on the final turnout.

In this regard, there is one difference that I want to note. In the United States, it is common to see media public endorsements – recently The New York Times and the LA Times for Obama and the New York Post and Boston Herald for Romney –, while in Mexico, de facto endorsements take place but they are never public.

Having de facto media endorsements in Mexico create a lack of transparency for the possible biases the media can have and it does not give the citizens the ability to make an informed decision on which information to consume.

Elisa De Anda Madrazo, Mexico, MPA