On Tuesday, February 13, the Columbia Political Science Students Association (PSSA) hosted a talk with Professor Michael Miller about future elections, the present political climate, and how the past can inform both.

The snow-covered lawns could be seen out the window of the Hamilton classroom this past Tuesday evening, where members and visitors of the Columbia Political Science Students Association (PSSA) sat around the large table in chairs lining the walls. Their attention was turned to Michael Miller, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Barnard, who led the discussion hosted and mediated by Columbia PSSA about the upcoming 2024 United States presidential elections. 

Professor Miller first got involved in politics as a campaign finance manager and worked his way up to manage the campaigns of senators and other elected officials. Shortly after the 2000 presidential election, he earned his MA in Political Science and eventually a PhD in Government. In describing his path to academia, he stressed his background growing up in a rural region of America, where careers in academia and politics were uncommon. His upbringing in such an environment influenced his attitude towards his career, advising students to “have the courage to fail.”

Alongside his teaching duties, Miller worked for Fox News during the 2020 presidential election cycle, analyzing data to determine the electoral outcomes of each state on Election Day. The first question from the mediator was related to this role, particularly his involvement in the decision to call the vote in Arizona, for which Fox received criticism for calling it too early before enough votes had been counted. 

To explain this decision, Miller described how news outlets receive their polling information. Usually, news organizations pool their resources to conduct exit polls as people leave the voting center. However, these polls tend to lean Democratic, even though it is mostly Republicans who vote on Election Day. To offset this difference, Fox News chose to conduct its own surveys using a pre-election survey model, in which surveys were sent out randomly through phone calls, mail, and online polling. Already, Fox had gathered a different set of data than most other news outlets from this separate model. When combining this with the use of multiple models using real-time election data, Miller chose to call Arizona significantly earlier than other news outlets. He did make a point to specify that this decision was not entirely his to make, as Fox News could choose to broadcast the results or not. His role was entirely about the data, or, in his words, “numbers over political ramifications.” 

Looking to the future—the 2024 presidential election—Miller began by acknowledging the predicament that major political parties find themselves in. “Neither party likes their nominee,” he sighed. To him, only a few issues seemed to be mobilizing voters. Firstly, voters, particularly Democratic women, seem concerned with abortion rights. Secondly, Miller believed that immigration was a significant concern for many voters, which he claimed Republicans had been using as a tool on which to run their presidential campaign. Lastly, hoping to rally voters, Biden’s statement that in this election, “democracy is on the ballot” appeared to push voters to action. 

The conversation turned to current events and former President Trump’s recent request to the Supreme Court to pause his ongoing presidential immunity trial that is currently in the lower courts. Miller reminded those in attendance that this trial was about setting precedent rather than prosecuting an individual, differentiating between what some might want the outcome to be versus the legal implications of the outcome. He argued that the president should be immune from political prosecution. Without immunity, anyone can bring up politically motivated charges that could detract from the president’s ability to do their job properly. The main issue of the trial, Miller argued, is less about the validity of presidential immunity and more about whether an individual can be prosecuted as a citizen for crimes committed during their presidency. Trump argues in his case that in all of American history, no president has been convicted of such a crime, but in response, Professor Miller proposed that “there’s a reason for that.”

Colorado’s recent ruling to ban Trump from the ballot for his alleged participation in an insurrection was also brought up. If the ruling, which was brought to the Supreme Court, is supported, it would imply that states can control who appears on voters’ ballots. 

But Professor Miller reminded listeners that what must first be determined by courts is whether Trump participated in the insurrection, to begin with. Once that fact is resolved, then the question of who has the right to determine who can be on the ballot can be discussed. Similar to Trump’s immunity trial, this case is setting a precedent: what might state power over presidential ballots mean for future presidential candidates? The Supreme Court is “uncomfortable with the idea” of one state’s unilateral ruling being able to influence presidential elections—a federal matter—and is likely to rule in Trump’s favor, according to Miller and many other experts

With all the talk about legal proceedings surrounding elected officials, the mediator of the conversation asked Miller about the use of impeachment as a political tool, given the recent attempted impeachment by House Republicans of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. (Later that evening, it was reported that after a second attempt, Republicans successfully impeached Secretary Mayorkas.) Miller pointed to notes made by the writers of the Constitution that acknowledge that government officials cannot be impeached for “maladministration” because that would open up the possibility of impeaching any official for not doing their job as the House majority desired. Despite this documented understanding that impeachment of government officials cannot simply be used for political purposes, Miller claimed that Congress Republicans’ use of impeachment was instead a symbol of the state of the Republican party and how the “most extreme factions” within the party “held [them] hostage.” Divided, the Republican Party could not present a united front to agree on policy. 

Professor Miller used the recent rejection of a bipartisan bill by some Senate Republicans as an example of such internal conflict, wherein Republicans backed out of the deal due to their own disagreements. Miller believed these instances interrupted the very structure of the party system, which relies on stable negotiating partners to make compromises and progress, and is representative of his broader understanding that the US has “lost the ability to do basic government functions.” 

The discussion was then opened to questions from attendees. One student asked about the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement between certain states to elect into office the winner of the popular vote in presidential elections, and how that would affect Miller’s work. He responded, in short, “not until Texas goes blue.” Right-leaning states would not join the compact because the electoral college worked in their favor, making the efficacy of the compact in the near future little to none. 

Another student sought out Miller’s predictions for the upcoming presidential election. Again, he summarized his opinion by responding, “Anybody who tells you that they know what’s gonna happen is wrong.”  

A student inquired about his research process, which Miller said often occurs over multiple decades. Miller responded by speaking about his current research concerning the ramifications of the Supreme Court overturning a portion of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County in 2013. This decision allowed states that were previously blocked from changing their voting laws due to histories of disenfranchisement of marginalized voters to alter their laws. Miller’s current research is interested in the permanent effects these changes had on voters, or those who were permanently disenfranchised, by looking at downstream, or future, elections. 

With five minutes left in the conversation, the final question examined factors that influenced the election process. Though there are statutes and individual actions that Miller argued actively target certain groups to disenfranchise them, he emphasized his concern with misinformation and the rise of AI. He advised those gathered in the classroom to insulate themselves against such misinformation by not using social media, which he jokingly acknowledged as a hard task for a crowd mostly between the ages of 18 and 23. 

Many of the discussion’s participants most definitely held their own conjectures regarding the upcoming elections, and most likely still hold the same beliefs. Though college campuses can easily become performative echo chambers, listening to the processes and practices behind the scenes of high-profile events and government figures, and applying a variety of models, frameworks, and opinions to our own understanding of the political world is a useful tool to engage and exercise. 

Hamilton via Bwog Archives