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Despite Dissonant Discourse, Nation is Moving Toward Consensus, Pollster Tells F&M Crowd

America appears to be sharply divided along political lines, but in actuality, voters and politicians are moving toward consensus on issues ranging from gay marriage to immigration reform.

"We don't have political polarization today. We have political dysfunction," Joel Benenson, President Barack Obama's pollster and senior political strategist, told a Franklin & Marshall College audience at this year's first Common Hour on Thursday in F&M's Mayser Gymnasium.

Held on Thursdays throughout the academic year, Common Hour brings the F&M community together for culturally and intellectually enriching events.

After analyzing reams of polling data over the last few years and observing judicial and legislative initiatives, Benenson said he is confident that the nation is becoming more like-minded about major political and social issues. He cited recent polls indicating that a majority of Americans now support marriage equality and easier paths to citizenship for immigrants.

"As a nation, we are headed to a period of consensus, not divisiveness," he said.

  • Common Hour August
  • Joel Benenson, President Barack Obama's pollster, spoke in F&M's Mayser Gym about the nation moving toward more consensus and less divisiveness. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

Benenson, whose son, Will, is an F&M senior, had been a political reporter for the Daily News in New York, his hometown, before going to work in politics in the mid-1990s.

In 2008, Benenson, who operates polling and consulting firm Benenson Strategy Group, became a pollster for then-presidential candidate Obama. Recalling Obama's 2012 re-election bid, when many polls and pundits predicted Republican opponent Mitt Romney would unseat Obama, Benenson said he was calm on Election Day. He said he remembered thinking, "I'm either completely delusional or I'm as right as I believe."

Benenson spent little time Thursday discussing the presidential election. Instead, he spoke about the diversification of the nation and his belief that change and consensus are coming, albeit slowly.

"We do things in small bites in this country; we do incremental change," he said.

Those incremental changes are reflected in the election returns of the last two decades, he said. Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. Moreover, Obama won both of his presidential elections with more than 51 percent of the vote -- the first president to accomplish that since Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s, Benenson said.

Another example of the nation trending left of center on the political spectrum is a shift in demographics, Benenson said. According to election results, Republican candidates are winning in small, rural states while Democrats are winning more populous states with large, urban areas.

"Where most of America lives is tilting more and more to the Democrats," he said.

Benenson then cited a popular refrain of Obama's -- that politicians are slow to respond to shifts in Americans' political priorities. He used gun control to illustrate his point. Polls show that the public overwhelmingly favors universal background checks for gun buyers, yet nine months after the shooting of elementary school children in Newtown, Conn., Congress has failed to move on the issue.

That hit a note for Sabrina Yudelson, a senior anthropology major who is from Newtown. "I'd like to hear him speak more, particularly on gun issues," Yudelson said. "I think for me it's more shocking that we have a debate at all."

Senior Ryan Thomas, a scientific and philosophical studies of mind major who described himself as "technically a Republican," was impressed with Benenson's analysis on the nation's political landscape.

"I think the way in which he spoke did a nice job of being a de-polarizing speech," said Thomas, who writes for the College Reporter. "I think he's right. I think politicians on both sides of the aisle have to respond to what the people want."