Look Who’s Talking!: Dr. Wendy Schiller says the future of politics hinges on communication skills

What will drive local and national politics in the future? Candidates’ communication abilities, according to Dr. Wendy Schiller, chair of Brown University’s political science department. She expressed this opinion during a wide-ranging conversation recorded for The Bartholomewtown Podcast. A partial transcript follows. 

Wendy Schiller: We saw that Governor Raimondo did very well on her reelection campaign, but for a long time [a problem] for her was that people in Rhode Island didn’t feel as though they connected to her. Similarly with President Obama — he was really great on the campaign trail, but then during his first couple of years as president, he lost that connection with people. He wasn’t his campaign self. Presidents and governors get very serious about things [once elected] and they can’t make as lofty speeches as they did [on the campaign trail]. It’s a fundamental component of American politics that you have to be able to connect, and if you can’t connect at the most visceral level, then it becomes a harder sell when you want to get people’s votes.

On the national level, the major question that Dr. Schiller pointed to during our conversation is whether President Donald Trump’s brand of communication has worn thin with enough critical elements of his base to allow a Democrat to seize the presidency in 2020.


Wendy-Schiller_2436WS: There isn’t a lot of daylight between what Donald Trump wants to do and what the Republican Party has said that they want to do…  That’s why I think the Democrats face an uphill climb in ousting him, even despite his negative approval ratings, which are stuck essentially below 50%.  

That is not an indicator that he won’t win reelection.  The question is, “Is his style of communication wearing thin?” 

You saw in the midterm elections, in competitive districts where Republicans usually do pretty well, they lost seats, not just because (a congressperson) retired, but because there were incumbents who were carrying the Trump baggage. That’s a bit of an indicator that the people who voted for Trump in 2016 may not be as willing to vote for him again in 2020. But if he pivots and changes his style and his rhetoric, it’s always possible.

Looking toward the future of RI politics, Dr. Schiller and I discussed several key players who might be involved in the 2022 election.

WS: Among Democrats, I think there’s a fairly strong bench for governor. You have to expect that people like Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and Treasurer Seth Magaziner will probably be vying against each other in a primary for governor. Allan Fung may run again, it’s unclear, and Bob Flanders may run again for governor rather than senator. So I see some landscape being pretty filled with Democrats, and if we get redistricted in 2022 and we lose a congressional seat, then you’re gonna have Congressman Jim Langevin against Congressman Cicilline, and other people may get in as well.

A statewide race might actually be more advantageous for a Republican if there is only one congressional seat rather than the divided two districts that we have. So that could get much more complicated as well.

Bill Bartholomew: Right. You wonder if Allan Fung would run for congress.

WS: Exactly. Allan Fung might run for congress. Bob Flanders might run for governor. I think that’s what you’re looking at. And there’s Nick Mattiello. He may decide he wants to run for something and you never know what that may be. You don’t know if a Democrat wins the presidency in 2020, Jack Reed may be tapped to be secretary of defense. It’s always been a big rumor, but I think it becomes more likely that in 2020, Gina Raimondo may get tapped to do something. She said she’s going to fill out her term, but one never knows. And that will change the landscape. Also, we’re going to see how RI grows. Do we continue to sustain this sort of small business focus and think about tech, art, innovation and startups? Thinking about being a great place to live and trying to attract more people to come to the state? If that trend continues, then the economy will hold and I think those in power will benefit from that.

This transcript was lightly edited for print content presentation.

To hear the complete episode of The Bartholomewtown Podcast with Dr. Wendy Schiller search Apple Podcasts or visit