Election years provide political science departments with opportunities to teach using real world examples of campaigns as they happen. But professors have been confronted with an unusual challenge this election season: how do you teach a presidential election that defies all norms? Professors had to rethink some of their material to reflect the unusual strategies being implemented on the presidential campaign trails.
Associate political science professor Michael Latner, who focuses lectures around campaigns and elections, says he has devoted more time to the election this year than in the past, mainly because students have more questions than usual.
“We spend a lot more time in class talking about dynamics and mechanics of what is currently happening on the campaign trail,” Latner said.
Besides that, Latner strives to keep the core content of his classes more general so his students have an understanding of what past elections have looked like as well.
Latner noted the challenges of teaching this election given how ahistorical it has been.
“This election has been an outlier on so many dimensions,” Latner said. “The race for the presidency has been filled with controversy and low popularity levels going into election, which is extremely unusual.”
Latner also discussed the party dynamics that may have never been seen at this extent before, including the internal collapse of the Republican party.
“I found myself devoting more time than usual to cultural and historical aspects because of [the election’s] magnitude,” Latner said. “Arguably, we are witnessing the collapse of one of the major American parties in the U.S.”
Associate professor Chris Den Hartog, who teaches American political institutions, says teaching this election has been much different from any other since he started teaching.
Den Hartog says that stress is common in an election with a vast amount of uncertainty.
“We joke about starting a support group for American government faculty,” Den Hartog said.
Everyone’s emotions about the candidates are high and that contributes to the intensity of this election cycle, Den Hartog said. He often discusses with his classes how political scientists are always trying to come up with explanations for behaviors during election. He has discussed that all of the past elections followed a similar template. However, he feels that this one has been completely different — breaking some of the commonly accepted strategies for winning an election.
“Over and over we have seen that there is something incomplete about the understanding for how politics work,” Den Hartog said. “It is clear that something new is going on that is much different than anything we have seen in the past.”
Having the election occur during his American Government classes has made the content very relevant, political science junior Chase Dean said. However, much like the professors, he thinks that what he has learned in the past may be contradicted by what has occurred in the current presidential race.
“I think just the rise of Donald Trump as a serious candidate has gone against my understanding of elections,” Dean said. “He seems to have been able to get to where he is by using incredibly blunt discriminatory rhetoric, which isn’t something we’ve seen from a presidential candidate in quite some time.”
To vote or not to vote?
With Nov. 8 on the horizon, many political science classes have been discussing how to vote wisely this election year.
Given that much of the public’s opinion on who and what will win is based on polls, political science professor Allen Settle suggests being cautious when interpreting them.
Settle recommends his students look at polls that take the averages of all the polling and analyze the results, called aggregate polls. This helps to remove the biases that each individual poll holds and decreases the impact of outliers.
When it comes to deciding what to choose on your ballot, Latner says research is key.
“Really, to be an informed voter you probably need an extra college class or two just to get through the material,” Latner said.
Den Hartog also recommends checking to see what organizations support each measure or candidate (for example, the NRA on gun control issues).
With the vast amount of attention this election has received, Settle is confident voter turnout will be high. However, he warns that the 18-22 year old voter turnout rates have been historically low.
“The number one thing is [to] just vote!” Settle said. “Every vote really does count.”