A campaign strategy that might work in Michigan might not work as well in North Carolina, and exploring why is helping students at both Western Carolina University and Eastern Michigan University gain a deeper understanding of campaigns and elections.
Chris Cooper, associate professor and head of the Political Science and Public Affairs Department at WCU, and Jeffrey Bernstein, professor of political science at EMU, teamed up to teach their campaigns and elections courses this fall. Each is lecturing via Skype in the other’s classes, and students are working collaboratively on projects such as predicting election results and examining election phenomena like the gender gap and advertising strategies.
“Students tend to view the election through the lens of their particular state,” said Bernstein. “By helping our students see elections in comparative perspective, we help them make visible the campaign context of their own state, which is often invisible to them.”
For instance, students at EMU have been struck by the way in which North Carolina politics is tied to the evolution of Southern politics over the last few generations and the extent to which growth, such as growth in metropolitan areas, has changed the political map, said Bernstein. Meanwhile, students at WCU have gained an understanding of how the auto industry and the problems and blessings of urban life affect election decisions in Michigan, said Cooper.
“One thing (Bernstein) brought up that really struck me was how the unemployment rate in their state has been drastically worse since the beginning of this recession than the national average,” said Jeremiah Mosteller, a senior from Maiden majoring in political science.
Mosteller said he has been particularly intrigued in the course to learn about campaign myths, such as the idea that fancy, colorful or eye-catching mailers are the most effective means of persuading voters. “This has not held to be true in the experimental setting; those that are the least conspicuous are actually most effective,” said Mosteller.
The class partnership came about after Bernstein, who came to WCU as an external reviewer, and Cooper realized they were planning to teach similar courses.
“Eastern Michigan and Western Carolina students are demographically and academically similar, but they have very different cultural understandings of politics, and we hope this class not only helps students understand politics but also empathize with people in other parts of the country,” said Cooper. “I also have learned a lot, not only about Michigan politics, but also how I teach. In addition to our formal collaboration, we informally trade teaching ideas and activities, and we’ve both incorporated specific activities from the other’s class.”
After the election, students will assess what happened with election results, voter turnout, media coverage, parties and special interest groups and campaign strategy, and discuss election reform.
The course is a strong fit with WCU’s yearlong interdisciplinary learning theme, Citizenship and Civility, said Cooper. “The most prominent way most Americans express their citizenship is by practicing their right to vote and this course examines vote choice, plus many other aspects of campaigns and elections,” said Cooper.
By Teresa Killian Tate