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Campaigns and elections class anticipates Election Day

October 30, 2020

For most Bowdoin students and faculty, the past week has been a time for brief conversations and announcements about how class structures and schedules may be impacted by the results—or lack thereof—of next week’s elections. But for Professor of Government Michael Franz and the 75 students in the two sections of his Campaigns and Elections class, next week will provide the culmination of two months of analyzing political data and studying election history.

“Up to now, it’s been very much a political science class, and this is how I focus my pedagogy,” said Franz in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “To some, it might seem like it de-emphasizes the emotions of politics, but I think … we’re better citizens if we have tools to understand politics, and that can feed into the passions we bring to politics later.”

After Election Day, though, Franz’s approach to the class may shift, either temporarily or for the remainder of the semester.

“I remember the 2000 election, and there was a lot of uncertainty and tremendous anxiety for all of us watching that unfold. But we were in a far less—seems strange to say it now, because in 2000 it seemed very political and polarized—but we were in a far less polarized moment than we are now,” he said. “To see something similar happen this time around would no longer be an academic exercise about what made campaigns function, no longer an interesting observation about data and polling … it would become a class about, ‘what does this mean about our democracy?’”

On Tuesday, students will monitor the results from both the presidential election and a specific competitive Senate or House race that they have been assigned to follow throughout the semester.

Tim Miklus ’21 has been studying the House election in Texas’s 24th district—a formerly Republican area in the suburbs of Dallas that has become increasingly diverse and is now considered a tossup between Democrats and Republicans.

“I’ve been following the two candidates on Twitter, which is really interesting because they spend a lot of time attacking each other personally, but it’s been a really good way to see what they’re talking about,” Miklus said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “I’m going to continue to follow their public appearances and their social media for the next few days.”

Melissa Magrath ’22 is following the House race in New Jersey’s third District between Democratic incumbent Andy Kim and Republican David Richter. Kim’s messaging, as a Democrat in a Republican-leaning district, has allowed Magrath to see examples of how candidates navigate phenomena that the class is studying, such as creating campaigns that cater to constituents.

“With Andy Kim in particular, he is more liberal, but what I do see is him doing a lot of messaging around, ‘I don’t care about Republicans and Democrats, I care about people,’” Magrath said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “That’s a great message for someone who’s a Democrat in a conservative or more conservative district.”

Magrath, who is from the Appalachian region of western Maryland, also sees connections between the course’s material and an independent study she is doing on Appalachia. She was there during the 2016 election and said she witnessed an increase in support for President Donald Trump and hate speech mirroring his rhetoric during that time. However, both through Franz’s course and through her own experience and research, she has found that those patterns are often generalized into stereotypes that do not describe the political ideology or behaviors of all Appalachians and that create an inaccurate picture of the demographics that comprise Trump’s base.

“After 2016, ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ was essentially used to blame what happened in 2016 with Donald Trump … [on] Appalachians, and it’s been interesting this time around to study, ‘what are the demographics of Trump’s base? What did happen in 2016? Who is the biggest threat now?’” she said.

Magrath also pointed to a book she had read for Franz’s course that exposed the correlation between a white person’s level of education and position on racial equality and voting behavior.

“We read ‘Identity Crisis,’ which talks about what happened in 2016, and the authors really point to this division around how we understand race and racial inequality and how tightly it was linked to the concept of the diploma divide, which is the increasing tendency of whites with a college degree to vote Democrat and whites without a college degree to vote Republican,” she said. “It was correlated, strongly correlated, with how whites viewed race, so whether they blamed Blacks for lack of effort or whether they said it was systemic racism, essentially, or racial inequality to blame.”

Franz also discussed the increasing polarization in the country as a main focus of the course’s curriculum. He acknowledged that there may be students with different political views in his classes, but he said varying perspectives have not led to any tension in class discussions.

“Students in my class, and Bowdoin students more generally, have been really respectful and have made their case, have not bashed Trump, have not said really awful things about him,” he said. “I have no problem, even as an empirical social scientist, pointing out what I think are his deep personal flaws as a president, which I think are real and are objectively true in my opinion, and that can sometimes maybe potentially offend a Trump supporter in my class, but we don’t spend a lot of time on that.”

Miklus also reported not having noticed any issues with partisan tension in the class, and he discussed how the course’s data-driven orientation interacted with his own politics.

“I think about the election in very partisan ways, and I will continue to do that even with this class,” he said. “But I think it’s really helpful to take it from a neutral perspective—not necessarily to hear what the other side is thinking—but just moreover trying to think about it in a way that’s not partisan at all and more based on models and history and polling, which is something I enjoy.”

Miklus noted that he would be watching ABC news on election night, both for the content of their coverage and because Franz is going to be part of their Decision Desk Team.

“I feel like ABC does a really good job of political and election coverage, from what I’ve noticed,” he said. “So I’ll probably be sticking with them and hope Professor Franz will pop up on the screen at some point.”

Both Magrath and Miklus also noted that the course has provided a helpful space to analyze the election, helping to relieve some academic stress that may have resulted from following the results while taking four courses that did not focus on the races at all.

“I think that’s what’s keeping me sane in these times, is that I’m getting class credit to study this election and I have a space where I can talk to people—other classmates, a professor—about it in an academic sense,” Magrath said. “It’s definitely comforting because we’re all studying it, we’re all anxious about it.”

“I really appreciated being able to come to class, and everyone tries to hone in their perspective and take it from a very analytical standpoint and data-driven standpoint, which definitely has—I don’t want to say calmed my nerves necessarily, because I’m still a little nervous about the election, but it’s definitely eased my mind and given me a very solid framework for thinking about what’s going to happen on election night,” Miklus said.


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