AMES, Iowa – Voters only get a glimpse of the operation behind a political campaign, even with all the negative ads and 24-7 news coverage. And a textbook or class lecture cannot replicate the pressure of giving a stump speech to voters, answering questions from reporters, or responding to a crisis.
To expose students to that environment, Kelly Winfrey turned her campaign rhetoric class into a mock U.S. Senate campaign. Winfrey, a lecturer in leadership education for the Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, wants students to understand the strategy behind every decision a campaign makes and the consequences, intended or unintended, of those decisions.
“I think they develop a better understanding of why and how campaign decisions are made in the real world. Even though it’s a mock campaign, they have to think strategically about what they want to say, how they’re going to say it, and how the opponent might use what they say against them,” Winfrey said. “Candidates have to be strategic in their messaging if they’re going to win an election. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what a candidate might achieve in office, if they lose.”
Winfrey divided the class into three teams – a Republican campaign, a Democratic campaign, and a pool of reporters assigned to Iowa newspapers, such as the Des Moines Register and Cedar Rapids Gazette. The two candidates, with the support of their campaign team, must research the issues, give speeches, debate, and produce a television ad and direct mail literature. Reporters write a series of stories about each campaign and push candidates on the issues that are important to their readers. As Winfrey hoped, students have embraced those roles and are taking their jobs seriously.
“It’s challenging,” said Tim Overton, a speech communication major and the Republican candidate for the mock campaign. “I’m not a registered Republican, but it’s been interesting to do research on the platform and the stance the party takes on issues. It’s helped develop my understanding of the political world.”
Overton and his opponent, Kelly Erbes, are also quickly learning that their actions during a campaign can speak louder than words. Reporters took both of them to task during a recent news conference in class, with questions about team members who had left the campaign or missed important events. In reality, the students in question had dropped the course or missed a day of class, but reporters treated it as a sign of dysfunction or problems with the campaign.
“I didn’t expect this class to be so realistic and intense, but it’s fun and interesting,” said Mitch Gerber, a journalism major and social media coordinator for the Overton campaign. “I would say I’m learning a lot more this way than just reading about the process in a book.”
Much like a real campaign, nothing is off limits, and that’s all by design.
“It’s a good exercise in agenda setting. Candidates can push the issues important to their campaign, but reporters can also ask about the issues they think are important. So is it the media or the candidates that are going to set the agenda? Generally, it’s a little bit of both,” Winfrey said.
The class is not always easy, but students like the challenge and the structure.
“We really have the freedom to be as creative as we want with the campaign. During the speech, I was live tweeting and posting to Facebook,” said Jessica Bales, a public relations major and press secretary for the Erbes campaign. “It’s much more of a learning experience; it’s more like a real campaign.”
A future in politics?
Several students in the class have an interest in, or at the very least are curious about, working on a political campaign in the future. Winfrey, who previously taught the course at the University of Kansas, says Iowa State students have a unique opportunity to get involved in the political process, with a front-row seat to the presidential campaign every four years. She hopes the class will motivate students to be more active or volunteer for a future campaign.
“After taking the class students realize that working on a campaign can be fun. It’s strategic. It’s kind of like a game of chess with very important consequences,” Winfrey said.
Of course, the experience can also have the opposite effect. Jamie Rix, a public relations major and the Overton campaign director, worked for Republican Mark Jacobs’ Senate campaign during the primary. Her goal was to one day work as a press secretary or campaign director, but that has changed.
“Having worked on a campaign has confirmed that I don’t want to work on a campaign,” Rix said. “It’s amazing the work that goes into the process that a lot of people don’t realize. Even this class, it’s really challenging and definitely a team effort.”
How well each team works together will be tested at the end of the semester. To give students a true campaign experience, the class will end with an election. Winfrey plans to have students in her other classes attend a debate and review each candidate’s campaign materials, before casting their vote. The outcome of the election will not affect their grade but the competitive aspect makes it more realistic.
“The students usually do a pretty good job in the class, because they’re competitive and they want to win,” Winfrey said. “For the media team, they get to stir the pot and focus on issues that candidates may or may not want them to focus on. I think that competitiveness makes them work harder.”