History and political science professor Terry Taylor is familiar with the ups and downs of election seasons: he’s co-taught the interdisciplinary class “Road to the White House” every election since 2000. And while every campaign season has its own quirks, Taylor says that this year’s battle for the White House has potential to change the face of elections as we know them.
“Trump is not organizing a ground campaign in the way presidential candidates traditionally have,” said Taylor. “Most political scientists believe the ground game is more important than the media or ad buys and bumper stickers. Accepted thinking is that person-to-person contact is the key to winning voters. Trump eschews that model, relying more on media coverage and rallies. If he wins, his tactics will turn campaign strategy as we know it on its head.”
How candidates use the media and how media helps shape voters’ perceptions of candidates is just one of many topics Taylor and his students are tackling in this quarter’s Road to the White House 2016. Co-taught with English professor Davis Oldham, students watch and dissect classic political films, view and discuss rare documentary footage of political campaigns from 1960-2012, and screen (and heartily discuss) the presidential debates.
“By putting the current campaign into the context of previous campaigns in this way, students can compare and contrast and map the evolution of the modern political machine,” said Taylor.
Taylor and Oldham make sure to give equal spotlight to ground up, grassroots social movements as they do elite electoral politics. “Social movements are an important political phenomenon that are often overlooked when we focus on elections and the structures of government,” said Taylor, “but they wield enormous power, especially with the rise of social media. The interplay between politics as usual and grassroots movements can tell us a lot about the current tenor of the landscape.”
The class itself evolves along with the politics it follows, with assignments and discussions taking shape as the election unfolds. “We’re kind of making it up day by day based on how the election goes,” said Taylor. “The class dissects and discusses each debate and unfolding news cycle and writes critically about the angles that interest them. Along with learning about politics students are also learning how to talk, write, and think about politics, which are crucial skills in today’s 24-hour-news-cycle world.”
Designed for political junkies and newbies alike, Taylor hopes students will walk away from the class with an appreciation for the complexity of our political system and the importance of being involved with and knowledgeable about politics.
“We teach and emphasize critical thinking skills in every class here at Shoreline, but those skills feel especially relevant this election season,” said Taylor. “After seeing campaign strategies this election that haven’t been employed before, I hope students will begin to understand the role of the media in how we understand elections and how crucial it is for them, as citizens, to examine the data and think independently.”