Purdue College of Liberal Arts logo THiNK Magazine logo

Unique midterm elections ripe for classroom political analysis


Fall 2018 | By David Ching. Photo by Purdue Honors College.


Story's Main Image

In some ways, the American political system seems to be more chaotic as the 2018 midterm elections approach than it has been since the turbulent 1960s.

That may feel unsettling to some voters, but that same uncertainty makes it ripe for analysis by political scientists. What better time for professor of political science Jay McCann and his students to examine the political process in his “Campaigns and Election” course?

“A lot of wear and tear is evident in this country, but also across Western democracies,” McCann said. “We are not acquitting ourselves well — at least not as well as we’d want as a country — and the students in our classes seem to get that. As a political science professor, it’s interesting to try to figure out, ‘Well, how much of this is related to our politics and the practice of it?’ ”

McCann has taught the course in previous election years, but this one feels different — especially for a midterm. Beyond voting to determine whether Democrats regain control of at least one house of Congress or whether Republicans retain total control, this election will also serve, at least to some degree, as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency.

So, while McCann is focusing on congressional and lower-level elections in class, he knows the contentiousness and pronounced polarization in national politics are also important to acknowledge.

“Midterm elections oftentimes become nationalized when there’s a particular big issue or some sort of agenda item that we’re all talking about,” McCann said. “The 900-pound gorilla in the room at this critical juncture is Trump.”

In addition to the individual races, there are many timely topics that also merit discussion in a course that covers elections.

Is our voting technology secure?

What are fair solutions to questions about voter registration and ballot security?

Should the U.S. rethink its campaign finance laws to reduce the influence big donors can have on elections?

And is it necessary to end the practice of gerrymandering in voting districts?

When students argue for changes, McCann walks them through the potential advantages and consequences of each decision.

“With a critical eye, we can speculate about reforms. With the students, it’s always engaging to talk about, if someone says, ‘We’ve got to get rid of gerrymandering,’ OK, great. Let’s go with that,” McCann said. “Well, what does a world without gerrymandering look like? How do we get there and how would that change, given that everything is interconnected? When you change one thing, you’ve got to think about spillover effects, other indirect effects, and that’s thinking analytically. It’s interesting to take students down that path.”

The elections seem especially ubiquitous this fall, and that is evident even in the fall semester course catalog. Of course the midterms figure heavily into the political science curriculum this semester, but they are also present in other areas of study and in events planned for this semester.

For instance, Jennifer Hoewe, a new assistant professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication, is teaching a graduate-level course on media and public opinion — including how media presentation and polling can impact voter behavior.

Hoewe’s class is examining poll methodology and the ways polling data can be misrepresented when details like margin of error are explained in a deceptive or sloppy fashion. She is also examining whether polling agencies like Gallup Inc. and Pew Research Center have re-evaluated their practices in the wake of Trump’s election, where most published polls had opponent Hillary Clinton winning comfortably.

“It just always looked like it was in her favor even though sometimes it fell within that margin of error,” Hoewe said. “So Trump could win within their polling numbers, it just looked unlikely.

“And so Pew, in particular, has done a lot of work to see what happened: ‘How did we consistently think she was going to win? Did we undersample a particular area? Were our statistics a little off? Should we readjust the model?’ Those kinds of things. That will be part of the class, looking through how these big groups like Gallup and Pew adjusted their polling since that election happened.”

Election night itself will feature the return of a campus watch party that was a rousing success in 2016. Hundreds of students and community members packed the Honors Hall two years ago for the event, which featured a live, TV-style production by Lamb School students, complete with analysis and commentary from faculty and student panels and interviews with luminaries like Purdue President Mitch Daniels and C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb.

For this election, the year-old Center for C-SPAN Scholarship & Engagement joined the event’s lengthy sponsor list — a group that also includes the Lamb School, Purdue Honors College, Department of Political Science, and Pi Sigma Alpha, the political science honor society.

“It’s pretty obvious that the center would want to be a part of that,” C-SPAN Center managing director Connie Doebele said, “so we’ve offered to be one of the organizing groups this year because that stuff doesn’t happen by itself. It’s a lot of work.”

It’s also an election that will be of massive importance. Political pundits have dubbed multiple recent elections as the “most important election of our lifetime” for a variety of reasons, but America’s political polarization made the 2016 and 2018 elections seem especially noteworthy.

The results on Nov. 6 will offer a significant assessment of Americans’ satisfaction with their leadership and will also serve as fascinating subject matter for those studying the science behind it all.

“I think from everybody’s perspective, the student perspective, this is a moment. This is a core moment — a real juncture — and not just in this country,” McCann said. “The good news in our lifetimes is that democracy has been on an upswing. There are dozens and dozens of countries that are now fully democratic that in your parents’ era would not have been.

“So if you like democracy, well, the trends look good. But the quality of democracy and the potential siege upon democracies, those are subjects of great concern to the general public, and certainly to the students.”