Everybody talks politics, and almost everybody will offer you an election prediction.
But in professor Jack Reilly’s “American Elections,” class, students had to study a campaign, map out a strategy and put their predictions in a paper. There was no way to waffle – the papers were due the morning of Election Day, before the results rolled in.
And so 11 New College students immersed themselves in public opinion polling, campaign finance reports, historical voting trends, voter registration totals and their instincts to examine political races from Florida to Alaska.
How did they do? Put it this way: Their predictions were in keeping with what you might expect from Novo Collegians. “The election in general left our students rather depressed,” said Reilly, assistant professor of political science. “Their predictions tended to cluster. They expected the Democrats would not do well, but better than they actually performed.”
Paige Pellaton, a second-year student, said that’s a classic example of an issue covered in the class, “availability bias,” the tendency to make assumptions based on your immediate surroundings.
She analyzed the U.S. Senate race in Louisiana and correctly forecast incumbent Mary Landrieu’s loss. The course’s emphasis on data analysis and demographic trends pointed to the realignment of Southern voters and helped her analysis. “Her loss represents the death of the Southern conservative-to-moderate Democratic voter,” Pellaton said.
Alan Serrell, also a second-year student, picked Democrat Charlie Crist over Republican Rick Scott in Florida – albeit by a smaller margin than national pollsters.
In a class presentation after the election, he outlined the candidates’ backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses and stands on the issues.
Scott, predictably, made the economy his key issue, taking credit for the state’s improved employment picture. Crist, meanwhile, flubbed a key opportunity, Serrell said. Crist tried to court the Hispanic vote by supporting immigration reform, but he did not back an expansion of Medicaid – a clear difference from Scott, and, actually, a stronger issue for Hispanics.
Crist’s political skill set was stronger than Scott’s, he said. With a long career in politics, Crist is “really, really skilled at media manipulation,” while Scott’s business career is a “mismatch” for media communication. Crist is a better fundraiser – “a campaign manager’s dream” – but he still couldn’t compete with Scott’s national backing and vast personal fortune.
Money, and thereby access to media, was the key factor in the election, he said. Scott outspent Crist 2-to-1 in every Florida media market, Serrell said, and even 4-to-1 in some areas. Despite a promise not spend his own money again (he spent some $70 million in the race four years ago), Scott spent $20 million in the closing two weeks as Crist narrowed the gap in the polls.
That war chest allowed Scott to launch negative ads early in 2014, while Crist lacked the funds to start his ad campaign that early. “They weren’t responded to for a couple of months and that really drove (Crist) down,” he said.
Leaving Scott’s ads unchallenged essentially decided the campaign in its earliest days. “Most people decided who they are going to vote for early on, and the advertising did make a difference,” Serrell said. “Undecided voters, who tend be low-informed voters, were swayed by the ads.”
Zachary Poe analyzed the race for Florida’s 2nd Congressional District, a collection of 14 counties in the Panhandle region around Tallahassee. Poe had some insider’s knowledge – he had been a volunteer for the campaign last summer.
The race featured a challenger with a Florida heritage against a Tea Party darling.
Gwen Graham is the daughter of former Gov. Bob Graham, who is almost uniquely beloved – he left office with an 82 percent approval rating, unheard of in modern politics, Poe said. She pledged to continue his legacy of being a moderate who can foster bipartisan cooperation.
Steve Southerland swept into office with the Tea Party flood in 2010. He had a record of voting the Republican line more than 98 percent of the time. And though Democrats had a 20-point edge in voter registration, the district has been solidly Republican for years, Poe noted.
Both could claim local roots, in different ways. As the daughter of a former legislator and governor, Graham was raised in Democratic Tallahassee. Southerland, a mortician, was a native of solidly red Plant City.
Incumbents normally have several advantages, but Graham’s family history negated many of them. Her name recognition among voters was nearly as high as Southerland’s, and she could draw on her father’s network of potential donors to fund her campaign, Poe said. She eventually out-raised Southerland.
Meanwhile, Poe noted, Graham had one distinct advantage over an incumbent: She had no voting record to criticize. She couldn’t be assailed on an issue or even called a “Washington insider.”
“There was nothing they could point to,” he said.
Meanwhile, Graham could (and did) blast Southerland for his votes to shut down the government and to oppose a bill protecting women from violence.
Graham also had more charisma and eager volunteers than Southerland, who, Poe noted, “is very comfortable around dead bodies, but not necessarily around real people.” He also suffered from some gaffes, like when he promoted a men-only fundraiser with the message “Tell the missus not to wait up.”
Those factors had Poe predicting the conservative district would flip and elect Graham by 2 to 3 percentage points. Graham did win, but with just 50.4 percent of the vote. The lesson: “Despite all of the advantages Graham had, the incumbency advantage is still strong,” Poe said.
Reilly said that closely examining the elections was an eye-opener for students who see elections primarily about issues, and through a liberal lens.
He said many were surprised at the partisan breakdowns of states like Kansas and Arkansas, and now see why some states rarely elect Democrats, and when they do, those Democrats tend to be conservative.
They also were disappointed at the importance of raising money, and the need to appeal to a politically extreme base, he said. But in all, it was a valuable lesson for New College students who want to change their world.
“They’re do-gooders and they want to find ways to reform the system,” Reilly said. “Much as I encourage them to do that, I want them understand why it works the way it does now.”