Spring 2012 Contact Us

Election-Year Politics: Everything Old is New Again

With the presidential election now in sight, how has the 2012 election manifested itself in the classrooms at Annenberg? Do professors teach differently? Are any class debates more animated? Are students as involved this election cycle as they were in 2008? For answers, we turned to five teaching adjuncts whose coursework specializes in politics.

From left: David Eisenhower, Alvin Felzenberg, Ken Winneg, Joan Garry, Peter Hart

Their observations tell the story of highly engaged students who take advantage of Washington internships, entry to Democratic and Republican conventions, and speakers from the front lines of campaigns—all unique opportunities offered by Annenberg.

Perhaps the most surprising finding from the Annenberg undergraduate curriculum professors is that during an election year—presumably a time to look forward—many students look back. It turns out that history is a great place to start when trying to make sense of the present. David Eisenhower, who is the Director of the Institute for Public Service at Annenberg and teaches a class on communication and the presidency, reports that election years tend to find students looking back at game-changing presidents. “I get a lot of research papers on Ronald Reagan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt during election years,” he says. “Students go back to the basics to examine the basic philosophy of a party.”

This glance backwards gives students a yardstick with which to measure candidates as well as the current administration, says Alvin Felzenberg, a writer and Presidential historian who teaches classes on Washington politics and the media, communications and emergency response, and communication and congress. For example, President Obama promised to be a transformational president, notes Felzenberg. “If you hold him to that, then you have to find a standard with which to measure.” Presidents Reagan and Roosevelt are considered the most transformational, so it follows that students would turn to them during an election year. Election years also infiltrate the classroom by bringing up analogies across the years. During the last election cycle, for example, one of Eisenhower’s students wrote a paper comparing statements made by President George W. Bush before the Iraq war with statements made by President Roosevelt during World War II. Says Eisenhower, “It was basically a meditation on the war on terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The health care debate also crept into his class, says Eisenhower, who cites a paper written by one of his students that compared communication around “Obama care” with that surrounding the introduction of Medicare in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson.
(NOTE: Annenberg’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Ph.D., Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, notes that President Obama and other Democrats now embrace the once-maligned term “Obama care.”)


Lyndon Johnson signs Medicare bill in 1965 (left).
At right, Barack Obama signing the “Obama care” bill.

Both Eisenhower and Felzenberg say there has been less interest in the Republican primaries, despite all of the candidates’ debates and news about the campaign; they attribute that to the heavily Democratic presence on campus. In comparison, they say, during the 2008 primaries, Annenberg students were evenly split between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and were heavily involved in both campaigns.The excitement around that election may be why so many recent Annenberg graduates are in politics, writing about politics, or somehow closely involved with politics. Among the graduates since 2008 who can be found involved in politics include David Helfenbein (C ’08) who blogs about politics for The Huffington Post. Additionally, Chelsea Hess (C ’09), who went on to law school after Penn and now works as a freelance writer for Fox News; Catherine (“Katie”) Chomiak (C ’09) who is an associate producer covering the State Department for NBC News; Rebecca Kaplan (C ’10), a former managing editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian who is now covering the White House for the National Journal.Eisenhower and Felzenberg are circumspect when asked if students come to Annenberg with the goal of entering politics or if the interest develops over their years here. “They are a self-selecting group,” says Eisenhower, suggesting that students come with goals in mind and certain skills to achieve them. Then again, Annenberg offers opportunities like internships in Washington, D.C., with lobbying firms, Congress, and the White House. There also is the opportunity to attend both of the national party conventions as part of one of Eisenhower’s classes. In 2009, Felzenberg’s students also had the rare opportunity to bring the late Ted Sorensen to Penn, a man who was best-known as President John F. Kennedy’s advisor and speechwriter. His class also featured informal talks from former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour and former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean.


Haley Barbour talking to students in Felzenberg’s class in 2009.

Although students are not as involved this election cycle as they were with the last, there are aspects of the primaries that have interested them. In fact, the real story is the media and the circus-like atmosphere of the debates, says Felzenberg. There have been more debates during the Republican primaries than in the history of the presidency, he notes, and unfortunately they have been more spectacle than substance. “The media are in control of the questions and often they ask questions not particularly salient to voters but that are good for ratings,” he says. What’s more, he asserts, qualification to participate in the debates has been the purview of the media, which has anointed who is (or who is not) a serious candidate. This year, Felzenberg says, the media decided that announced candidates, Libertarian Gary Johnson and former Governor of Louisiana Buddy Roemer, were not serious candidates and therefore not invited to debate. And it was the media that decided that Tim Pawlenty’s campaign was dead. “It reflects the balance of power between the media and the candidates,” says Felzenberg, “and in the Republican contest so far, the media are writing the rules.”

Again, history offers a perspective. “Everything has a referent,” says Ken Winneg, Ph.D.(ASC ’85, Gr ’09), managing director of Survey Research at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, who also teaches a class on new media and politics. To understand the role of the media today, he starts with the 1800s, when campaigners used leaflets, banners, songs, and parades, to get their messages across. As new communication media technologies in society changed, the methods used to campaign, cover, and follow elections changed and grew along with them, where today elections incorporate all the media platforms developed since those early elections in addition to embracing the newest technologies. For today, while we all talk about the use of internet and social media in politics, much of the campaigns are fought and covered on television (cable and broadcast), radio, and newspapers. “Each campaign deploys tools and technologies that are usually improved upon in subsequent campaigns,” says Winneg.“Most of my students were born during the Clinton administration. They need to see that today’s media platforms and campaign tools are the result of past campaigns.” One of the texts he uses is After Broadcast News: Media Regimes, Democracy, and the New Information Environment (Cambridge 2011) by Bruce A. Williams (University of Virginia) and Michael X. Delli Carpini, Ph.D., Professor of Communication and Walter H. Annenberg Dean, to illustrate how media regimes have changed since the days of the “partisan press” in the early 1800’s. The messages stay fairly consistent over time, he says, what changes are the media. Guest speakers in his class read like a who’s who of new media. Among them, Ken Goldstein, president of Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), a firm that provides content analysis and advertising expenditures on political candidates, and Lenny Stern, a founding partner of SS+K, a consulting firm specializing in social media and engagement that also managed President Obama’s youth vote outreach during the 2008 election and is repeating those efforts in 2012.

The media is also the classroom for students of Joan Garry, a civil rights activist who teaches media activism and the media’s power to shape opinions of minority groups. Women’s rights and contraception, which have dominated the Republican primaries, serve as an ideal case study for her students, who recently analyzed the Planned Parenthood – Susan G. Komen controversy. “Susan G. Komen’s reversal, as it played out in the media, taught students an important lesson about the intersection of politics—both with a capital “P” and lowercase “p” — and policy,” says Garry.

As the general election nears polls will take center stage, and pollster Peter Hart’s class will be busier than usual. Director of Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Hart teaches the role of public opinion in leadership decisions. Since 2004 has held focus groups around the U.S., in collaboration with the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC), with voters across the political spectrum to gain insight into their attitudes and opinions about presidential candidates and campaigns and the issues defining those campaigns.


Peter Hart leading a focus group at the Annenberg Public Policy Center in 2010.

In the fall, Hart, along with APPC, held a series of focus groups with Republican primary voters. One of the questions he posed was to assign a persona to the candidates based on elementary-school descriptors. For example, “teacher’s pet” or “most popular.” “This was early in the campaign, but it was fascinating to see that images had already formed,” says Prof. Hart. Rick Perry was seen as the “bully,” Newt Gingrich as the “know-it-all,” Herman Cain as the “hard-working kid,” Mitt Romney as the “rich, privileged kid,” and Rick Santorum as the “blue collar kid.” Says Hart, “five months later, you see these images reinforced on the campaign trail. Public opinion is not theoretical, it’s practical.”

Heading into November, Eisenhower says he hopes the circus that has defined the Republican primaries will have given way to more thoughtful dialog. “Last election, at least for the Democrats, was really about symbols,” he says, referring to the “first female” or “first African-American” as president debate. “This one is a policy election,” he says. Given the dire economic situation facing the country, he warns, we would be wise to move away from the “American Idol” version of campaigning and get down to business.

Send a comment to ASC:


return to NewsLink main page