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How do students make sense of the 2016 presidential election?

| Judy Berthiaume

An expert on national politics and elections, Dr. Geoff Peterson is fielding a lot of tough questions from students this year about the 2016 presidential election.

But the question he’s hearing most often from the Blugolds in his political science classes is an easy one to answer: No, this is not normal.

“It’s the strangest election I’ve ever witnessed and I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” says Peterson, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “I’ve never seen anything like this. There are so many things going on that have never happened before.”

The first woman nominee, a wealthy businessman turned reality TV star as a nominee, unpopular candidates, hacked emails, infighting within a major party, and, of course, an old videotape that dramatically swung the polls in the course of a single weekend all make for some interesting — and often challenging — discussions in his classes, Peterson says.

In an election that has left even the most seasoned politicians, scholars and pundits scrambling to talk intelligently about this election, imagine being a college student — many of whom will be voting in their first presidential election — trying to make sense of what they are seeing and hearing.

“It’s been an interesting year,” Peterson says of teaching national politics and election courses. “Many students have no context for any of this because for many of them this is the first presidential election that they’ve really paid attention to or been engaged with because it’s the first time they can vote for a president. So I try to help provide that context.”

As a political scientist with an expertise in national politics and elections, a presidential election is the perfect time to teach, Peterson says.

Typically, about half the students in his classes are political science majors or minors, and the rest are studying a variety of other fields.

“They’re all political junkies of one type or another,” Peterson says. “They’re students who want to understand the election process so they’re all keeping up on what’s going on this year.”

In his classrooms, students study past elections to identify patterns that might be relevant to the current election. They learn about polling, both its history and what polls truly matter. And they work to understand where the monies come from that support presidential campaigns.

Not surprisingly, interest among students in the election is higher than he’s ever seen, Peterson says.

Whether the interest is motivated by politics or by the strangeness of the campaigns is hard to say.

“Every time there is a presidential election, it changes the nature of what I do,” Peterson says. “But everything about this election has been very unusual. I’m not so much changing how I teach because of it, but there is definitely a change in how my students are reacting to it.”

His classes do include discussions about current events that relate to the campaigns, Peterson says, noting that he’s finding himself talking about things in his classes that he’d never have guessed would come up as part of a discussion about the presidential election process.

“For example, I’ve never seen such a major change in the dynamics of an election as we saw between the Friday and Sunday when the tape came out,” Peterson says. “That was huge so it’s something we had to discuss.”

While he appreciates that his students are engaged in the election, Peterson asks them to leave partisan politics out of the in-class discussions. It’s not always easy, but students have been good about respecting those boundaries, he says.

“I try to keep the conversation away from right vs. wrong, but instead talk about things like how that tape changed both of the campaigns’ strategies,” Peterson says. “Where do the campaigns go from there? How does it impact the money they raise?”

As the election has veered in directions no one would have expected, students are more interested in fully understanding the details of the election process, including how the Electoral College works and the responsibilities of the delegates, Peterson says.

Making sense of the polls — what they mean and which ones matter — also has been a focus of student discussions. And the role money plays in politics is a topic of conversation.

“I’ve been digging into arcane political law to find the answers to questions that I’ve not thought much about before because they’ve always only been hypotheticals,” Peterson says. “But my students are asking things like what happens if a party replaces a candidate? What if a delegate votes differently than expected? I don’t always know the answers but I’m finding them. It’s been very interesting. This election is definitely keeping me on my toes.”

Every day, he says, students are in his office asking questions as they work to understand and draw their own conclusions about the events around the campaign.

In more traditional election years, students tended to focus on a set of issues, and they could often easily see where they fell in terms of a political party, Peterson says.

“They often knew which side they were on because of the issues and policies proposed by the candidates,” Peterson says. “That’s not so easy this year because issues and policies really haven’t been the main focus of the campaigns.”

It’s also too early to say whether the interest he’s seeing among the students in his classes will translate into a big student turnout on Election Day, Peterson says.

“There has never been two such unpopular candidates,” Peterson says of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. “It raises concerns about whether people will vote. I’m hearing some students saying that they’re not sure they can bring themselves to vote because they can’t get excited about the candidates.”

And voter turnout will impact not only the presidential election, but would have consequences for congressional and statewide races, Peterson says.

Interestingly, he says, students tend to be least interested in state and local races even though the outcomes of those elections often have the most direct impact on students’ immediate futures.

But big political events, like a presidential election, tend to bring more students into the political science department, Peterson says, noting that his classes are full and the students are engaged.

It’s too early to say whether the 2016 election will result in a lasting bump in the number of political science majors and minors, he says.

“After 9/11, the number of political science majors doubled in three years,” Peterson says. “People want to understand world politics better or know how to fight against terrorism.

“This election has been so unusual that it’s hard to know if it will draw students into political science or scare them off.”

Photo caption: Dr. Geoff Peterson is fielding many questions from students in what has turned out to be a very unusual 2016 presidential election.

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