33 URI political science students taking election pulse

Sampling voter responses to negative ads, Super PACs

KINGSTON, R.I. – November 6, 2012 — Thirty-three University of Rhode Island political science students are fanning out across Rhode Island today to find out what influenced voters in the presidential election.

As part of Political Science Assistant Professor Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz’s class, the students will be conducting an exit poll from Burrillville to Kingston and Jamestown to Tiverton. Pearson-Merkowitz is teaching a new course at URI that has given the students, most of whom have never voted before, the opportunity to study the Obama-Romney campaigns and conduct an exit poll across Rhode Island.

Voters will be asked questions on the following: The role of religion in voting decisions, the importance of foreign policy, the importance of the Affordable Care Act, the role of the economy in the election, negative advertising, and the role of partisanship in voting. The students chose the questions and topics.

Pearson-Merkowitz, who has worked as a professional campaigner, created the course, which focuses on the role of elections in democracy. Students will study voter behavior and turnout, the influence of the media, campaign advertising and the role of negative ads, and how Super PACs and unregulated contributions have influenced the campaign. They will learn how to access and examine data and determine trends.

“My general goal is to get students thinking critically and to get past their own biases or ingrained opinions about why things happen,” she said. “Some students say ‘people don’t vote’ but I want them to understand the constraints of turning out to vote and to think more critically about what that means for a democracy and the validity of an election outcome. For example, what constitutes a mandate if only 50 percent of eligible voters turn out at the polls?”

For a final project, students will develop a statistically significant statewide exit poll and spend Election Day at polling sites throughout Rhode Island collecting data. Six hours at the polls is required for the course and 12 hours at the polls may earn extra credit. Each student will analyze the data collected by the class and write a paper on their results.

Pearson-Merkowitz has arranged for URI alumni who have played prominent roles in campaigns to visit the class as guest lecturers. In addition, URI Political Science Department Chair Brian Krueger, an expert on national Election Day exit polls and voter demographics, will speak to the class and help them shape the analysis of their final exit poll project.

Another aspect of the course has involved students watching and examining negative ads to decide if they bring real information to voters or if they are simply personal attacks. Pearson–Merkowitz said negative ads historically include a candidate’s policy decisions and issue-based information, whereas positive ads tend to let us know personal information but rarely address where a candidate stands on key issues. However, in light of the massive increase in negative ads run by independent groups not associated with the campaigns, this may no longer be true. When she teaches the history of campaigning, she said, students will see that negative ads are nothing new.

Campaigns and Elections, Political Science 367, started Sept. 6 on the Kingston campus.

“Elections and voting are central to understanding the relationship between the government and the governed, and the operation of American politics,” Pearson-Merkowitz said.