Dissecting an Unconventional Electoral Season

Students consider 2016 campaign through the lenses of political science & communications

While discussing Elections in Real Time, a new course she is teaching with fellow professor Robert Rosenthal, Rachael Cobb quickly makes one thing clear: “We talked about it before this election became this election.”

What Cobb, a professor and chair of Suffolk’s Department of Government, means is that the creation of this unique class was planned before the 2016 presidential election campaign became a runaway circus as frightening as it is fascinating. Both she and Rosenthal, chair of the Department of Advertising, Public Relations, & Digital Media, always saw the potential in dissecting “the presidential election from a political science perspective and a communications perspective,” she said.

In the moment

“The class is dedicated to what is going on right this very moment,” Cobb said. “Every class there’s a current events segment on what just happened, and for better or worse this election, there’s always something that just happened.”

Even before the class began, Rosenthal envisioned it as an opportunity for students to garner “a greater understanding of politics in general, as well as the political communication that goes into campaigns.”

“We’re looking at the debates from multiple angles, advertising from different angles, and the rise of social media,” Cobb said. “We’ve done a little bit of historical development, and we’ve looked at the nominations process and how that’s changed. We’ve recently talked about why these two candidates won when others didn’t.”

Collaborative teaching

Both Cobb and Rosenthal are present in each class, with one or the other leading the day’s lecture depending on the topic.

“Dr. Bob and I have a good time bouncing off each other, and we ask each other questions,” Cobb said. “We’re very comfortable and honest about what we know and don’t know, so we’re able to convey that.”

In class, students analyze debates, candidates’ speeches, campaign events, and how advertising affects the process. As Election Day draws closer, there will be even more emphasis on demographics, strategy, and voter turnout predictions.

Although this inaugural class has been in session only a few weeks, her students already impress Cobb.

“They’re really engaged,” she said. “They’re really paying attention; they really know what’s going on; and they also have terrific questions.”

Suffolk students engaged in civic life”

It’s an ideal class for Suffolk’s politically astute students. The University was recently classified as a “high-voting-rate campus” in a report on student voting by Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. Based on 2012 and 2014 voter registration and voting rates for more than 900 colleges and universities nationwide, Suffolk ranked in the top 10 percent in comparison to other schools.

Cobb, in part, credits Suffolk’s proximity to its gold-domed neighbor for the heightened political involvement of its students.

Political neighbors

“It’s very clear that a lot of students come here because they want to be close to the State House and that they are already politically engaged,” she said. “We have a number of government majors who are current office holders – a student who is on a town committee, a student on a school committee. That shows a pretty remarkable level of engagement here.”

Suffolk also promotes voter registration among students. In one of Cobb’s other classes, Elections and Voting, she walked her students through filling out their applications. She then collected the forms so they could be mailed before the Oct. 19 registration deadline.

“We do run voter registration drives here and try to educate students,” Cobb said. “Through a partnership with [Suffolk’s] Center for Community Engagement, every Tuesday until the voter registration deadline, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., there’s a voter registration table. And we’re doing a number of events around it. I want to make sure this process is accessible to them.”

—Renée Graham

Professors Robert Rosenthal and Rachael Cobb lead class