Elections in America (POLA 3150)

It is a “yuge” understatement to say that the 2016 presidential election has been like no other (excuse the dorky professor joke). Political scientists, pundits, and journalists have gotten a lot wrong about cycle. This course will introduce the U.S. electoral system and we will cover the presidential election from the nomination phase through the general election. Students will learn to understand the dynamics of election systems, campaigns for national office, and voting behavior. We will walk through this election together and examine the scholarship on campaigns and elections and discuss its relevance to 2016. I encourage students to register to vote. College students may register to vote in their city of residence or in their home (but not both). Go to https://www.usvotefoundation.org/vote/state-elections/state-election-dates-deadlines.htm to find out the deadlines for each state. Do not delay!! After October 10 in many states, you will not be allowed to register.

Learning Outcomes and Methods of Assessment:

Upon completion of this course, students will have demonstrated substantive knowledge and analytical competence in the understanding of the electoral system in the United States. Students will demonstrate this knowledge through oral presentations, class discussion, and satisfactory completion of all assignments and exams. Students should develop an understanding of the history of national elections in the U.S. and the current challenges to the presidential and congressional election system.

Required Materials:

Charles McCutcheon, CQ Press’s Guide to the 2014 Midterm Elections (CQ Press, 2014) ISBN: 978-1483372884

John Sides & Lynn Vavreck, The Gamble: Choice & Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election (Princeton U Press, 2013) ISBN: 978-0691163635

A United States Election Primer – This is *free* e-book from Routledge based on chapters from several of their books. Available on Blackboard. You’re welcome…

All readings designated BB are on this class’s Blackboard site. Others have hyper-links built into the syllabus (which is also available on Blackboard).

Course Requirements: 

Regular Attendance, Active Class Participation, Quizzes: 15%
Attendance is mandatory. Rather than adjudicate between excused and unexcused absences, each student is allotted TWO absences from a regular class session for any reason without penalty. Regular class sessions do not include days with tests, group working sessions, or class presentations. Missing class on any of these days will result in points off this portion of your grade.  There are no exceptions and do not bother to ask for one. Note the university academic calendar and the syllabus’s schedule of assignments. We will have class the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. After missing two classes, each additional absence results in a half letter grade penalty on this portion of your grade. Students with perfect attendance will earn one point on their final grade.

Exams: 40% (20% each)

There will be a midterm and a cumulative final exam. Final examinations are to be held at the times publicized in the Final Examination Schedule posted on the Registrar’s website. Any student who is absent from a final examination will be given permission to take a make-up examination only if an acceptable excuse is presented to an associate dean in Newcomb-Tulane College before the exam or within 24 hours after the exam. A student whose absence from a final examination is not excused is to be given an “F” in the course.

Assignments: 45% (total)

Assignment 1: Presidential Candidate Strategies & Tactics [25%]

Students will be divided into groups where they will develop a strategy for one of the candidates from the 2016 presidential election (including the primaries). For the candidates still running, this is a strategy you believe will lead them to victory; for those who lost in the primaries, this should be a strategy you think they should have followed. It does NOT MATTER whether you would actually support the candidate you are assigned to study. In fact, it might be more fun to study a campaign for someone you would never support.

  • Each group will write a paper that outlines the strategy of the campaign. This strategy should be based on current affairs, the candidate’s and his/her opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, the electoral context (e.g. swing states or ballot access), voter targeting, campaign funds, and access to/coverage by the media. The strategy should be thought of as the “basic appeal” of the candidate. The paper should discuss the tone of the campaign, the issues on which the campaign will focus, the voters that will be targeted (why and how), and specific tactics the campaign will utilize. Do not simply explain your strategy, but defend it. Why do you believe this strategy, as opposed to another, is the key to winning? Or, why would this strategy have been better than the one the candidate used? The other assignments should be crafted with this strategy in mind – how do each of these activities put into place some aspect of the overall strategy?
  • In addition to the strategy papers, groups must produce at least one television ad and create a website for the campaign. In your strategy papers, groups should discuss and defend these choices. Include the timing of the release of each tactic in the strategy paper. Ads can be positive or negative. They can be biographical, issue-focused, or an attack on an opponent. Each ad must specify its sponsor and they should help to further your group’s strategy as laid out in the strategy paper. Each ad should be no more than 1 minute long. You will be graded on the quality of the ad and the website and the extent to which it successfully furthers your group’s campaign strategy.
  • Groups must also select 1 additional assignment from the following list: a second TV ad, a piece of direct mail, an op-ed from the candidate, or a campaign speech (including info on its audience).

Assignment 2: Scholarly Blog Post [20%]

Over the course of this semester, you will read several scholarly blog posts, such as those on the Monkey Cage at the Washington Post. Unlike the stream of consciousness blog posts that are common all over the internet, these posts are grounded in social science and/or political theory. You must write a 1500-2000 word blog post akin to those we have read this semester on a topic related to U.S. elections. These posts must:

  • Contribute new knowledge or analysis – This will mean you may need to analyze poll data, examine elections from a new theoretical perspective (using empirical evidence of your claims), collect your own data through interviews or surveys or content analysis, analyze the media’s coverage in some unique way, discuss issues of election process (with evidence), etc. You may compare the US to other countries or this election to historical elections/periods. You may discuss public policy as related to elections or campaigns. The topic is open.
  • Ground your research question, hypotheses and findings in the appropriate political science literature, as you’ve seen in these posts. Cite this literature (including links to articles and/or books) in your post.
  • Papers are due no later than November 22 at the beginning of class. You may turn in your paper at any time before then. Papers turned in by November 10 that earn a C or lower will be able to be revised. The final grade will be an average of the revised paper and the original paper. Papers turned in after November 10 will not eligible for revision regardless of the grade; papers that earn a B- or higher on the original paper are not eligible for revision for a higher grade.


Paper Instructions: All work should include complete footnotes for every citation; there should be no references that are not cited in the paper. Footnotes should be numbered sequentially (i.e. each note has a distinct number, not each source). Students must turn in a hard copy and an electronic copy of their papers. Both copies are due at the beginning of class. Once I have taken attendance and started class, assignments are considered late and will be docked 5 points (half letter grade). Papers turned in after class is over are docked one letter grade per day (not per class). In written assignments, grammar and style count nearly as much as the content. Also, problems with uploading your paper will result in a late penalty, including “mistakes” such as uploading the wrong paper or uploading a file I cannot open. Number all pages. Staple your papers BEFORE coming to class.


Uploading Instructions for Blackboard:

Go to Assignments in this course’s Blackboard page. Click on “View/Complete” to upload the paper. Click “Browse” and locate your file to be uploaded and then click “submit.”


A few handy troubleshooting tips:

1.       Use Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Chrome. There is a bug with Safari and other web browsers.

2.       Do not use “#” in your file name. It causes problems with submission.

3.       Save a screen shot of the time/date of your attempt in case there is any problem with submission. Without this, the assignment will be counted late.

4.       Upload ONLY a .doc, .docx, or .pdf file with the entire assignment (not Pages or any other format). If your file is not one of these types and I have trouble opening it, the assignment will be counted late.

5.       You will have only ONE opportunity to submit the assignment. “Save as a Draft” does not submit the assignment to me, but allows you to revise and submit later.

Note: When writing your papers, save them in multiple places. Each student has space in the “cloud” through Tulane.box.com that allows you to share folders with others, just like Dropbox. Flash drives are your friend, but should not be your only friend. None of the following are valid excuses for late work: hard drive crashes, lost files, stolen laptops, empty ink cartridges, paper jams, busy library printers. Expect problems and do not wait until the last minute to save, print, upload, or send your assignments. Papers MUST be stapled prior to turning them in to avoid penalty.

Grading Scale:

93+=A, 90-92=A-, 88-89=B+, 83-87=B, 80-82=B-, 78-79=C+, 73-77=C, 70-72=C-, 60-69=D, 0-59=F

Special Circumstances:

If you believe you may encounter barriers to the academic environment, please feel free to contact me and/or the Goldman Center for Student Accessibility. This information is confidential. Any student with approved academic accommodations is encouraged to contact me during office hours or to email me to schedule an appointment. If you have questions regarding registering a disability or receiving accommodations, please contact the Goldman Center at 504.862.8433 or http://www.accessibility.tulane.edu. Students needing accommodations must provide me with a Course Accommodation Form and if applicable, an Exam Request Form (“blue sheet”) in order to schedule an exam to be taken at ODS. Accommodations involving exams must be requested to me four days before a test or seven days before a final exam. Any student receiving an exam-related accommodation should plan to take the exam at ODS.

If you have any other special circumstances, such as involvement with a university activity that requires you to miss class, let me know as soon as possible. If issues arise during the semester that are likely to affect your participation, attendance or performance, it is in your interest to let me know as soon as they arise. You may consult with your academic advisor or Erica Woodley in Student Affairs if issues are serious enough that you need temporary accommodations.

Be aware that because of the nature of the assignments, you will be required to meet with your group outside of class time. If your schedule is very inflexible, do not take this course.

Academic Dishonesty:

Academic honesty is expected of all students at Tulane. Your responsibilities as a Tulane student include being familiar with the honor code and the plagiarism policy of the University (see http://tulane.edu/college/code.cfm). Cases of cheating or plagiarism will be reported to the Honor Board, and may result in a failing grade for the class, academic probation, or expulsion.  Ignorance is not a valid excuse. 

Academic dishonesty includes but is not limited to the following actions:

  1. presenting another’s work, ideas, expressions or research as if it were one’s own;
  2. failing to acknowledge or document a source even if the action is unintended (i.e., plagiarism);

Note: Plagiarism includes copying & pasting material from any source (Wikipedia, paper mill, other internet site, book, journal, newspaper, magazine, etc.) without proper attribution. Plagiarism also includes non-verbatim borrowing of words or ideas through paraphrasing or summarizing another’s work(s) without proper attribution.

  1. fabricating or altering citations;
  2. giving or receiving, or attempting to give or receive, unauthorized assistance or information in an assignment or examination;
  3. submitting the same assignment in two or more courses without prior permission of both instructors;
  4. having another person write a paper or sit for an examination (includes online paper-mills);
  5. using tests or papers from students in prior semesters;

Other Classroom Rules

  1. Without a documented disability, no electronic devices may be used in class, including laptops, cell phones, tablets, I-watches, etc. Print a copy of all readings not in a textbook and bring them to class. Devices are not allowed to be out of backpacks or purses during quizzes and exams. Any student who is caught with one of these devices out will have his/her test/quiz taken and will be charged with the Honor Code violation of cheating. Any student who continues to use his or her devises after a warning may be asked to leave class.
  2. Students must not be chronically late, absent or disruptive; otherwise, your grade will suffer. If you have an activity (class, work, athletic practice, etc.) that meets just before this class, you are still expected to make it to class on time. If you cannot make it to class on time, then do not take this course. Once class has started, students should only leave the room in cases of emergency. This means students should take care of all personal business before class begins. Except in emergencies, students will not be allowed to leave and return to the classroom during an exam.

Classroom Conduct

I am committed to providing a classroom environment free of all forms of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, political philosophy, religion, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation. If you have experienced or experience discrimination, domestic violence, sexual assault or sexual harassment, know that you are not alone. Resources and support are available. Learn more at onewave.tulane.edu.  Any and all of your communications on these matters will be treated as either “Strictly Confidential” or “Mostly Confidential” as explained in the chart below. Note: As a professor, I am required by law to report anything reported to me regarding incidents of sexual harassment, assault, or discrimination. I am a “mostly confidential” source.

Strictly Confidential Mostly Confidential
Except in extreme circumstances, involving imminent danger to one’s self or others, nothing will be shared without your explicit permission. Conversations are kept as confidential as possible, but information is shared with key staff members so the University can offer resources and accommodations and take action if necessary for safety reasons.
Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) | (504) 314-2277 Coordinator of Violence Prevention | (504) 314-2161


Student Health Center | (504) 865-5255 Tulane University Police (TUPD) | (504) 865-5911
Sexual Aggression Peer Hotline and Education (SAPHE) | (504) 654-9543 Office of Institutional Equity | (504) 862-8083


Course Schedule and Reading Assignments

Aug 30: Introductions

Reading: Primer, chapter 1

 Sept 1: No Class

  1. Presidential Nominations

Sept 6: Recent and Not-So-Recent Presidential Nominations

Washington Post, May 25, 2016

Sept 8: Looking Back at the 2012 GOP Nomination Fight

  • Sides & Vavreck, chapters 2-4
  • “Campaigning for the Nomination,” from Stephen Wayne, from The Road to the White House 2012 (BB)

Sept 13: How did we get here? The 2016 Democratic Primary

Sept 15: How did we get here? The 2016 GOP Primary

Sept 20: Explaining Trump Support: Authoritarians, Populists, and Other Cranks

Sept 22: Meet in your groups in class to develop a strategy and work plan

Sept 27: Explaining Trump Support: The Politics of Resentment

Oct 4: Explaining Trump Support: Everybody Hates Government

  • “Process Preferences and American Politics: What the People Want Government to Be,” John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, American Political Science Review 95 (2001):145-53 (BB)
  • “The Strategic Promotion of Distrust in Government in the Tea Party Age,” Amy Fried and Douglas B. Harris, The Forum 13 (2015): 417-443 (BB)
  • “A Surprising Number of Americans Dislike How Messy Democracy Is. They Like Trump,” John Hibbing & Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, The Monkey Cage/Washington Post, May 2, 2016

Oct 6: Masculinity & Gender in 2016

**Oct 11: Midterm Exam

Oct 13: Fall Break

  1. General Election Campaigns

**Oct 18: Money, Money, Money, Mah…ney

Oct 20: The Voters & Campaign Strategies – Mobilization & Persuasion

  • Primer, chapters 5-6
  • “Organization, Strategy, and Tactics,” Stephen Wayne, The Road to the White House 2012 (BB)
  • “All about that Base: Changing Campaign Strategies in US Presidential Elections,” Costas Panagopoulos, Party Politics 22 (2016): 179-190 (BB)

Oct 25: Marketing Candidates

  • “Campaign Advertising,” Stephen Wayne, The Road to the White House 2012 (BB)
  • “Separation by Television Program: Understanding the Targeting of Political Advertising in Presidential Elections,” Travis N. Ridout, et al., Political Communication 29 (2012): 1-23. (BB)
  • “Dollars on the Sidewalk: Should US Presidential Candidates Advertise in Uncontested States?” Carly Urban & Sarah Niebler, American Journal of Political Science 58 (2014): 322-336. (BB)

Oct 27: Controlling the Media…Controlled by the Media

  • “Media Politics,” Stephen Wayne, The Road to the White House 2012 (BB)
  • “Partisan Media: Selective Exposure During the 2012 Presidential Election,” Robert H. Wicks, et al. American Behavioral Scientist 58 (2014): 1131-1143 (BB)
  • “Pithy, Mean and Powerful: How Trump Mastered Twitter for the 2016 Race,” Michael Barbaro, The New York Times, October 6, 2015
  • “Last Year, No Candidate Got More Negative Media Coverage than Hillary Clinton,” Jeff Stein, Vox, June 20, 2016 (Bonus points for reading the Harvard report this article is based on)
  • “The Media vs. Donald Trump,” Ezra Klein, Vox, August 16, 2016

**Nov 1: Group Assignment Due & Presentations

  • Groups will present their strategies, air their ads, and show their other materials in class. Note: you may not READ your paper – you must develop a presentation of its highlights, along with airing the ad(s) and showing any other materials as part of the presentation.
  • Presentations should not last longer than 10 minutes each.

Nov 3: 2012 General Election Campaign

  • Sides & Vavreck, chapters 5-6
  • “’Sour Grapes’ or Rational Voting? Voter Decision Making Among Thwarted Primary Voters in 2008,” Michael Henderson, et al. Public Opinion Quarterly 74 (2010): 499-529 (BB)

Nov 8: The Electoral College and the Aftermath of 2012 ** ELECTION DAY!!**

  • Primer, chapter 4
  • Sides & Vavreck, chapters 7-8
  • “Voting for Trump through Gritted Teeth,” Kyle Cheney, Politico, August 16, 2016
  • What are pundits & scholars predicting will happen today? Note the predictions of at least 5 pundits, scholars, the betting markets, and/or random idiots. Write them down and turn in during class.

Nov 10: Election De-Brief – What Happened & What Might It Mean?

  • Who was right about their predictions? Also, look at the exit polls to examine which groups supported which candidates, etc.

III. Non-Presidential Elections

Nov 15: Congressional Races – The Electoral System

  • “What Are Voting Systems and Why Are They Important?” and “Criteria for Judging Electoral Systems,” from Douglas Amy, Behind the Ballot Box: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting Systems (BB)

Nov 17: Coattail Effects, Incumbency Advantage, & Redistricting

**Nov 22: Midterm Elections

**Assignment 2 Due

Nov 24 – Thanksgiving Break

Nov 29: Oh Wait…Elections Are Supposed to Lead to Governance?

  • “What’s Wrong with Washington? Tribalism,” Norman Ornstein, Governance 27 (2014): 179-183 (BB)
  • “The Case for Compromise,” Amy Gutmann & Dennis Thompson, Harvard Magazine, Jul-Aug 2012 (BB)

Dec 1: Local Elections

  • “Introduction” & “Rethinking Local Democracy,” from J. Eric Oliver, Local Elections & the Politics of Small Scale Democracy (BB)
  • “What Underlies Urban Politics? Race, Class, Ideology, Partisanship, and the Urban Vote,” Zoltan Hajnal & Jessica Trounstine, Urban Affairs Review 50 (2014): 64-99 (BB)

Dec 6: Direct Democracy

  • “A Tale of Two Initiatives” and “The Myth of a Golden Age,” from Richard J. Ellis, Democratic Delusions: The Initiative Process in America (BB)
  • “Racial Threat, Direct Legislation, and Social Trust,” Joshua Dyck, Political Research Quarterly 65 (2012): 615-628 (BB)

Dec 8: Catch up and review

Dec 16: 9am – Final Exam (Note time change)