Teaching Election Results

The 2018 midterm elections are over in the US, and it was a night of mixed results.  The Democratic Party took control of the House of Representatives, winning at least 27 seats previously held by the Republican Party, while the GOP increased their majority in the Senate, toppling North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and my own state of Missouri’s Claire McCaskill.  

While clearly not as momentous an election as 2016, or the Brexit referendum, or many other elections, the midterms were still an important point to take stock of the impact of Trumpism on American politics, and whether Democrats who were somewhat over-confident in the fall of 2016 could manage to overcome pro-Trump sentiment, a strong economy, congressional district gerrymandering, voter suppression efforts, and the other structural reasons why succeeding at the polls can be difficult. 

Teaching the results of American elections is a frustrating enterprise.

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Electoral College Exercise

While I realize many of our readers are not based in the US nor teaching American government, the Electoral College is such an interesting oddity in electoral decision making that its a subject that may come up in Comparative Politics courses as well.  Certainly when I teach US politics I use quite a few comparative examples, as one of my themes of the course is how government arises from a series of decisions made by individuals and groups, none of which are or were set in stone.  Showing alternative models is a very useful way of doing this.

So here is a data analysis exercise that I use to teach the American Electoral College. It can be done either as homework or as an-in class as an activity after a basic introduction to the Electoral College and how it works (the basic premise of state-by-state popular vote, proportional votes based on number of seats in Congress, winner take all systems, and if no one wins a majority, the decision is made by the House with state-by-state voting).  

This exercise can be easily reformed for a final exam. Simply change the data and situations.  In the version below I use 9 states in a fictional world; in the exam version, I use about 20 states in a different world.  I never use the entire US or actual vote totals–this is largely to keep the math simple enough that it is not a test of arithmetic but of analysis.  Feel free to change the names of candidates and states to suit your own interests. 


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An Exercise for Teaching Campaigns and Elections

Today’s post comes courtesy of Dr. Julia Azari, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Marquette University.  Her exercise can be used in American politics classes that include a unit on campaigns and elections.  It can be done in a single class or as a multi-day exercise. These are the instructions she gave to the students, reprinted here in full. Where page numbers are given, they refer to the text used in the class:Matt Grossmann, John Sides, Daron Shaw and Keena Lipsitz, Campaigns and Elections, WW Norton, 3rd Edition.


The scenario: In April 2019 (just a few months from now!), President Donald Trump has once again shaken the political world by announcing that he will not seek reelection to a second term. Citing the decisions of Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, James K. Polk, and Rutherford B. Hayes, the 72-year-old entertainer-turned-politician said that he wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren, missed his old life, and was satisfied with his incredibly successful first term.[1]

As a result, we have a 2020 election with no incumbent! After tough primary battles on both sides, in July 2020, Republicans and Democrats are settling in for the general election. And it just so happens that candidates from both major parties are eager to hire consultants who have studied political science at Marquette.

Political conditions: Economic growth is steady and no new wars have begun. Trump’s favorability ratings have improved a bit with his decision not to seek reelection, but have remained around 45%.

Now you have to form a consulting firm (a group with 4-5 classmates) and decide which party’s candidate you are advising.[2] Unfortunately, instead of collecting a handsome fee, your end goal is to turn this sheet into me and get a participation grade for the day.

Here are the decisions you’ll need to advise the candidate about:

  1. Fundraising.

How will you do this? Who will you ask to contribute? Do you want to make promises about your commitment to “clean elections” or resisting a certain kind of contribution?

You can’t coordinate with expenditure-only organizations, but how much are you comfortable with letting them pick up the bulk of the campaign spending? Does their existence give you some breathing room to back off of fundraising in favor of other activities? Can you count on their help? What are some benefits and risks of counting on it?

What kinds of campaign fundraising do you expect from your opponent? How will you respond to attacks from independent expenditure groups?

  • Television ad buys (see page 268). What states/media markets will you focus on? Which states do you consider safe and which will be competitive, but attainable? Will you take a risk on running ads in states where your opponent still has the best chance to win?
  • Travel. Where will you go? How many appearances will you make between Sept. 1 and the election? (See page 269) What are the costs and benefits of this strategy?
  • Messages and priorities. What issues will you emphasize? What will you say about the status quo – knowing what you know about forecasting models? How will you balance your appeals to swing voters and your political base?

[1] Note: I don’t think this is an especially plausible scenario, but I don’t this exercise to be focused on the current president because we have other things we need to discuss.

[2] You can speculate about who your candidate is, but again that’s not really the point of the exercise.

New Gerkhania Simulation

A slightly delayed report on the latest version of my Gerkhania simulation, which I abandoned back in 2015 because it wasn’t living up to expectations. Last January I wrote a brief preview about changes I had made to it before the start of my spring semester comparative politics course.

Gerkhania now has three rounds of role play: a commission to establish a representative legislature, one legislative session in which students can earn points if certain bills are passed, and a third session with no point rewards. For each session, students randomly receive a short biographical profile with an ethno-religious identity. Because of the laws of probability most students will receive a different role each time. The roles also include objectives that students should try to pursue; the objective of one student conflicts with the objectives of most of the other students.

In the first session, the class almost agreed to three separate electoral districts before settling on a single, national district to elect members of a parliament. In the debate, students quickly affiliated with each other on the basis of their newly-assigned identities. The same behavior occurred in the other two sessions, even though students had different identities . Students spontaneously changed seats to sit next to those who had the same ethnicity. They tried to maximize their own group’s influence and marginalize the influence of others. Some students tried to simultaneously engage in logrolling across ethnic boundaries to achieve their individual objectives.

In the post-simulation debriefing, I highlighted two topics. First, the results of both legislative sessions, in terms of passage or failure of the bills I supplied, were nearly identical — despite the existence of a zero-sum environment for earning individual rewards in the first session but not the second. I asked students whether this outcome could be explained by rational actor theory.

Second, I tried to get students to think about the immediacy and fervor with which they adopted rapidly changing and completely arbitrary identities. I say “tried” because I don’t think I was able to get students to adequately connect their behavior during the simulation to concepts like identity salience, deindividuation, and culture. But obviously identity had a much larger effect than it did in my South China Sea simulation, which is what I had intended. So I rate this activity as a success.

All materials needed to run New Gerkhania are available through my TeachersPayTeachers storefront.

Parliament Game with the Gray-Tufted Banderwot

Gray-Tufted Banderwot

A few years ago, Simon invented a game to model coalitions in the European Parliament (also described here and here). I decided to try it in my comparative politics as a lesson in how legislatures function. After some confusion as students figured out what to do, they clustered into two coalitions; the outcome loosely resembled a two-party/median voter system. But I had forgotten to remove the high-value cards from the deck before starting the game. The class has only fourteen students, and the distribution of card values was so great that it was difficult for students to accumulate influence points.

I decided to run the game again in the next class, after removing face cards from the deck. Influence points were calculated the same as before. But I added a twist. Each student received additional instructions that varied according to the value of his or her card: Continue reading

Teaching Trump 3

Today we have a third installment in a spontaneous series on teaching political science in the time of Trump, written by William R. Wilkerson, Professor of American Government and Politics at SUNY-Oneonta. Previous posts in this series are here and here.

I too have struggled. My focus so far has been to spend more class time on two things: 1) the founding and how it informs what is happening in American politics today, and 2) on what political science, and social science generally, can tell my students about the rise of President Trump. I agree that neutrality is important. I need to be able to potentially reach all my students, regardless of their position on issues or their party affiliation. Three syllabi that helped guide my teaching this semester:

I also found the following blog posts, mostly by political scientists, particularly useful in putting together readings for students on various topics: Continue reading

Teaching Trump #2

A follow-up to Amanda’s post about teaching in the time of Trump. Trump’s campaign and administration represent an opportunity to teach about racism in the construction of national identity. I stumbled into this subject accidentally in my globalization course last week, with an assignment that asked students to write a response to “Is France or the USA a more global society?” Students were supposed to reference the following items:

Yesterday I heard this radio report about residents of Newton, Massachusetts, one of the wealthiest and therefore whitest communities in the USA: Continue reading

Conceptual Understanding Through Experiments

Today we have a guest post from Jonathan Rauh, a doctoral student in political science at East Carolina University. 

atomic-experimentActive engagement of the student is a key facet of experiential learning. In-class debate is one classic means of generating engagement, but it can favor students who are more extroverted. In-class debate also tends to be relatively light on the application of concepts but heavy on critical reflection. As an alternative, I have used in-class experiments derived from economics to teach how policy preferences are realized (or not) as a result of different voting systems.

In these experiments, I begin with a discussion in which I ask students about their own policy positions on issues like gun control, abortion, tax policy, school vouchers, universal healthcare, and the death penalty. This allows for discussion of political representation in different forms of government, which then leads into experiments where students are assigned a set of preferences ranging from, for example, far right to far left, and are subjected to a set of voting rules. This type of environment makes it easy to illustrate differences between voting systems, such as first-past-the-post and rank order preference.

If one has taken a course in experimental economics then one knows it is fairly common to have small monetary payoffs—for example, $10. These real monetary consequences lead students to quickly identify which voting strategies will best increase their chances of winning in the experiment.

I have found that the applied nature of the experiments provides a way for students to engage with theories that would otherwise just be abstract discussion points. Students whose personalities make them less inclined to debate are more engaged because their votes do not require explicit public statements. They are able to understand that one strategy is preferable to another and make adjustments in each round of voting without being singled out. Students who participate in my voting games show better test scores at the end of the year and, according to colleagues, have a good understanding of policy preferences and the complex interactions between competing political parties.

For a full discussion of implementing an in-class voting experiment see:

Rauh, Jonathan. 2014. “In-Class Experiments as an Accompaniment to In-Class Discussion.” Journal of Political Science Education 10(4): 453-470.

For a full discussion of experimental economics games that can be applied in your class to teach about topics ranging from preference recognition to lobbying to voting, see Charles Holt’s VeconLab at the University of Virginia: http://veconlab.econ.virginia.edu/admin.htm.

The US Election in a Comparative Context

Teaching in DC, at the #mostpolicallyactivecampus (GWU’s unofficial Twitter hashtag), I decided to embrace all the craziness of the election season and design my Introduction to election2016Comparative Politics syllabus around it. I bring the US in as a point of comparison a lot already – both in formal assignments like debates and informally during class discussion – but this year, I will be more deliberate about it. Knowing my student population, they will be watching debates and following the election like hawks. If I can tap into that enthusiasm, I think it will be a good hook for student engagement. Bonus points if it means they become move critical consumers of news about the election. Continue reading