The Political Experience: Getting Millennials Connected to Campaigns

By Dr. Colin Swearingen, Assistant Professor of Political Science, John Carroll University

Dr. Colin Swearingen (Photo by John Carroll University)

Dr. Colin Swearingen (Photo by John Carroll University)

A few months ago, an NPR headline posited a question: “Millennials Now Rival Boomers As A Political Force, But Will They Actually Vote?” The author noted that Millennials comprise roughly the same percentage of the electorate as Baby Boomers but continue to be the least likely generation to vote. One of the experts quoted in the article noted that turnout among this generation will depend on how campaigns engage young voters.

At John Carroll University, we are doing just this – bringing the political action to our students, providing them a plethora of participatory options ranging from classes to campaign experiences to presidential debate “watch parties.” The goal of all of these activities is aligned with our Jesuit, Catholic mission of encouraging our students to be independent, critical thinkers who take action in accordance with their values.

Situated just miles from downtown Cleveland, Ohio, John Carroll is in the epicenter of electoral nirvana every four years. Presidential candidates, their vice presidential running mates, and campaign surrogates make it a habit to visit Northeast Ohio. But this year is different: Cleveland was on the world stage as the host city for the Republican National Convention (RNC). Our students, who are typically engaged in politics, wanted to be involved in this historical event.

After the death of legendary Meet the Press host, Tim Russert, a 1972 John Carroll alumnus, the University established a relationship with NBC News. Thanks to this partnership, 20 of our students worked for four weeks leading up to and during the Convention. In addition, 12 John Carroll students were fortunate to be hired by ABC News during the Convention, securing positions with Good Morning America, World News Tonight, Nightline and The View. Other students interned directly for the RNC, receiving floor access during some of the key moments of the Convention.

These paid internships opened doors for our students: not only did they obtain vital on-the-job experience that will bolster their resumes, they also had the chance to see how politics works behind the scenes. Afterwards, students shared stories about how the #NeverTrump movement was defeated on the first day of the Convention when the “conscience clause” was voted down in a controversial voice vote. They told of where they were when Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) gave his speech advocating that conservatives “vote their conscience” in November, and how Donald Trump's campaign floor generals orchestrated the subsequent booing. These are experiences I never had as an undergraduate, and I am proud that our students were on the front lines of a nominating convention.

These once-in-a-lifetime experiences were enhanced by the academic experience: students were able to enroll in a course centered on the 2016 RNC. Offered through our Department of Political Science and the Tim Russert Department of Communication and Theatre Arts, students delved into the subject of how conventions operate, both in terms of media coverage and political machinations. For instance, they learned how to create messages for digital, broadcast, and print media. They discussed how campaigns use conventions to increase their support in polls and whether “convention bounces” are fleeting. They gained a greater understanding of how our presidential nomination process has become more democratic over time and the way in which rules can help determine who wins. During the Convention, instead of meeting in the classroom, they went downtown to experience it live. Some live tweeted from the middle of anti-Trump protests; others helped to coordinate some of the many concerts and parties that took place that week for delegates and other visitors. The synthesis of classroom instruction and political/media experience is something I know many of our students will never forget.

Taking advantage of the RNC is only the first step in getting the Millennial generation plugged into politics. With November 8th quickly approaching, John Carroll is providing more opportunities for students to make a mark on the 2016 election. Our “Streak the Vote” campaign is bringing speakers and panel discussions to campus, encouraging students to engage in and discuss the campaigns. We are conducting voter registration drives, hosting debate watch parties, and linking democracy to our Jesuit heritage through a brown bag lecture series. Rather than running from the tough discussions and controversies surrounding our major party presidential candidates, we are facilitating conversations and critical thinking about the tough issues facing the American electorate.

Finally, 25 students are enrolled in my “Campaigns and Elections” course this fall. At the beginning of each class, we dissect the biggest campaign news of the week and engage in respectful discourse about major campaign issues, such as race and police brutality, candidate temperament and trustworthiness, and how each candidate’s policies affect Millennials. To link these discussions to real-world campaigns, students are spending 25-30 hours working on one or multiple actual political campaigns. They are knocking on doors, making phone calls, analyzing data and fundraising for candidates at all levels. Just this past week, some of them were able to campaign in Cleveland with actors from notable television shows like Parks and Recreation and The West Wing.

Getting Millennials engaged in politics can be challenging, but John Carroll University is providing our students with incredible experiential learning opportunities to see, firsthand, how our democratic process works. We are able to do this through collaboration among many academic departments, as well as offices that have an interest in social justice, including Student Engagement, Government and Community Relations, and Campus Ministry. The amount of work done by our students is noteworthy; their thirst for knowledge is even greater. Even though our student body may not be representative of all Millennials, there is no doubt in my mind that our future is in good hands.