Seventeen years ago, Professor Barbara Allen began a study on the local media’s influence on electoral politics. In 2000, she was joined by University of Minnesota Regent's Professor, John Sullivan, who taught as a Benedict Fellow at Carleton. Their classes began the Carleton College Election Study in earnest, with content analysis of the local news, including a focus group study of voters' thoughts about local news. Professor Greg Marfleet, who joined the Department of Political Science in 2002, brought a new dimension to the study with methods classes that focused on quantitative analysis of the local news data.
In 2004 and 2008, Professors Allen and Marfleet, along with their students, expanded the study with new technologies, captures of the national and cable news, a massive analysis of political advertising, and numerous focus groups held in the Twin Cities, Northfield, Apple Valley, Stillwater and Owatanna, MN. In 2000, 2004, and 2008, they captured and analyzed all national and local coverage of the presidential and Minnesota elections starting 100 days before November 6, including all ads nationwide.
The project is culminating this year in an exhibit of findings and of the various technological changes in the study. Titled Lights! Action! (Smoke & Mirrors?) CAMPAIGNS!, the exhibit opens November 13 in the three Weitz Center White Spaces and runs for one week.
For Allen, this project has been especially exciting because of the the trans disciplinary nature of the work that attracts students from across the campus. She said, “Carleton students are very likely to be civic leaders, so thinking about people unlike yourself, thinking about those other voters and perspectives...it’s very important.”
Since 2000, at least three classes have been working on the project, including her Media and Electoral Politics (100 and 204), as well as Marfleet’s Methods of Political Research (230) class. Through these classes, as well as independent studies, students have been involved in nearly every aspect of the project. Allen said, “it’s a hands-on project and everything is built from the bottom up. From data collection to the tools we used to analyze it, every skill was used, including everything from computer science to political science.”
Mollie Wetherall ’13 said that one of the most valuable parts of the class were the informal discussions it provoked. She said “I think it's crucial to discuss politics in a bunch of different ways, to learn more about the way messages are delivered in the media. Without more formal lenses to analyze the media, we would be less understanding of its influence on politics today...It's really exciting to discuss politics in a new way, and having people who share your interests”
Sophie Pilhofer ’13 took this class her freshman year and is now doing an independent study with the project. For her, this experience has been important because it allows her to connect to many different types of people both inside and outside of Carleton. She said, “I do think it's important to engage in politics and "the real world" through the classroom because it opens up people's eyes to the opinions and views of others....This made it so much more interesting to follow the last election. I also just love talking about current events in class!”
Today, many of Marfleet and Allen’s former students who are now part of “the real world” are still using the things they learned in these classes, applying them to jobs in fields such as consulting, journalism and computer science. As Allen said, “It’s not all about political science...it’s important to understand how to engage politically, I mean in everyday life: how to participate. Democracies don’t work unless there’s civic engagement.”