Voices of an election
For University faculty and students, the 2016 election season has been an experience in teaching and learning.
Melissa Proven ’20
‘If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be voting today. She’s the one who made it possible for all women to vote and I think it’s just an honor to be able to be this close to her and come out and see her on my first Election Day.’
Hannah Rosen ‘20
‘One of the candidates for president is a woman for the first time in our country’s history and the fact that she was the one to allow women to get the right to vote is really important, so the fact that she’s right here is amazing.’
Daniel LaSalle ’20
‘I want to pay homage to such an influential woman not only in American history, but world history. To be able to be here and bask in history, literally stare history in the face is something that is worth so much to me, I can’t even put into words.’
Brendan Stone ’20
‘It’s my personal belief that democracy works best when everyone participates. To be able to be here where Susan B. Anthony lays at rest…our electorate wouldn’t be the same today without her.’
Sarah Krulik ‘17
‘When I came here, I really didn’t think I’d be in line for two hours, but it’s okay. I think it’s going to be worth it just to have this experience of being in Rochester, putting a sticker on Susan B. Anthony’s grave, having hopefully the first woman president and it will be amazing.’
‘It’s a presidential election year. I had to take this class now. It’s too important not to.’
Professor Lynda Powell's American Elections class zeroes in on Clinton, Trump matchup.
As a freshman, Skylar Cerbone ’20 normally wouldn’t take Lynda Powell’s intermediate undergraduate course, American Elections, this fall. But Cerbone didn’t want to wait.
“It’s a presidential election year,” the political science major from Buffalo says. “I had to take this class now. It’s too important not to.”
Cerbone received permission from Powell, professor of political science, to take the course, and is one of 50 students who meet Tuesdays and Thursdays in Hutchison Hall to learn about the election process at the state, congressional, and presidential levels, and how election rules affect the choices candidates make.
“I want my students to apply the theoretical material from the course to gain a better understanding of this year’s elections and future elections,” Powell says. “While a few will go on to graduate school in political science and teach at the college level, and a small number will work in politics, I hope all of them will be engaged in the political process as voters.”
Powell has taught at the University since 1982. Her most recent book, The Influence of Campaign Contributions on State Legislatures (University of Michigan Press), was awarded the American Political Science Association’s 2013 Richard F. Fenno, Jr. Prize for the best book on legislative politics, and the 2014 Virginia Gray Prize for the best book on state politics and policy.
“She’s a distinguished professor,” says Jose Fernandez ’19, a double major in political science and history. “I took the class in large part because I wanted to get her take on this election.”
Fernandez is a self-described “political junkie.” He attended a Long Island high school that was 90 percent Hispanic and says, “Republicans shouldn’t even entertain the idea of getting the Hispanic vote unless they address immigration reform.”
Students in Powell’s class read scholarly articles, as well as print and online news, and apply insights from the reading, as well as their own, to the 2016 elections.
On a Thursday in October, the topic turns to the Electoral College. Students learn about swing states, pivotal states, and the magic number 270, the minimum number of electoral votes required to clinch the election.
They’re also taught about “faithless electors,” members of the Electoral College who don’t vote as they are pledged to vote.
“There have been 157 faithless electors in America’s history,” Powell tells the class, “but none have altered the outcome of an election.”
Andrew Mekhail ’20 will be voting for the first time and is eager to help decide who will become the nation’s 45th president.
“This class gives me an understanding of the framework of an election,” the political science major from Los Angeles says. “It’s a consequential election that will say a lot about our country’s values and where we stand. It’s beyond politics.”
Cerbone believes students on the River Campus have grown increasingly interested in the political process as the election draws near.
“We’re the generation that’s going to be affected the most,” she says. “College students care about college debt and the way women and minorities are treated in this country.”
Logan Williamson ’17 says he’s most interested to see what “the Sanders effect” will be.
“I’m very interested to see how high of a turnout rate there is for Hillary [Clinton] among millennials,” the chemical engineering major from Horseheads, New York, says. “I think there’s going to be a huge dropoff from President Obama [in 2008 and 2012].”
Powell hopes her class inspires students to vote.
“As Thomas Jefferson said, ‘An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people,’” she says. “The differences between the candidates are so great that the stakes for the country are correspondingly great as well.”
‘Negative campaigning has been around as long as campaigning. It stays around because it works.’
Simon Business School professor explains why and how campaigns go low.
It was a contentious campaign, with charges of sexual misconduct, corruption, and greed.
One candidate was labeled a criminal, the other a coward.
Personal attacks came on a daily basis.
Yes, the presidential election of 1800 was nasty, to use a word from this year’s campaign. In the end, Thomas Jefferson defeated incumbent John Adams, and the two didn’t speak for years.
Sound familiar? It should, says Mitchell Lovett, associate professor of marketing at the Simon Business School.
“Negative campaigning has been around as long as campaigning,” Lovett says. “It stays around because it works.”
Lovett has taught courses on social media and advertising in politics, and is an expert on negative political advertising. He’s found that the closest elections are usually the most negative, and that talking about the bad traits of a candidate becomes more effective the more you know about the candidate.
People also tend to remember negative traits more than positive ones.
“When you tell voters two positive traits about a candidate, they tend to average those out,” Lovett says. “But if you give them two negative traits, people add them together, and it makes a more lasting impression.”
Recent elections, in particular, have drawn comparisons to the 1800 presidential race. That’s because negativity has been on the rise in recent years.
Lovett points to data showing that, in every presidential election cycle from 2000 to 2012, campaign advertising, in aggregate, was more negative than in the previous one.
The 2012 clash between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was the gold standard for negativity. In that race, almost 90 percent of ads were negative, meaning that the ad mentioned the candidate’s opponent. Between June 1 and Election Day, 64 percent of the ads aired were “purely negative,” meaning that only the opponent’s name was mentioned.
“The rise in negativity is probably correlated with changes in outside funding, though that is not yet clear,” says Lovett. He speculates there are most likely several factors at work, including a general increase in spending and increasingly conflict-oriented media coverage.
One thing that is clear is that, while the 2016 presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has been strikingly contentious, the campaigns have actually run fewer negative ads in the last month than their counterparts in the 2012 presidential race. But that’s in large part because they are only running about half the number of ads. Candidates are relying less on paid advertising, and more on social media, to get their messages out. Trump has nearly 13 million followers on Twitter, and Clinton has 10 million.
“Trump especially has relied on social media and engagement with media outlets to get his message out there,” Lovett says. “My guess is traditional campaign managers would say he’s killing himself with this strategy. He says what he thinks. That’s both his appeal and his downside.”
Clinton has used Trump’s own words against him in television ads. “On the margin, I think they’re effective,” Lovett says of the ads. “A lot of what Clinton says about Trump is reinforced by his own statements.”
He adds that Clinton has “some weak spots,” and those have “gotten play for people on the Republican side, too.”
No matter the content of an ad, repetition is key.
“People often forget the source,” Lovett says, “and after many repetitions, they may start to believe the message simply because they keep hearing it.”
‘Every decision they make affects the rest of the world.’
Although international students are not eligible to vote, they have plenty to say about this year’s American presidential election.
We asked several students for their perspectives of the election in general, the presidential debates, and how they view the Trump and Clinton campaigns. Here’s a sampling:
Rafael Muchanga, Jr. ’18
Home country: Mozambique
Major: chemical engineering
“The nominating conventions here provide a great opportunity for voters to get to know each candidate and make a responsible decision. I imagine the U.S. being one of the most powerful countries in the world, and every decision they make affects the rest of the world. If the U.S. is governed by someone with Machiavelli’s sort of power, it will screw up the rest of the world.”
Yashika Patil ’17
Home country: India
“I was shocked to learn the number of people who actually support Donald Trump. I understand that people don’t trust Hillary [Clinton], but I don’t think it is a valid enough reason to support someone so vapid, uninformed, and a tyrant.”
Ruairi Conway ’17
Home country: Ireland
Major: digital media studies
“If I had the right to vote, I would go for Hillary [Clinton]. I know a lot of people don’t trust her, but compared to Trump, she has more specific policies in mind. I think people who vote for Trump vote for his promise of big changes. I can see why people would rather vote for radical change when they’re not happy. But this is not the election to do that.”
Edgar Yau ’20
Home country: Hong Kong
“As an outsider, I think Trump shouldn’t be representing the United States because his views of race, education, and wealth are very distorted. As a U.S. president, what he says embodies the whole country, so this person has to show a certain level of knowledge, but apparently he does not.
“Most of my peers are very liberal so they like Democratic Party more. Even though Hillary [Clinton] is a little bit shady and disingenuous, she shows more caring for the people and the country, and her policies are more progressive.”
Zeqing (Kate) Zheng ’17
Home country: China
Majors: international relations; psychology
“Donald Trump pronounced ‘China’ as ‘Gina’ so many times at the first presidential debate. It is understandable that Trump wants to project an image of China as a threat to the U.S. But at the same time, a lot of the evidence he used to portray China as the big, bad guy is factually incorrect. His false accusations and descriptions are disrespectful to the country itself.”
Woo Tag Kim ’19
Home country: South Korea
“Trump’s foreign policies are really unacceptable to me. We currently have U.S. soldiers based in South Korea to balance the military power from North Korea. If Trump is elected, I’m afraid that the whole U.S. Army will be withdrawn, which does no good to either of us.”
‘Yes you shall have the autograph of the first woman who legally registered and voted in the state of New York.’
Collections in Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation give a voice to the rich history of women’s suffrage.
It is widely recognized that the campaign for the 19th amendment — “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex” — began on July 19, 1848, on the first day of the first women’s rights convention, which took place in Seneca Falls, about one hour from Rochester. Written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Declaration of Sentiments signed at that convention included the grievance, “He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.” What began at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, eventually spread throughout the country as the issue of women’s rights continued to permeate the nation’s consciousness. The activism and activity culminated in the ratification of the 19th amendment, some seventy-two years later.
The collections of the River Campus Libraries’ Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation give voice to this rich history. One of the key collection strengths in the library relates to women’s rights and suffrage. Through letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, broadsides, and banners, the history of women’s suffrage is preserved and made available for research to the University community as well as the community at large.
‘You’re making your voice heard.’
For student leaders, political engagement takes many forms.
There appears to be one category in which University of Rochester students are merely average—that’s when it comes to their political involvement. According to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, eligible University students had a 42 percent voter turnout rate in the 2012 presidential elections. This compares closely with an average 47 percent turnout at private research universities across the United States for the same year.
Unsurprisingly, the 2014 midterm elections elicited far less involvement, with a 13 percent student participation rate as compared to 18 percent nationally.
“It’s important for students to be politically engaged every year, because most University of Rochester students are of an age when they have only recently become eligible to vote and are forming their political opinions,” says Glenn Cerosaletti, assistant dean of students and director of the Rochester Center for Community Leadership. “Their active participation in the democratic process is important for setting the stage for a lifetime of civic involvement.”
Several University students have shared stories about their experiences with the political system and why they think it’s important to be politically engaged.
Alexis Wallace ’18
Hometown: Fort Drum, NY
Majors: Russian and political science
Growing up, Alexis Wallace never remained in one location for very long. Both her parents are family practice physicians in the military. She was born in the state of Georgia, and has lived in Germany, Washington state, Texas, and New York. Wallace says that because she was never truly connected to one place, she was constantly exposed to different political perspectives.
Even though Wallace now serves as the president of the College Democrats, she has never stepped into a polling center.
“My parents always voted absentee because we moved around so much,” she says. “I’ve never actually seen my parents go to vote.”
Wallace works in the Rochester office of Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, and is now considering registering to vote in Monroe County, as opposed to her current hometown.
“It was such a great experience to work for Congresswoman Slaughter–I wish I could cast my vote for her,” Wallace says. “But then, my vote may matter more where my parents are. It’s a very, very conservative area.”
Scott Onestak ’17
Hometown: New Wilmington, PA
Majors: Economics and data science
Like the majority of undergraduates, Scott Onestak has never voted in a presidential election. But he has taken every opportunity to participate in the political process.
Each year at Rochester, he has diligently filled out his absentee voter ballot. This past spring, he was home during the presidential primaries and was able to place his vote at his local polling center.
Onestak is the president of the College Republicans. For the first time in its history, the group chose not to endorse the party’s nominee, Donald Trump. Onestak says the nature of this election has brought up important conversations.
“The dichotomy is quite stark, seeing that we have the two most unliked candidates ever,” he says. “I think the interesting thing is going to be how many people don’t vote for one of the major parties.”
Onestak has been exposed to conflicting political viewpoints since he was young—his family is split along party lines. His father is a Republican and his mother is a Democrat. But studying diverse topics and getting involved at the University has helped refine his political perspective.
“I think college makes you look more critically at issues, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to move one way or another.”
Riva Yeo ’18
Hometown: Chino Hills, CA
Majors: Economics and political science
One issue that drives Riva Yeo’s political activism is feminism.
When she began studying at the University, she got involved in College Feminists. She says it has given her an entirely different perspective on why voting is important.
“As students, we’re told ‘you need to vote because it’s your right and you need to exercise it,’ but there are so many more dimensions that come into play in politics,” Yeo says.
Feminism was important to Yeo even before beginning at the University. When Yeo’s mother was in her late 20s, she immigrated to the United States from China. She’s faced challenges as an immigrant woman, and has been working hard to establish herself ever since.
“Watching my mother has reinforced my commitment to advocating for feminist issues and for political engagement,” Yeo says.
Now, as a member of the Committee for Political Engagement, she hopes to inspire other students to get involved with political issues.
“Talking with people of different viewpoints and learning more about progressive causes like reproductive rights, economic freedoms, and the gender gap are all things that have really resonated with me,” she says. “I think that’s what has shaped and solidified my desire to become active in the political process.”
Alphonse Mugisha ’17
Hometown: Syracuse, NY
Major: Electrical and computer engineering
Alphonse Mugisha immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 11 years old. He was born in Burundi, a small, east African nation, but grew up in a refugee camp in Tanzania. After years of applying, his family was resettled in Syracuse, New York. He attended middle and high school in Syracuse, learning English along the way. Just under two years ago, he was finally able to apply for citizenship.
Even though he has not yet voted, Mugisha has been politically aware for a number of years.
“In 2008 I was in eighth grade, and I had only been in the U.S. for a year,” Mugisha says. “I just remember it was the first time a black person was running for president. When he won, it was really interesting to me that it was such a big deal.”
Now, he’s looking forward to being able to participate in the election as a voting citizen–especially in a year when the candidates represent such distinct political and personal perspectives.
“I think it’s very important to go out and vote even if it may seem that it doesn’t count,” Mugisha says. “You’re making your voice heard.”