Classroom Spotlight: Mercer students meet presidential candidates and make news during class trips

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Mercer students are pictured with Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren in New Hampshire in February 2020.

Mercer students were on the ground and immersed in the action when presidential primary season kicked off earlier this month.

As part of a special topics course on “Presidential Primaries, Communications and the Media,” 15 students traveled to Iowa for the Feb. 3 Democratic caucuses, and another 15 went to New Hampshire for the Feb. 11 Democratic primary. Over five days, students observed and volunteered with political campaigns to get a better understanding of the process. 

The class is supported by Mercer’s Research That Reaches Out program and co-taught by Dr. Chris Grant, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science; Dr. Jay Black, associate professor and chair of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies; and Dr. Kevin Cummings, professor and chair of the Department of Communication Studies and Theatre Arts. The students are political science, communications and journalism majors, and they are tying their experiences into group research projects to be presented at Mercer’s annual BEAR (Breakthroughs in Engagement, Arts and Research) Day at the end of March. 

In Iowa, students got a first-hand look at what happens during presidential caucuses, a process that is not well known, Dr. Grant. In some cases, they served as precinct captains or attempted to persuade voters. 

“It was fascinating to be on the ground at the Iowa caucuses,” Dr. Grant said. “We got this view into this truly Americana moment of politics, where citizens and candidates are individuals and are more on the same level, and citizens are more active in the persuasion,” Dr. Grant said. “Iowa is more at a citizen level where people interact. New Hampshire is the frenzy that you think of with a presidential campaign.”

Dr. Jack Black and Mercer students are shown at a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang in New Hampshire.

ABOVE: Dr. Jay Black (left) and Mercer students are shown at a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang in New Hampshire. MAIN PHOTO: Mercer students get their picture taken with Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren in New Hampshire.

Between the two trips, the class saw most of the major candidates, Dr. Black said. The students were taken aback by how accessible the candidates were and excited to be able to get their pictures taken with them.

“It was (surprising) how excited the candidates were to see their supporters, and how genuine they were,” sophomore Sheridan King said. “They were very patient. They would listen to people’s personal stories.”

The class attended campaign events for Democratic candidates Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang and Republican candidate Bill Weld, Dr. Grant said. 

The Mercer group was part of a crowd of more than 8,000 at a Sanders campaign event in Iowa, which included a performance by indie rock band Vampire Weekend and speeches by Sanders, political activist Cornel West and filmmaker and author Michael Moore. They heard Klobuchar speak at a Super Bowl party, which was an interesting change of pace since most of the other events were held in schools or churches, sophomore Camryn Bierria said. 

“It continues to be a real life-changer for the students when they go on these trips,” Dr. Black said. “The whole process of voting for candidates and primaries, caucuses and general elections – it’s kind of taken for granted. When you’re on the ground meeting the candidates and hearing what they say, it changes the way you see the process.”

The students chose the campaigns they wanted to volunteer with and ended up working with Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, Warren, Wang and Weld.

Mercer students and faculty member Dr. Jay Black (front) are pictured with Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard in New Hampshire in early February.

King, a political science and communication studies major, campaigned for Warren in New Hampshire. She went to the campaign office each day, made phone calls and knocked on doors, and canvassing was her favorite part of the trip. She hopes to have a future in politics, and she enjoyed talking to people and hearing their viewpoints. She said it was refreshing to see how politically aware and active New Hampshire is in its political process. 

“To be on the ground experiencing it, it’s almost like I can’t put it into words. You learn so much being in the atmosphere. You don’t get to see that by watching CNN or discussing it in class,” King said.

Bierria, a media studies major, did phone-banking and canvassing in Iowa for the Warren campaign. She said canvassing was tough since it was very cold in Iowa, but she observed that people were more receptive to talking with her in person than on the phone.

Bierria and her class partner are doing their research project on female candidates and the media. The trip gave them firsthand glimpses of the Warren and Klobuchar campaigns and allowed them to compare how the candidates are portrayed and covered by the media.

“Due to the fact that this will be my first year able to vote, I thought why not do a hands-on class that allows me to see these candidates right before my face and hear them speak,” Bierria said. “Just using your voice is something that I took away from (this experience). Using your voice and using this opportunity to vote is so important.”

A volunteer (right) with the Bernie Sanders campaign shows Mercer students Angel Colquitt and Anisah Muhammad how to canvas during the Mercer class trip to Iowa.

Senior Adam Penland, a political science and communication studies double-major, made phone calls for Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg and also worked with the campaigns for Warren and Weld. Penland, who wants to pursue a career in higher education administration and eventually go into politics, set out to see different strategies being used by different campaigns. He said it was interesting to observe grassroots campaigns and see ideas put to action. 

Mercer students made news a few times while they were on the trips. In New Hampshire, Biden’s response to student Madison Moore’s question, in which he jokingly called her a “lying, dog-faced pony soldier,” was covered by nearly every major media outlet. King said her research group for the class is analyzing how the media covers certain candidates and pits them against each other, and Biden’s comment was one example of how a seemingly minor detail or happening can be a major news story for days.

“During the event, we didn’t see it as a newsworthy event. When you pulled that eight-second bit out of context, it became a different thing than what we experienced,” Dr. Grant said. “You realize how much goes on in the editing and packaging of the story.”

At the same campaign event, Penland said Mercer students were waiting for a photo with Biden and decided to try to get his attention by singing his name to the tune of a well-known Backstreet Boys song. Biden came over to take a photo with them, and footage of the song was featured on TV shows “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Tucker Carlson Tonight” as well as on other outlets. 

In addition, a photo of Bierria and some of her classmates at a Warren campaign event at Iowa State was featured in The New York Times, and footage of Bierria in the audience was included in a promotional video for Warren. Bierria said it was “the biggest thing that has ever happened to her.”

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and Mercer student Sheridan King.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and Mercer student Sheridan King.

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Andrea Honaker