Political campaigns aim of grad degree

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At Florida’s top “boot camp” for wannabe political operatives, students decipher when to launch attack ads and whether it’s wise to duck reporters.

“Did we talk about George W. Bush’s drunk-driving arrest?” asks the professor, Republican political consultant David Wolfson, before arguing that a timed leak may have been the reason Bush lost Maine in 2000.

The 13 students gathered around the conference table are enrolled in the introduction to political campaigning class, part of a two-year master’s program at the University of Florida for would-be political consultants, lobbyists and candidates. By the end of the semester, they will turn in a detailed campaign plan complete with demographics tables, advertising budgets and talking points.

For generations, campaign veterans have passed these tips down in conferences, campaign buses or bars. Most still do.

BOOT CAMP

But as campaigns grow more sophisticated, with voter behavior mapped to block level, more budding politicos are turning to academia, using campaign manuals as textbooks and earning grades for press releases.

“This is what I consider to be the elite boot camp for campaign practitioners,” said Wolfson, who commutes from Tallahassee, Fla., to teach.

Only a handful of universities – George Washington University is best known – offer graduate programs specifically tailored to campaigning. Political professionals often earn degrees in law, statistics or other specialties.

UNIQUE DEGREE

UF’s campaigning degree is distinct in that it combines a grounding in academic theory with practical lessons, said Stephen Craig, a political science professor who coordinates the UF program.

In addition to classes on lobbying, political psychology and campaign finance, UF offers American political development, religion in politics and leadership and ethics.

“The concern about campaigns, I think, has increased in the last 10 years in that campaigns have become more negative, more attack-oriented,” said Richard Olson, chairman of the political science department at Florida International University in West Miami-Dade.

FIU professors, like some others around the country, are drafting plans to start their own master’s program “to raise the public discourse” by adding stronger professional ethics, Olson said.

UF’s 20-year-old program has grown from two or three students a year to groups of 10 or more. Graduates and interns are involved in races around the state this campaign season.

“The network keeps growing with every class,” said Jeremy Taylor, a second-year student.

Taylor interned over the summer for Republican state House of Representatives candidate Doug Holder, whose campaign manager Scott Laster graduated from the program.

WELL-KNOWN GRAD

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz may be its best-known graduate. After earning her master’s in 1990, the Weston, Fla., Democrat became the youngest woman ever elected to the Florida House. It was either a campaigning degree or law school, she said.

“I knew I wanted to run for office one day,” Wasserman Schultz said. “I didn’t necessarily want to practice law.”

Most graduates, including one of Wasserman Schultz’s aides, work in behind-the-scenes political jobs: David Kochman, former spokesman to Democrat Rod Smith in his bid for governor; David Rancourt, a Republican lobbyist and former chief of staff to Gov. Jeb Bush; David Beattie, a Democratic pollster whose clients include Sen. Bill Nelson.

Cory Siansky, 32, completed the UF program in 1997 and relied on 23-year-old student Seth Keller’s help this summer to run his shoestring campaign – a lost Democratic primary bid for the Maryland legislature. Both men used tools learned in the program – from tailoring the door-to-door stump speech to analyzing data returned when the campaign purchased automated “robo-calls” to voters.

“You know, out of the gate, lots of things that don’t work, so you don’t waste any time or money,” Siansky said.

Though campaigns are popular internships for students, many in the program will go on to careers in corporate lobbying, fundraising and issue advocacy.

Craig said those areas have become so important that the political science department has considered changing the program’s name.

HIGHER ETHICS

Polls often show voter distrust with the political process. But Craig and others say that professionalizing the work raises the ethical standard.

“We encourage our students to leave the process – when they leave it – no worse than it was when they found it. Kind of: First, do no harm,” Craig said.

Back in class on a recent Friday, Professor Wolfson asked students why Republican Attorney General Charlie Crist would run negative ads if most polls at the time showed him ahead of Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Davis in the race for governor.

The students debated for a while before one student invoked Democratic strategist James Carville:

“You can’t fight back,” the student said, “if you have a fist in your face.”