October 14, 2020

On the day before this year’s Vice Presidential Debate between Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, a class filled with Catholic University students gathered on Zoom to learn about the history of the vice presidency and the role the office has played strategically and historically in presidential elections. The discussion was part of “National Elections,” a course that has been taught by Politics Professor John Kenneth White during every presidential election cycle since 1996. 

The goal of the course, White says, is to help students become “astute, objective observers and analysts of existing political trends.” Rather than simply relying on their own opinions of candidates’ merits and weaknesses, White says he wants students to understand objectively the polling data and political strategies within the context of U.S. history. 

“One of our goals as a liberal arts institution is to teach students to think clearly, to write well, and to be able to analyze,” White said. “This class allows us to take the maximum advantage of our location, by getting the very best analysts that we can to come in and answer student questions, and demanding that students be sharp and engaged. I think they come out of the course with a greater ability to understand politics as sharp consumers.”

As part of the course, White brings in guest speakers from political think tanks and organizations around the Washington, D.C. area. Speakers this year have included FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub; Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report; and John Stipicevic, chief advocacy officer for the CGCN Group, among others. 

White also assigns students to write op-ed articles about topics related to the election and submit their finished pieces to local newspapers for possible publication. 

“Writing 800 to 1,000 words takes time and you’ve got to hone your thoughts and the points you’re going to make and describe the evidence that backs it up,” White said. “It helps to sharpen their thinking in a way that I think is helpful and the students are so pleased when something gets published.” 

Junior politics major Benjamin Kelley has already had two op-eds published, including one in Medium entitled “The Dying Impact of Vice Presidential Candidates.” Kelley said he decided to enroll in the course to learn more about how polling data works and what life is like on the campaign trail. 

“I had my opinions of who I liked before, but there was a lot I didn’t know about how to analyze what was going on objectively,” Kelley said. “With this class, I’m still able to look at the election through my own biases, but I can now put on a different hat and analyze the polls and public opinion without getting my feelings involved.” 

Kelley said he has also enjoyed the various speakers who have come to class to talk about their careers. 

“We’ve had Democratic analysts, Republican analysts, and nonpartisan people,” Kelley said. “It’s been memorable to bring in those experts in the field to share real world experiences.”

Senior politics major Julia Tyrie said she wanted to participate in the course to learn about the election from an objective perspective. 

“This is arguably the most consequential election in U.S. history and being able to look at it from an objective perspective is so important,” she said. “I’m now able to study the candidates not just based on party, but their actual policies and what they stand for.” 

Tyrie said she’s enjoyed learning about past elections to understand how the political landscape has shifted over the years and become more polarized.

“I enjoy studying the past to learn about the present and how to apply it to the future,” Tyrie said. “History seems to always be repeating itself and if we learn more about it, hopefully we can prevent some of the troubles we’ve faced before.” 

For White, one challenge of teaching a course on the presidential election is not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. 

“In any other undergraduate course, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end and you know where to start, what to cover, and when to finish,” he said. “With this, we knew the beginning of the class, we’re in the middle now, and no one can know for certain where we’re going to go next.” 

Though he is unsure of exactly what events will transpire in the remaining weeks of the election season, White says he’s looking forward to discussing it all with his students. By the end of the semester, he hopes students will be able to analyze everything that happened, leading up to the election results. 

“My goal is to train them to be professional election analysts,” he said. “They should be able to objectively look at the election and offer an analysis that would rival anything you can see on television or in print.”

Katie Bahr, Assistant Director of Media Relations and Communications. Bahr can be reached at bahr@cua.edu.