Political campaigns class lets students make the tough decisions

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Time. Money. People. Ideas. 

Visiting University of Iowa Adjunct Instructor Joseph Gaylord says these are the only resources any candidate has to work with when managing a successful political campaign.

And, with 45 years of political experience under his belt, he’s an excellent resource.

Gaylord, a UI alumnus, stepped into his Building and Managing Winning Political Campaigns (POLI:3701) course this semester after having served on the National Republican Congressional Committee for eight years, working as senior counselor to Newt Gingrich when he was Speaker of the House, and starting his career with the Republican State Central Committee in Iowa.

During this class, Gaylord emphasizes the five key elements of a winning campaign: the candidate, organization, adequate finances, a believable contrast with the opponent, and a base of support on which to build.

“Winning campaigns do not rise like a phoenix out of the ashes—there is some sort of rock that they’re built on. What is that rock? It can be geography, it can be demographic, or it can be ideas,” Gaylord says, as he explains the importance of campaigning to a candidate’s base.

Using personal anecdotes from his work on several successful political campaigns, Gaylord then talks to his students about sources of information—such as polling, personal research, focus groups, and media testing—that can inform a campaign strategy, messaging, and tactics.

"You need to do personal research on your candidate, and you need to find out if everything your candidate says about himself or herself is true," Gaylord says. "Invariably, in every election that goes on in every state, there's someone who has misled people based on their biography of what it is they have said they have accomplished."

As a project for the week, Gaylord then challenges his students to develop a strategy, message, or plan for a model political campaign. Though the circumstances involve a fake mayoral election in a made-up city (Normal, Missouri) with made-up candidates (Marcia Zing and Roger Wiley), the challenges each candidate faces are very real. Zing, for example, is trailing in the polls, while Wiley is working to downplay several scandals from his first term. 

Students in the course—whose areas of study range from political science and communications to finance data analysis—are encouraged to tailor their final projects to their strengths. A communications student, for example, may plan an opening statement for their candidate’s debate, while a finance student may choose to approach the project by planning a budget for the last month of their candidate's campaign.

Ultimately, Gaylord says he hopes this course will encourage his students to be more civically engaged, and even consider a career in politics.

“I hope that after this course, you have a feel for campaigns and would like to think about doing something in the political world,” Gaylord tells his students. “I think it’s a great occupation, it’s a great vocation, and I think being involved in politics is not only exhilarating and fun but can also do a great deal of difference in the lives of people in this country.”