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Students, alumni, faculty became immersed in campaign season

President Barack Obama and Zach Koutsky/Sen. Marco Rubio and Mark Reyna

Left: Zach Koutsky with President Barack Obama. Right: Mark Reyna with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

The campaign season holds the attention of the nation as it eagerly waits to see who will shape the next four years. But for Department of Politics and Government students, alumni, and faculty, campaign season is a time to gain experience, put practices to use, and collect valuable data for future research.

Koutsky enlists to re-elect Obama

Barack Obama’s bid for re-election was not the first time Zach Koutsky ’06 helped pave the road to the White House. Koutsky first began campaigning for Obama when he ran in the 2003 primaries and was also there when Obama ran for president the first time. Obama’s bid for re-election in 2012 saw him again working long hours far from friends and family to affect the outcome of the election.

“People who work in a presidential campaign do it for more,” Koutsky said. “You do it because you believe in the person and the cause. You want to have your moment in history—we are electing the president of the United States, and you want to be a part of it. I believe in him as a person. I wanted to make sure that that was protected.”

Koutsky took off what would have been his final semester in grad school and headed to North Carolina as GOTV (get-out-the-vote) director. There he was instrumental in the final phase of the election, coordinating numerous initiatives in the field to get people out to vote. He organized eight departments and hired 20 regional staff members who were then placed throughout North Carolina. The team then handled project logistics for the entire state, making sure the right materials were in the right locations and building relationships between departments that had, up until that point, stayed focused on their specialized areas.

During the final days of the campaign, 18-hour days are a norm as time and resources are scarce.

“If you’re a campaign junkie, these are your greatest days,” Koutsky said. “You have your greatest stories, and legends are made.”

After the campaign season ended, jubilant over Obama’s re-election, Koutsky began the process of picking up where he left off in his own life.

“After the campaign you try to put your life back together,” Koutsky said. “My friends and family know that I drop off the face of the earth during a campaign. I am going back to school, but a lot of people go right into the job search.”

Koutsky will finish work at the University of Illinois–Chicago on his master’s in urban planning and policy, with a focus on economic development. He hopes to put his political inclinations and policy background to use working for state, county, or city government.

Reyna learns valuable lessons on the Romney campaign team

If you ask Mark Reyna, a senior in the Department of Politics and Government, why he chose to serve as a coalition coordinator for the Romney campaign, he’ll give you one word—passion.

“I believed in Romney and everything he stood for,” Reyna said. “I felt like he needed to win. The job was amazing and the pay was great, but I did it more just for passion.”

After being selected as the last coalition coordinator for Iowa, Reyna was forced to learn a lot quickly. Reyna was placed in charge of veterans, sportsmen, and Hispanics—three groups that he worked well with due to his own background as a member of the Army National Guard, his interests as a sportsman, and his having a Hispanic heritage. He immediately got to work and built his coalition from the ground up, organizing groups to knock on doors, make phone calls, attend events, write letters to the editor, and host fundraisers.

“It was a lot of planning, a lot of events, and a lot of person-to-person contacts,” Reyna said.

Reyna relished the opportunity to work with congressmen, senators, and governors. One event saw him introduce Congressman Paul Ryan to a crowd of more than 4,000 at a rally in Sioux City, Iowa.

One of the greatest challenges of his work came on Election Day. Reyna and other staffers were running circuits through counties in Iowa, checking in with auditors, and making sure no issues had surfaced with ballots or machines. It was a fast-paced day in what was anticipated to be a swing state.

As numbers came rolling in for the nation, anticipation began rising for Reyna and the other Romney staffers.

“We were told that there could be a recount and had been told the night before to have a bag packed,” Reyna said. “We were all ready to wait for the word to get on a bus to go to head to a charter plane for Florida or Ohio.”

Finally at 11:30 p.m., Reyna received the call. It was over.

“That was the worst feeling in the world, Reyna said. “You put everything into something and get nothing.”

Though the election did not end the way Reyna had hoped, he still realizes that he was able to be a part of something important.

“It was the best experience I have had so far,” he said.

Reyna will finish his degree in May and will seek a position as a political consultant. The background he obtained from Illinois State, along with the opportunities he enjoyed while working on the Romney campaign, will give him the tools he will need to succeed well into the future.

Election season presents opportunity for teaching and research

Assistant Professor Carl Palmer began his first semester on the Department of Politics and Government faculty by immersing his students in the campaign season. Palmer’s class on Voting in Elections gave students a look at the history of voting and the intricacies of the voting process. This knowledge gave students the background to examine how people vote and make up their minds.

Carl Palmer headshot

Carl Palmer

“The biggest thing students take away is that there is far more going on than they thought,” Palmer said. “It is eye opening to see the psychology of the decisions that they and other people are making.”

Teaching the course during the campaign season let Palmer discuss a concept in class and then show concrete examples of how candidates, pundits, and the media were employing those concepts. But there was also a hands-on component to the class.

Students participated in React Labs: Educate, an academic research project being conducted by Amber Boydstun of the University of California–Davis, and Rebecca Glazier of the University of Arkansas–Little Rock, blending technology and politics with the help of laptops and smart phones. During debates, student logged in to a specially created app and gave feedback throughout, specifying “agree,” “disagree,” “spin,” or “dodge,” based on how they felt candidates were performing. Periodically students were also posed questions such as, “Which candidate do you prefer at the moment?” Student responses from across the nation were compiled into a database. Students were then able to see how their peers reacted to the debate and discuss the reactions in class.

“Students try to be very objective during discussions,” he said. “But when partisan views do emerge we can use their views to foster debate and discussion.”

The campaign season also presented opportunities for Palmer’s own research, which examines how personal characteristics and predispositions interact with social stimuli to shape political behavior.

“Understanding how people respond to appeals is useful for political figures,” Palmer said. “It also allows citizens to have a better sense of how politicians are appealing to them. People can become more sophisticated consumers of political media and make more balanced decisions.”