New course studies the business of politics

In “The Business of Elections” (I60 BEYOND 102), over 70 students examined the 2020 presidential campaign through the lenses of both political science and business. Andrew Reeves, associate professor and associate chair of political science in Arts & Sciences, and Steven Malter, senior associate dean of experiential learning and strategic programs in the Olin Business School, co-taught the course.

The class was part of Beyond Boundaries, an interdisciplinary undergraduate program. In it, first-year students tackle big societal and intellectual challenges over a two-year course of study. About half the class were Beyond Boundaries students and half were other first-year students.

Real-time study of an unprecedented year

As the campaign progressed throughout the fall, students explored the latest developments in class.

“We were living and breathing it along with everybody else, and it was just omnipresent in our discussions,” Reeves says.

Student projects included examinations of a presidential debate, the election outcome, the effect of candidate policy positions on the business sector, and the future of either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party.

The intersection of business and politics

In addition to analyzing the daily grind of the campaign, the course explored the similarities between business theory and political science. Malter and Reeves compared building a coalition of voters to building a customer base. Where political scientists might consider the effectiveness of get-out-the-vote strategies, entrepreneurs examine return on investment and market share. This analogy was evident during the 2020 campaign, they concluded.

“There were times when it was evident the president was just worried about his base and wasn’t looking to expand the market share,” Malter says, comparing that approach to Apple only focusing on existing iPhone users instead of finding new customers.

Studying campaigns as startups

One of the class goals was to help students understand that the entrepreneurial mindset can apply to a wide variety of endeavors, including social ventures, nonprofits, medical practices and even campaigns.

“A startup is going to produce a product, whether it be toothpaste or an app. What does that product look like from the perspective of a campaign? It’s an elected official who’s going to run the country potentially,” Reeves says.

The challenges of teaching during COVID-19

COVID-19 moved the course online and forced Malter and Reeves to rethink their plans, including hosting the election night watch party on Zoom. However, their biggest concern was connecting with students.

“These are first-year students,” Reeves says, “and the most frustrating part was to not be able to be with them in the same room.”

“But I think we were both really surprised because we had an incredibly engaged class for being 100% virtual,” Malter says. They credited their three teaching assistants with making it possible to have meaningful dialogues with students in the Zoom breakout rooms.

A silver lining to virtual classes is the ability to bring in speakers from across the country, such as a Florida pollster and a policy adviser to previous presidential candidates.

Looking to the future

Malter and Reeves believe the course was a success and look forward to teaching it again.

“I think everyone really enjoyed it,” Malter says. “It was a unique approach to traditional topics.”

They also look forward to meeting someday.

“Steve and I have no idea how tall each other are — we’ve never been in the same room together,” Reeves laughs.

Julie Kennedy is a senior editor for Washington University’s Office of Public Affairs.

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