Skip to content

Politics and Scholarship Can Mix

Anyone who’s ever taken a college political science class knows that the academic study of politics and the world of professional politics often don’t mix well.

For 25 years, American University professor James Thurber has been trying to change that. His most recent attempt involves the third edition of “Campaigns and Elections American Style: Transforming American Politics,— which he edited. Thurber thinks the book’s series of essays by academics and campaign professionals will stand out in the canon of literature about the 2006 and 2008 elections.

“I think it’s unique,— he said. “There’s a lot of academic books and others coming out about the 2008 campaign, but this one will have some shelf life because it gives at least two audiences some knowledge.—

The book, edited by Candice J. Nelson along with Thurber, is a series of 13 essays about topics such as “Creating a Winning Campaign Strategy— (by Republican strategist David Winston) and “The Selling of the President in a Converged Media Age.—

In Thurber’s introductory essay, “Understanding the Dynamics and the Transformation of American Campaigns,— he explains the basic premise of the worlds that the book merges.

“Academics use explicit hypothesis and scientific methods for making systematic observations about campaigns and elections, whereas professionals draw generalizations based on direct experience,— he writes. “Campaign consultants test hypotheses’ by winning and losing elections.—

Each chapter is paired by topic, with one essay written by a campaign professional and one by an academic to “confront each other’s perspectives,— according to the introduction.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this book is that, in contrast to many books written about political campaigns, it is utterly readable. The chapters by professionals manage to avoid being weighed down by jargon, and the chapters by academics are not too inaccessible.

Another major theme of the book, in addition to the marriage of practical and academic politics, is the changing nature of campaigns as the world moves more and more into the digital age.

“There’s been an evolution,— Thurber said. “There’s been an evolution every cycle, especially this cycle.

Thurber said that he wrote his first article about campaigns and the Internet in 1998, and that the use of the Internet by the Obama campaign in the 2008 election was fascinating. The Obama campaign used the Internet well, Thurber said, both “from the campaign to others and from others to the campaign.—

This theme is addressed in Leonard Steinhorn’s chapter about selling the president.

Steinhorn, a communications professor at American University, connects the 2004 viral marketing of the Toyota Scion to the online campaign waged by the Obama campaign, saying both found new ways to connect with the always-elusive young people. He cites 2008 as a landmark year for new media and campaigns.

“This emerging new media behemoth thrust itself into the 2008 presidential campaign in unprecedented ways,— he writes. “Even before the nation focused on the general election, nearly half of all Americans, 46 percent, used the internet, email, or mobile phone text messaging to get news about the campaign and to share political thoughts with others.—

The essays of “Campaigns and Elections American Style— may sometimes seem like a retelling of material that has been discussed for the past year, but its unique pairing of academic thought and professional experience make it an interesting read for anyone involved in campaigns.