The RNC: Politics vs. the Scholarly View

As Margaret Spellings hinted at what to expect from a President McCain, scholars fanned out to record the views of two important players in the Republican political drama: delegates and protesters.
September 3, 2008

As delegates, party insiders and the news media prepared for the first full day of events Tuesday at the Republican National Convention, in St. Paul, a handful of Beltway veterans convened across the river in Minneapolis to discuss how John McCain, if elected, could make his policy agenda a reality.

The participants, all Republicans or McCain advisers, were sanguine about a McCain administration's doggedness in the face of what are sure to be enhanced Democratic majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives. As fans of Ron Paul cheered to honking cars across the street for the former presidential candidate's grassroots Rally for the Republic, the panel, organized by National Journal, sounded realistic about issues on which a Republican president would compromise with the legislative opposition.

Not surprisingly, one of those issues was education -- never the top concern during a presidential campaign, but always lurking in the background, awaiting bipartisan consensus. And there at the "Path to Power" event was Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who contributed a few remarks in support of her party's presumptive nominee and also touched a bit on elements of domestic policy that would form an important part of the candidate's agenda.

She emphasized two requirements to advancing policy priorities: clarity and timing. While observers of higher education, especially, have commented that Democratic nominee Barack Obama's policy proposals have been more specific than McCain's, Spellings countered that claim. "I'm not confused about where John McCain is on education," she said. As for Obama: "Where is he?"

Whoever is elected is likely to have a stance he'll want to pursue, but it will be equally important to have "a great sense of timing," said Spellings -- a trait McCain possesses in spades, she assured the crowd. "Is this the time, is this the moment ... for education bipartisanship?"

Asked about a potential McCain administration's approach to higher education, especially facing a Democratic Congress with a history of passing legislation -- including the recent Higher Education Act reauthorization -- backed by both parties, Spellings replied that the issue was poised to become "the next big thing" for domestic policy. Giving the reauthorization "an incomplete" mark, she added that the current tightening of the student loan market was a potential "teachable moment" for policy makers.

Inside Convention Politics, From the Outside

"One there, one there, one there...."

Kelsey Hippen is making sure she remembers who is filling out the surveys she just handed out to protesters at the antiwar march convened in front of the Minnesota state capitol Monday in St. Paul. It's hard to stand out in a crowd of oversized hats and Obama masks, but Hippen, a junior majoring in psychology at the University of Minnesota, and the rest of her research team have found a way to distinguish themselves: neon green T-shirts with matching neon green clipboards and bags.

Photo: Andy Guess

Kelsey Hippen and other University of Minnesota students tried to stand out in the crowd


"People are associating our shirts with, like, being in the Green Party," she pointed out -- probably not an unusual affiliation in this eclectic crowd of disgruntled veterans, disaffected Democrats and bandanna-clad anarchists.

As the Republican Party was gathering this week to complete its official business and prepare for its first major public-facing presentations, a group of researchers, it turns out, was preparing some work of its own: what they billed as the first comprehensive comparative study of the two major party conventions. Hippen, along with about 40 other students at "the U," as it's affectionately called here, are working for a group of scholars who hope the study will shed light on the internal dynamics of both protest movements and party delegates.

While there's no way to take a perfectly random sample of a large crowd of people, the researchers are relying on the "anchor" method, in which a person who stands out acts as a visual starting point. The researcher then counts five people away from that person in an effort to avoid a bias toward people who automatically capture attention.

"This is a totally unique study in the sense that nobody has ever done this kind of comparison between the two conventions before," said Michael T. Heaney, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Florida. "This study is both an innovative study in the study of political parties and it’s an innovative study in the study of social movements, and it also makes an effort to compare the two."

Heaney and his colleague, Fabio Rojas, an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington, have already made a name for themselves in the burgeoning field of studying what they call "the party in the street." ( Inside Higher Ed profiled their earlier work on the antiwar movement last year.) As Heaney discovered on Monday -- when some of the protesters turned to vandalism and scuffled with police, resulting in almost 300 arrests -- keeping a scholarly ear to the street can pose occupational hazards.

"Unfortunately I was there for that. I was actually pepper-gassed," he said matter of factly. "I was nowhere near any police ... or anything like that, and this big gust of wind came along and just hit me in the face with pepper spray. They were using these large gas canisters to dispense the pepper spray, and apparently they were just dispensing large amounts of it...."

It was, he added, a "pretty hard batch."

The study itself consists of surveys handed out to both protesters and delegates in Denver and St. Paul. The multi-part project will look, in part, at how parties and protesters interact with each other, and the similarities and differences between such activists and party delegates.

For example, Heaney said, "there's a lot of reason to believe there's a lot of similarities between the [Democratic] delegates and [antiwar] protesters at the convention" in Denver. Both groups want to end the war in Iraq, pass universal health care and get George W. Bush out of office, he pointed out. But the groups have different views on how to effect institutional change, views that are themselves malleable and could evolve over the course of the fall campaign in a way Heaney and his colleagues hope to capture.

The study, which has been recommended for an exploratory National Science Foundation grant, was partly conceived during the bruising Democratic primary campaign. As a result, the researchers, including University of Minnesota political science professors Joanne Miller and Dara Strolovitch and political scientist Seth Masket of the University of Denver, will focus on three essential dynamics: the differences among party delegates; the differences between delegates and protesters; and the differences among protesters themselves.

In studying those groups, the scholars are building a theory of how movements interact with party structures. They hypothesize, for example, that social networks, institutional history and a party's culture all contribute to easing or exacerbating tensions between various factions. Are delegates with a more heterogeneous group of associates more likely to let rifts heal, as in the Democratic Party this year? What about those with a longer history in the party? Do those who view the party as "tolerant of diversity" let bygones be bygones?

The Protesters

Photo: Andy Guess

Students for a Democratic Society displayed their banner at Monday's protest

As the researchers and their student helpers painstakingly continued their work, some of the objects of their study were busy as well. College students from around the country flew to the Twin Cities for their protest of choice -- whether the antiwar march on Monday, Tuesday's antiwar events at the state capitol (including an unauthorized performance by Rage Against the Machine, apparently quashed before it could begin) or Ron Paul's rally in Minneapolis (or all of the above).

"I think the Iraq war is significant in the fact that people were protesting it in large numbers [before it even started]," said Brian Chorley, a graduate student in political science at Ohio State University who was volunteering as a marshal at Monday's March on the RNC. "If it’s effective or not I don’t know. It’s gone on for five years and we’re still protesting." Still, he said, it was important for people around the world to know that there are Americans who still care about the issue.

Across a path and helping to hold a Students for a Democratic Society banner, the University of California at Los Angeles senior Sallie Lin flew all the way from the West Coast for the protest. Her reasons? "One is to just be with the masses, to demonstrate our anger with the war and the Republican Party," she said. Plus, "for more selfish reasons," she came to represent Asian-American women who have opinions about politics. Especially for Chinese Americans, said the political science student, there was a tendency to "major in engineering and business" and not to be as socially aware.

"It’s a one-woman thing so far."

Inside Higher Ed's coverage continues tomorrow, and don't forget to follow along on Twitter during the day.


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