In 2011, the cable television network C-SPAN was so interested in University of New Hampshire political science professor Andrew Smith’s presidential primary course that it broadcast one of the classes nationally.
This presidential cycle, UNH plans to extend a presidential primaries course beyond the halls of ivy, using advanced Internet technology to offer its first Massive Open Online Course.
Starting in the fall of 2015, political buffs around the nation will get a chance to comb through the state’s first-in-the-nation tradition.
Smith will be joined by fellow political science professor Dante Scala to design and co-instruct the course.
“There are a large number of people across the country who are quite interested,” Scala said. “Obviously the presidency is very important and important for citizens to understand how we pick them, and why the way we choose them now is better or worse than the way we did it 100 years ago, when the political elite chose the candidates.”
The class will cover all the action in New Hampshire. While each election has its own special dynamic, this cycle is unique because there’s a strong possibility of a major political party nominating a female to be its leader, the professors said. Hillary Clinton leading the Democratic party could single out the 2016 election. On the Republican side, historically the party has its leading candidate lined up —usually the next leading person from the cycle before.
“This time, the battle is truly wide open in a way it normally isn’t,” Scala said.
While the course will focus on current events, it will also dive into the history and political theory surrounding the primaries with topics like how the process evolved, how New Hampshire came to be the first primary state, and the roles of the media, activists, voters and money in elections.
“It will address the question of its role in the larger process of how we as Americans pick our president. … That involves not just looking at New Hampshire and its primary, but its role in the larger scheme of things in the whole presidential process.”
The course also will be an opportunity to debunk some myths and misconceptions about the state’s primaries. Both Scala and Smith said there are certainly a few. People tend to think that New Hampshire holding first-in-nation status is relatively new because it wasn’t prominent in the media until the latter half of the 20th century, Scala said. Actually, the tradition stretches back a century.
Smith, who recently co-authored a book about the New Hampshire primary, dedicated a whole chapter to myths, and he’ll be dissecting those in the MOOC too.
“There are a lot, both created within state and perpetuated by national media,” he said. “Each have a little kernel of truth.”
For instance, people think the primaries bring an enormous amount of money to the state, but they don’t, he said. Another myth: New Hampshirites actually go out and see multiple candidates. Polling shows that, really, about 20 percent of the public attends candidate events, and usually they are only going to one. The notion that New Hampshire residents are really engaged in the election isn’t quite true, Smith said.
“We do have high turnout, but it’s because we have millions and millions of dollars of advertising and campaigning here,” he said. “We tend to have a higher turnout than other states, but in 2008, California had higher turnout, which shows that if you have an actual campaign, people will come out and vote.”
Still, the course, which will be offered online, possibly for free, to a local and national group of political buffs, has been popular amongst UNH students in the past.
Smith has offered the class to students every four years for the last three election cycles. It brings in political heavy hitters and encourages students to get involved in campaigns. Because of the first-in-the-nation status, UNH students have a leg up if they want to jump start their political careers, Smith said.
“You think of Sen. [Jeanne] Shaheen, who got started in primary politics. Gov. John Sununu went on to become the president’s chief of staff because of his role in the primary. George Bruno and Terry Shumaker became ambassadors because of their involvement in primaries. So there is opportunity to get very significant placement in national politics because of the primary.”
Of course, such hands-on opportunities won’t be available via the online format, but Smith and Scala are already beginning to lock down a host of speakers, including people running the campaigns in New Hampshire, political scientists and former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic nominee for president Michael Dukakis, who will speak about his campaign experience.
Many of the details of the class will be worked out in the months to come. It’s not clear yet whether there will be a fee, or how technology will allow for interaction.
Scala and Smith conceived the idea of co-instructing the course after the UNH President’s Office asked members of the UNH community to brainstorm ideas about what the university could do to get involved with the upcoming primaries, said Mica Stark, vice president president for public affairs at UNH.
“Every cycle we try to host as many candidates as we can on campus,” he said. “In the past, we have also hosted presidential debates. Looking forward to 2016, [UNH] President [Mark] Huddleston is very eager to make sure we are active around the primary.”
“We hope [the online class is] going to be for all those political junkies out there nationwide who get their fix on cable TV every night and follow politics avidly,” Scala said. “We hope it will be part of their news diet, so to speak, in 2015, right alongside reading Politico and watching Fox or MSNBC.”
As seen in the June 12, 2014 issue of the Hippo.