In Class, Students Simulate 2020 Election


Sen. Kamala Harris is one of the candidates represented in Ben Wessel’s J-term course Winning Elections.

“Decisions are made by those who show up.” Such is the idea behind representative democracy. The perennial stress of American politics, one could say, is the lack of control and representation, that the government does not listen to us and, when it does, it listens to the masses with whom we disagree. And yet, on occasion, we have the opportunity, one might even say the obligation, to cast our ballots and elect our leaders. Although there is no election in the immediate  future, there is still a current  opportunity to influence the future of our government. 

The students of J-term course Winning Elections, taught by alumnus Ben Wessel ’11.5, are running campaigns for six declared democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential election with the purpose of getting Middlebury students and community members to vote in their straw poll on Jan. 30. The data from this straw poll will be shared with the actual campaigns of each of these six candidates as well as with whomever the students of the course see fit.

Inspired in part by the Supreme Court simulation in political science professor Murray Dry’s Constitutional Law course, Wessel’s course is more than just an educational simulation. “Middlebury,” he says, “is demographically very similar to other critical towns in Iowa and New Hampshire.” This straw poll will provide some of the first data points on how young voters view the democratic candidates. 

“This point in election season is based a lot on the whims of reporters,” Wessel said. “Even if a few people in New Hampshire talk about it, that could have a huge impact.” 

This amplification of young voices, Wessel hopes, will inspire the candidates and their campaigns to take young voters more seriously, giving them data to better focus their outreach to communities like ours. Everyone is highly encouraged to vote:  more votes correspond to more useful and thus more important data collected from the poll.

The course consists of readings and discussions about various aspects of a campaign, calls with people involved in former political campaigns and lots of time for the students to work on their own strategies. Lily Colón ’21.5, co-leader of Kamala Harris’ campaign, said her team is “planning on canvassing the entire college and select parts of town.” They also, “have stickers, shirts and posters to help with name recognition.” 

Wessel mentioned that other teams’ ideas have included playing ads at the Marquis, getting voter commitment cards and running an Instagram account dedicated to their campaign. “Only other young people know how to reach young people,” he said. Campaigns are being run for Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke. When asked about her confidence in her candidate, Colón said: “I think it will be an uphill battle here in Vermont where Bernie is also in the race but I do think Kamala’s policy goals align well with what Vermont needs and so in that aspect I think we have a leg up.”

Early voting begins on Jan. 28 with ballot drop-offs in the McCardell Bicentennial Hall, in town and in Crossroads, among other places. Campaigns may also be collecting ballots outside of Proctor dining hall. On Jan. 30, the voting will be held with ballot collection in Crossroads from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Voting is open to students and Middlebury community members.

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