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Students Campaign for Credit

By Sarah Keightley
Associate News Editor

In this year of debates, scandals, and primaries, students may find it hard to understand what really goes on during the presidential election process. Presidential Elections (17.269) helps solve this problem. The class gives students an "inside look" at campaigning by having them work "in the trenches," according to course instructor Charles Stewart III, associate professor in the Department of Political Science.

To fulfill one of the course's requirements, students must volunteer for a presidential candidate's campaign. Students may work for the candidate of their choice, Stewart said. From the first week of classes until March 10, the date of the Massachusetts primary, students spend 10 hours a week working for their candidate's primary campaign. Students work in Boston and New Hampshire, Stewart added.

This field work sets the class apart, he said. Students go through "unique experiences" and are encouraged "to get involved in the campaign as well as see the academic side" of the election process.

About 20 students are currently enrolled in the class, and Stewart said they enjoy it. "MIT, as you know, is a tension-packed place. The course gives students with a political interest a chance for direct political participation, and students appreciate that."

One class member, Seema Jayachandran '93, is working for Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's campaign. She has worked in Clinton's Boston office, calling voters in New Hampshire. She has also handed out videotapes door-to-door there, and participated in rallies in both Boston and New Hampshire.

"At least in New Hampshire, there's a lot of grass roots campaigning going on," Jayachandran said. The level of this grass-roots efforts surprised Jayachandran because her previous knowledge of campaigning had come only through debates, newspapers, and television advertisements.

She participated in an event in Nashua, N.H., where supporters of different presidential candidates stood, holding placards, on the four corners of the city's main streets. Jayachandran found waving the placards at passing cars the "most preposterous thing. People would roll down their windows and honk -- it was really fun."

Jayachandran said there are a great number of college students involved in campaigning, and on the bus to Nashua, approximately 90 percent of the participants were college students. She said many were in law school or wanted to go to law school, which made her feel out of place. People seemed to think it was "less admirable" if you were volunteering because of a class, she added.

Brooks C. Mendell '93, another student in the class, enjoys volunteering for former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas' campaign because "there's a lot of action," mainly because Tsongas' national headquarters is in Boston. Mendell said he has done some data entry, made telephone calls to New Hampshire, contacted a few Congressmen, and organized mailings.

"It's been mostly getting stuff ready to be mailed out [and] getting people on the phone." Mendell said that he sometimes works more than 10 hours a week by choice.

"I learned that the whole election, the whole campaign, is about moving people, keeping people aware, and reminding people. It's not as issue-oriented or candidate-oriented as it seems," Mendell said. "Tsongas has a good message, but without a good staff, it wouldn't happen."

More Democrats in class

Stewart said there are more Democrats in the class right now. It is "not that much of a horse-race" for the Republicans, at the moment. Four years ago the class was more balanced between Republican and Democratic students, he added.

In 1988, when this class was last offered, the students working for the Dukakis campaign were quite fortunate because Dukakis' national headquarters was in Boston, Stewart said. These students were "on the inside," Stewart said, citing students who were in what he called the "boiler room" during the night of a national debate. They saw campaign advisers typing the responses Dukakis should have given, he added.

Stewart said he is sure other universities offer similar classes, but added that "it's really kind of unusual."

Stewart came to MIT in 1985 and taught a course similar to 17.269 in 1986, during the Congressional elections. "In 1986 MIT students were a significant part of the campaign of the Republican candidate," he said.

The course is offered in both the spring and fall of election years. Students taking the course in the fall semester will be volunteering during the general election, working for either the Republican or the Democratic nominee's campaign.