The last two classes in POL 113 (American Government and Politics) here at Wake Forest have been devoted to a voting simulation I like to do in classes to attempt -- and I cannot emphasize that word enough -- to drive home the importance of the rules behind systems of voting. The main idea is that even when your preferences are stable, the outcomes of elections can differ depending on how the vote is conducted.
The first order of business in this exercise is to have everyone to rank order a list of twenty candidates of a variety of partisan backgrounds from 1 (most preferred) to 20 (least preferred). Here's the list (rank away and share in the comments below if you'd like):
_____ Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT)
_____ N.Y.C. Mayor Mike Bloomberg (independent-NY)
_____ Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS)
_____ Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN)
_____ Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA)
_____ Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D-MT)
_____ former N.Y.C. Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R-NY)
_____ former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR)
_____ Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI)
_____ Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH)
_____ Sen. Joe Lieberman (independent-CT)
_____ former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA)
_____ Ralph Nader, consumer advocate (independent)
_____ former Gov. Mark Warner (D-VA)
_____ Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX)
_____ former Secretary of State Colin Powell (R-VA)
_____ former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK)
_____ Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM)
_____ Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA)
_____ Sen. John Thune (R-SD)
Argue if you will about the list. I'm still moderately upset that I didn't include Tim Pawlenty and was questioned in my second class about the relative weakness of the list of Democratic candidates. As I explained -- and I really thought this was a good question -- I could have included Hillary Clinton, but she likely would have won the Democratic nomination repeatedly and ruined the intent of the whole exercise. Ideally, you want to simulate an environment where some "voters" know the candidates and others are uncertain -- it reflects the reality of the first part of the, in this case, presidential nomination process. I wasn't bothered then that no one knew who John Thune was or who Brian Schweitzer was. I did use the latter to illustrate the fact that for the Democratic field of candidates is, by its nature, more difficult to formulate because it requires a crystal ball to see 2016 even remotely clearly. I could have included the president but that is always a no-no, though, with both Republican-laden groups it likely would have been quite fun to them to see the president defeated in an "election" just a year after he'd won the real thing. But when you're doing this you never want a consensus choice because it ruins the exercise.
That is why it is at this point that I like to collect the ballots so that I can make sure that we can avoid this problem. If I see a candidate winning over and over again, the electoral god emerges and strikes said candidate from the ballot. For one class, that candidate was Colin Powell (Apparently this was a group that was not deterred by the former Secretary of State's endorsement of Barack Obama a year ago.) and for the other class it was Mitt Romney. I also looked for who got the greatest number of #20 rankings just for fun. [Any guesses?*] Yet, both only amassed five or six votes out of almost 30 in each class. "Ah, that won't be enough to ruin the exercise."
Famous last words.
On Wednesday, then, I plowed through a single vote plurality election simulation (with all 20 candidates) and a single vote plurality plus runoff. The results? Powell and Romney won. In the case of the former, that was a given. Still, I began to wonder if my decision as electoral god not to strike either one was a mistake. [Well, gods can't make mistakes, but that's an entirely different argument for a blog focused on something else altogether.] So, I figured I would experiment in my first class (the Powell class) this morning and remove Powell from the equation. Well, then we got to a simulated version of our current presidential nomination process. I like to do this in a couple of ways. First, I do a national primary for only registered Republicans and Democrats. This drives home the point that independents can't vote and have no say in the matter until the general election. Inevitably, someone always says, "But I didn't get to vote."
After that, I'll go into a more accurate simulation of our current nomination process. I'll pick someone at random from each party (or ask for volunteers) to be Iowa. Their top three move on. Then I'll select someone to be New Hampshire. From those Iowa three, who are the New Hampshire representative's top two. Everyone else, then, is Super Tuesday and gets to choose from the winnowed field of two candidates. Once you do this a couple of times, it usually makes quite clearly the point that Iowa and New Hampshire have an out-sized impact on the nomination races.
But there was a problem in my first class: Romney (filling in for the now-absent Powell) began gobbling up all the wins (and continued to do so whether we were doing an instant runoff election or through approval voting or with an on-the-fly electoral college** both current and pre-12th amendment). Seeing this after the first go-round of the current nomination process and having Romney come in first in "Iowa" again, I made the rather rapid-fire decision to kill Romney off -- for the sake of the exercise. [Yes, I realize that by killing off "characters" I'm really defeating the purpose of the activity anyway.] Anyway, I concocted the all-too-familiar politician dies in a plane crash story, highlighting it with the joke that no one can lose to a dead guy.
...unless you're John Ashcroft.
Of course, later I wanted to bring Romney back to illustrate the impact of third party candidates. It was then that I said, "Alright, let's pretend that Romney was cryogenically frozen and once they found a cure to his cause of death they brought him back. Now he can participate in elections again."
This was met with silence; well, a split second of it at least. It was in that period of time that I remembered how I had killed Romney off in the first place. But I quickly recovered. "See, isn't it amazing how far medicine has advanced in the time Mitt Romney was gone. Now they can even save you from a horrific plane crash."
Now I bet you're wondering if this was the "fun" you read all this through to the end to find. If you aren't wondering that, you're probably wondering how to 1) get in my classes or 2) how I am teaching in the first place. Hey, I never make American government boring.
...not until I get to frontloading at least.
*It was Sarah Palin. She was by far the most unpopular candidate in both classes. Over a third of the voters ranked her dead last, many among them Republicans. Now, a few weeks ago I did a lunch and talk with a group of College Republicans about the 2010 and 2012 elections and not a single one of them thought Palin would be the nominee. Personally, FHQ doesn't either, but if certain things happen (again the rules), I can see a scenario where the former Alaska governor consolidates enough delegates to win the Republican nomination. I digress only because I held off judgment on this, well, judgment. I didn't want to chalk it up to being a Wake Forest thing. Well, these two classes have brought me closer to that particular judgment. I won't say it is representative necessarily, but if it is, Palin is going to have a very difficult time repeating what Bob McDonnell did the other night in Virginia -- win the youth vote.
**One other thing I learned (actually continued to learn) from all this is that I absolutely cannot do math in front of people. My efforts to add electoral votes on the board were disastrous and that's being nice about it. Part of the problem was that I constructed the electoral college vote distribution at random. I assigned a row of students to collectively be a big state worth 10 electoral votes and then divided up the rest of the individual students as medium states (7 electoral votes) and small states (3 electoral votes). That unnatural distribution always throws me. [God help me when I start doing the new series of maps with the new electoral vote distribution in 2012.] The "big state" in my first class was evenly divided along partisan lines, but the second class big state was comprised all of Republicans. At first the group was calling itself California until the first electoral college vote. Then they said they were South Carolina, to which I added, "Yeah, South Carolina on steroids."
New Jersey, Virginia & 2010
Election Night 2009: Live Blog (ME-ref, NJ-gov, NY-23, VA-gov)
State of the Race: New Jersey Governor (11/3/09) -- Final