Even with Hurricane Isaac now headed away from Florida, Penn students attending the Republican National Convention are still in a whirlwind.
Eight students from “Conventions, Debates and Campaigns,” a communication class co-taught by professors David Eisenhower, Marjorie Margolies and David Thornburgh, are in Tampa Bay, Fla., this week to experience and report the RNC.
Demand for the class, which covers the election season beginning with the conventions and ending in November, was the highest since the class began in 2004. The professors decided to open up the course to more students but made them choose between the two conventions due to a limited number of available passes.
Eight students chose to attend the RNC while 12 will attend the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., next week.
“The student body is more left-leaning, meaning the Democratic party is the party more students identify with,” said College senior Johnny Schaefer, who will attend the DNC.
The idea of the course started in 2000 under the direction of Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Jamieson, with the help of Eisenhower and Margolies, enlisted Annenberg undergraduates and graduate students for research assistance at the conventions.
In 2004, Jamieson left the project and Eisenhower and Margolies turned it into an academic class, and in 2008, partnered with the Fels Institute of Government. Eisenhower is the director of the Institute for Public Service at the Annenberg School of Communication, and Margolies is a Fels professor. More recently, the team was joined by Thornburgh, the director of Fels.
For the fourth time, Penn students have gotten the opportunity to attend the conventions, but this year they have another assignment. The Philadelphia Daily News is relying on the students for convention coverage.
Although the opening of the main convention hall in Tampa was delayed a day due to the weather, Eisenhower, grandson of former President Dwight Eisenhower, described the scene on Monday as “definitely underway” but “a quiet day in terms of news generation.”
Throughout the conventions, the students will be running from breakfasts with state delegations to panels of party leaders.
They have set up camp inside the Bloomberg newsroom, which was made possible by Albert Hunt, Annenberg professor and executive editor at Bloomberg’s Washington Bureau. He is responsible for the “complete access to the Bloomberg news station,” Eisenhower said. “[Hunt] has really helped us here.”
“The professors know everyone so everyone stops to talk to us,” said College senior Coby Lerner, one of the students in Tampa. Lerner chose the RNC because “it’s a more interesting campaign because it’s not an incumbent running.”
He added that it is a very exciting class. “We are in a unique position — we are here as students, we are here as reporters and to a certain extent we are here as guests.”
“We are doing so much,” said Margolies, who is a delegate to the DNC. “Every year we’ve gotten into incredible things, almost [every event].”
“[Eisenhower] handles the Republican side and I handle the Democratic side,” she said, laughing. “It is amazing. If you talk to the students who did it years ago they say it was a life-altering experience.”
College senior Angela McDougall, who is currently in Tampa, wrote in an email that the opportunity allows her “a better understanding of the role of conventions in our political system and its impact on elections.”
Students say the buzz topic at the convention seems to be the intersection of funding and politics.
Delegates at the convention are focusing mainly on the role super PACs play in modern politics and debate over whether money should be tied to political speech.
The students have met many politicians, delegates and reporters, including former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean.
Kean told them that if money is tied to speech, certain people will be excluded from the democratic process. “That was not an official event. We would never have gotten that if we had not just been there talking to him,” Lerner said.
Interactions like this define the class. “The main thing is to be there. Go.” Eisenhower said. “Here we are, and we’ll be back to report on what we’ve found.”