Undergraduate Research in Political Communications
I’ve always been interested in the convergence between politics and mass communication. When I was selected as one of 10 undergraduate students from the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to travel to Iowa for on-the-ground research during the 2020 caucuses, I couldn’t have been more excited.
Under the direction of Professors Daniel Kreiss and Joe Cabosky, our team researched how social identity relates to political beliefs, and how messaging from campaigns shapes the perception of candidates. We spent four days traversing Iowa in February 2020, gathering qualitative interviews with voters about their perception of Democratic presidential candidates and the messaging they recalled seeing in the months prior to the caucus. We attended 10 campaign events for six of the Democratic presidential frontrunners, and spent time in five cities across Iowa.
On caucus night, I attended the first bilingual satellite caucus in Des Moines, Iowa. The energy in the YMCA gymnasium where the caucus was held was palpable. Conversations with attendees revealed that for many, this was the first time Spanish-language voting was an option, and therefore, was the first time they had ever participated in a caucus. While critics say the caucus system is outdated, the experience of watching democracy unfold in front of you is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Unfortunately, the caucuses descended into chaos when an app to tabulate the results crashed, leaving campaigns and the press scrambling to calculate results. We left Iowa without knowing who won, but we quickly decided that we wanted to continue with our research. Three weeks later, we drove to Columbia, South Carolina, to conduct the same qualitative interview-based research with South Carolina voters. Just a few days later, we repeated the process a third time, interviewing North Carolina voters casting their vote on Super Tuesday.
The second half of our research analyzed the ways that campaigns use candidate speeches, rallies, field contacts, ads and social media to speak with particular members of the electorate. We interviewed campaign staffers from each of the major presidential primary races about their messaging and their strategic decisions to target specific groups.
This research study will continue through the fall of 2020. A different team of research assistants will conduct the same qualitative research at the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. After, the results from both semesters will be included in our published findings.