Teaching the 2016 Election: Battle for Control of the U.S. Senate

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

In most presidential election years, we pay abundant attention to the battle for the leader of the free world, with good reason. In 2016, with both major party nominees historically unpopular, it’s quite possible that record numbers of voters will choose to sit this election out. That’s unfortunate for a number of reasons, including the other contested contests down the ballot, the battle for control of the U.S. Senate in particular.

Republicans currently hold a 54-46 seat majority in the Senate. This is of course short of the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture to break a filibuster, but enough for control of the body and its committees. One-third of Senate seats are contested every two years, and 34 of them are at stake in 2016, 24 currently occupied by Republicans.

Therefore, Democrats need only a net gain of 5 seats to retake the majority, or 4 should Hillary Clinton win the White House and her Vice President Tim Kaine be positioned to break the 50-50 tie in the Democrats’ favor.

Of the 34 seats in play, Republicans are a strong bet to win 11 of them. They are likely to hold three others, and two (Arizona and Missouri) lean in their direction. By contrast, Democrats have a strong grasp on eight seats and are likely to keep a ninth. Only one Democratic seat (Nevada) is in the toss-up category, while eight Republicans seats are in peril, including Senator Mark Kirk’s in Illinois.

Kirk is perhaps the most vulnerable Republican incumbent given the dark blue hue of Illinois in presidential years paired with Donald Trump’s unpopularity in the population-heavy Chicago area. He has unendorsed Trump and expressed his intention to write in either retired Generals Colin Powell or David Petraeus instead.

Kirk is among the most centrist members of the Republican caucus, but has drawn a formidable Democratic opponent in Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth. A disabled veteran that has long drawn the favor of Democratic Party stalwarts like Illinois’ other Senator, Dick Durbin, Duckworth is well-positioned to reclaim Barack Obama’s former seat.

Thus far, the race has been dominated by a barrage of personal insults, with both candidates attempting to associate the other with disgraced members of their own parties (Trump for Kirk and Blagojevich for Duckworth). Duckworth has gone so far as to suggest that Kirk has tempermental issues, perhaps resulting from a stroke he suffered earlier in his term. The closest we’ve come to an actual issues discussion has been around the Iran nuclear agreement (Duckworth supports and Kirk opposes) and the Obama Administration’s plan to welcome refugees from Syria (Duckworth initially called for an even larger number).

All told, control of the Senate may well come down to the Midwest, with Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania each joining Illinois in the toss-up category. It is one of many reasons why the 2016 Election is consequential and reason for sustained interest and participation.

Teaching the 2016 Election: The Electoral College, Part II

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar and Barb Laimins, Teacher Mentor Liaison

Teacher Mentor Liaison Barb Laimins has compiled a number of links and lesson plans to assist you in bringing the Electoral College into your classroom.

From the top, the National Archives provides additional background information on the Electoral College.

In this lesson, students examine the purpose, function, origin, and historical development of the Electoral College in order to gain a better understanding of how Americans elect the President. They then evaluate issues of fairness and representation with regard to the Electoral College. Finally, students participate in a class debate over the pros and cons of the current system.

Similarly, Gilder-Lehrman designed this lesson to explore how the Electoral College system functions in determining who will be the president and vice president of the United States. Students respond to a series of prompts and are ultimately asked to weigh in via a short essay on whether the Electoral College should be retained or replaced by the national popular vote.

C-SPAN produced these video clips describing the Electoral College process, possible scenarios, a general overview, and once more arguments for and against its continuation.

Debates abound on the continued utility of the Electoral College, and a series of lesson plans engage students in them. Formats vary from a constitutional convention to pro/ con debates. The three links that follow provide supportive texts for the latter purpose:

Speaking of Electoral College scenarios, this New York Times article shows and contextualizes the electoral map over the past half century. And the website 270towin is essential to simulating the various scenarios where Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or a third party candidate could prevail this fall. Based on polling data aggregated by the wizards at FiveThirtyEight.com, the picture below provides a snapshot on the state of the race today, projecting state-by-state winners and corresponding Electoral Votes.


Click the map to create your own at 270toWin.com

Teaching the 2016 Election: The Electoral College, Part I

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

We close our look at the presidential race this week with further exploration of the Electoral College. Its origins are rooted in the Founding Era as our Framers sought the proper republican balance between a popularly elected president and excessive democracy. Thus was born a system where citizens don’t directly select their president, but instead vote by proxy through electors representing each state (and eventually the District of Columbia).

Each state is awarded an elector for every House and Senate member in its delegation, meaning a minimum of three. California tops the charts with a whopping 55 electoral votes. With 435 House members, 100 Senators, and 3 electors for D.C, there is a combined total of 538 electoral votes. Thus, in order to win the White House, a candidate must accumulate 270 or more votes.

With the exception of two states, the candidate that wins the popular vote takes all of its electoral votes. For example, the most recent poll of the presidential contest in Illinois shows Hillary Clinton with a 51%-32% lead over Donald Trump. Should this trend continue to November, Clinton would win the state’s 20 electoral votes.

In Maine and Nebraska, the statewide winner gains the two electoral votes representing their senators, but the remaining votes are awarded by congressional district. It is no coincidence that Clinton has campaigned in Omaha in an attempt to steal an electoral vote from an otherwise “red” state.

This speaks to the broader calculus of campaigning with the Electoral College in mind. It makes no sense to target states that regularly side with one party or the other, but instead to capture the so-called swing states. On the map below, the dark blue states have voted Democratic in at least 6 straight elections, and the red states Republican. Democrats claimed the three blue-green states 5 of 6 times, as did Republicans the five pink states. The true swing states are thus the two that have gone Democratic (light blue) or the seven Republican (buff) 4 of 6 times respectively, and Colorado and Florida that have split evenly between the two parties.


Current polling suggests that Clinton is leading in every one of them and has thus expanded her map to include Republican-leaning states like Arizona and Georgia. Trump’s path to 270 has a decidedly Midwestern bent, with Pennsylvania and Ohio being must-wins, and Iowa and Wisconsin also in play.
In a two party, first-past-the-post political system, it is mathematically possible for a candidate to win the popular vote and lose the Electoral College. It happened four times, most recently in 2000. Also possible is a 269-269 tie or a third party candidate winning one or more states and placing a roadblock in the path to 270. In this scenario, the House of Representatives would decide the outcome as it did in 1800 and 1824, with each state delegation having a single vote.

On Wednesday we’ll review lesson plans and links to resources that effectively bring the Electoral College to your classroom.

Teaching the 2016 Election: Money in Politics, Part II

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar and Barb Laimins, Teacher Mentor Liaison

On Monday, we framed the issue of money in politics from both the perspective of both the First Amendment and its impact of democratic governance. We return today with a plethora of trusted resources to teach the complicated, yet critical subject of campaign finance in the context of the 2016 Election.

The Sunlight Foundation’s OpenSecrets.org has long been our go-to site for information on fundraising and expenditures for federal candidates. It offers a run-down of federal races by state, including Illinois’ Senate contest between the incumbent Senator Mark Kirk (R) and his challenger Tammy Duckworth (D, IL-8).

In clicking on any of the contested congressional races (i.e., IL-10), OpenSecrets provides real-time data on money raised, spent, and current cash on-hand. It also includes a report on outside expenditures intended to affect the outcome of the race, distinguishing by the ideological bearing of the group and whether the spending is supportive of a candidate, in opposition to his or her opponent, or both.

Specific to the presidential contest, the Washington Post has produced this powerful infographic on Clinton vs. Trump in head-to-head money raised.

Used with permission from the Washington Post. See the full article

OpenSecrets’ companion in Illinois is the Sunshine database published by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR). Most useful in this election cycle is the side-by-side candidate comparisons for candidates in competitive legislative races (plus the special election for Comptroller). We also recommend signing up for weekly emails from ICPR as they further mine campaign finance data and account for weekly cash flows.

Framing the issue of campaign finance more broadly, PBS developed the following inquiry for students to explore “How Americans can achieve genuine campaign finance reform without jeopardizing freedom of expression?”

Similarly, CSPAN employs video clips demonstrating various perspectives on campaign finance reform as students develop their own views. And this extension delves into the infamous 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Case Citizens United v. FEC.

Probing further in the post-Citizens United universe, the New York Times created this lesson on the Super PAC’s the decision spawned, utilizing a structured academic controversial framed around the question: “Should wealthy individuals and organizations be allowed to engage in unlimited spending to influence elections?”

Teaching the 2016 Election: Money in Politics, Part I

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

In the modern era, running for public office is at least partly dependent on one’s ability to raise campaign contributions through an extensive donor base or independent wealth. There’s an adage that while campaign finances may not help win elections, the lack of them likely yields a loss. Given the assumption in political science that elected officials are primarily motivated in keeping their jobs, “dialing for dollars” is a daily duty in what has arguably become a permanent campaign.

The desirability of this practice is debatable, as is the extent to which money in politics tarnishes our institutions and the public policy outcomes they produce.

Are campaign donations:
  1. A means to support candidates that align with our ideological goals
  2. A means to gain access to elected officials upon gaining or sustaining office
  3. An implicit means of purchasing preferred policy outcomes
  4. All of the above
These questions are entangled in an ongoing debate over the meaning of the First Amendment vis a vis campaign contributions. Political speech garners of the utmost protection among First Amendment freedoms, but do campaign donations qualify as such? A previous majority on the U.S. Supreme Court answered in the affirmative, but the future is very much in question after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and the likelihood that the next president will have multiple vacancies to fill.

The dissenting view fears that democracy is for sale to the highest bidder. They therefore favor placing campaign donations on par with commercial advertising, meaning that time, place, and manner restrictions apply. This seemingly permits government regulation of campaign donations and perhaps expenditures.

Beyond the Supreme Court vacancy, the issue of campaign finance has played a central role in the 2016 Election.
  • Bernie Sanders repeatedly railed against Super PAC’s and raised unprecedented amounts of money via small donations averaging $27
  • Donald Trump gave at least an illusion that his primary campaign was self-financed and he was therefore above reproach
  • Hillary Clinton’s coziness with big banks and her prolific fundraising machine made her vulnerable to the anti-establishment fervor grapping our politics, but ultimately fueled her defeat of Sanders in the Democratic primary
Some suggest that money in politics is like water on land: it will flow freely regardless of obstacles placed in its path. If this is true, perhaps sunlight is our best disinfectant, and we’ll return on Wednesday with tools to illuminate campaign finances in the context of the 2016 Election and beyond.

Teaching the 2016 Election: The Press - Boys on the Bus

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

On Monday we established the pivotal role the press plays in shining a light on politics for the governed. It goes without saying that we must also develop a healthy skepticism of the material purveyed by the media, refusing to accept it as gospel, and leveraging the plethora of perspectives and information at our fingertips in the Digital Age.

Timothy Crouse wrote Boys on the Bus, an expose of modern campaign journalism in the context of the 1972 presidential election, and called into question the extent to which reporters offer information independent of the campaigns they are covering or the press pack itself.

Thomas Patterson has gone so far as to suggest that the modern presidential nomination process consists of winning the “media primary,” as the game of expectations established by the media arguably has more sway in the winnowing process than voters or party regulars.

Specific to the 2016 Election, the press as a whole repeatedly dismissed Donald Trump’s chances of winning the Republican nomination, and also downplayed the insurgent candidacy of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side of the ledger. The post-mortem is still in progress, but it underlines the necessity of honing the news literacy chops of our students.

To this end, the News Literacy Project offers an entire unit on the subject of news literacy: http://www.thenewsliteracyproject.org/learn-channel/open-access-digital-unit.

In a similar vein, this PBS lesson on “A Free and Open Press: Evaluating the Media” is also worth a download: http://www.pbs.org/flashpointsusa/20030916/educators/lessonplan.html

Institutional trust is historically low among Americans, and the press is part of this equation. There is a general sense of systemic bias within the so-called “media establishment,” and this lesson is designed to help our students detect it: http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/pdfs/lesson-plan/Lesson_Bias_News_Sources.pdf.

Specific to elections, we launched this lesson plan in 2008 (and updated it in 2012) to investigate and analyze press coverage on the campaign trail: http://documents.mccormickfoundation.org/Civics/programs/files/pdf/CoveringTheCampaignTrail.pdf

Campaigns are in constant search for “earned” or free media, and attempt to spin news coverage in a favorable light. This lesson plan illuminates this process and the accompanying propaganda techniques employed: http://civics.sites.unc.edu/files/2012/05/PropogandaSpin1.pdf.

President Obama is arguably the first presidential candidate to perfect the use of social media in the context of a campaign, and Donald Trump has effectively employed Twitter as the primary platform to broadcast his message. These phenomena beg the question: What is the role of social media in elections? And this PBS lesson helps students consider its answer: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/lessons_plans/what-is-social-medias-role-in-election-2016-lesson-plan/.

Teaching the 2016 Election: The Press - Our Portal to Politics

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Thomas Jefferson wrote the following in a letter to Edward Carrington in 1787:
The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.
From the country’s inception, newspapers, and the press more generally, have played an essential role in the birth and sustenance of democracy. It is through the media that we obtain vital information about our government, the issues of the day, and candidates for public office.

The nature of our press is in a constant state of flux, and we live in a contradictory age when information is more prolific and accessible than ever before, yet successive generations have seemingly turned away from newspapers and other rich sources of information on public issues.

It is therefore our obligation as educators to reverse this trajectory, harvest the power of the Digital Age, and foster lifelong habits of discerning media attentiveness among students.

We have framed the 2016 Election as a seminal teachable moment, and press coverage of the proverbial “horse race” is ubiquitous. Our two-part primer on polling is helpful to this end, but we must also mine campaign media further for information on campaign strategies, and arguably most importantly, the prevailing issues in play.

We’ll devote Wednesday’s blog to resources that foster news literacy in the context of campaigns, but conclude here with recommended staples for you and your students’ daily news diet:
  • Illinois Playbook by Politico: Daily digest of all things political in Chicago, Illinois, and the U.S. Features excerpts of news articles from a diverse array of media sources.
  • The Morning Spin by the Chicago Tribune: A more concise version of Illinois Playbook featuring a couple of daily Tribune stories and links to others they’re writing and reading.
  • Crain’s On Politics: Similar to the Morning Spin, but heavy on Crain’s content and contains editorial flair.
  • Capitol Fax blog by Rich Miller: Go-to source for information on Illinois politics with a particular emphasis on Springfield. While there is a subscriber option, much of the material is free.
  • Illinois Issues by WUIS: Daily compilation by Springfield NPR affiliate of state political news, and sign-up available for a weekly email digest.
  • NBC Politics First Read: Primarily horse race coverage of the presidential contest, but in manageable daily doses first thing each morning. Its sister, The Lid, offers an evening recap of the day’s developing stories.

Teaching the 2016 Election: Parsing the Polls, Part II

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar and Barb Laimins, Teacher Mentor Liaison

In Tuesday’s post, we discussed the benefits of aggregated polling data, sample construction, and margin of error. Today, we’d like to delve further into survey respondents, wade into state-by-state polling averages, and conclude by showcasing resources helpful to teaching about public opinion polls.

When presenting polling data, we’re frequently asked about the increase in cell phone only households and its impact on survey samples. For example, 45% of likely Illinois voters exclusively use cell phones, while another 20% are mostly cell phone dependent. Only 17% are mostly or exclusively landline users.

The latter group skews older and whiter, making it unrepresentative. Therefore, we must dismiss polls that exclude cell phone users, yet also acknowledge the difficulty in reaching them with the norm to ignore calls from unknown numbers. More than anything, this adds yet another caveat to the excessive premium we place on polls.

Tuesday’s discussion focused on national polls of the presidential contest, predictive of the popular vote, but not the consequential Electoral College. Our favorite site for this exercise is FiveThirtyEight.com (we also highly recommend their podcasts), which incorporates state-by-state polling and historical models to forecast probable winners.

Election map from FiveThirtyEight.com


As we write, Hillary Clinton is a 68% favorite to win the presidency and is expected to win 311 electoral votes, a comfortable cushion for the necessary 270. Each of the so-called swing states that President Obama won twice is trending in her direction, as is North Carolina, which Mitt Romney captured in 2012. Even the traditionally red states of Arizona and Georgia appear very much in play.

Illinois remains a dark hue of blue and Clinton is a prohibitive favorite to win her birth state as has every Democrat since her husband in 1992. The predicted 14% margin of victory is comparable to that of John Kerry over George W. Bush in 2004, the last time favorite son Barack Obama wasn’t atop the ticket.

We’ll conclude with links to lessons incorporate polling into your classroom:

Teaching the 2016 Election: Parsing the Polls

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

In this era of Big Data, we are inundated with polling information, particularly during presidential election cycles. Each new national poll seemingly garners front page headlines and sends supporters of Team Hillary or Trump into ecstasy or a tailspin. How do we make sense of this noise for our own sanity, and most importantly, help our students comprehend this avalanche of quantitative information as Election Day nears?

First, it’s important not to place excessive emphasis on a single poll. True, some are conducted with better methodologies than others, but even the most carefully calibrated poll represents a point in time and a cross section of the electorate. The reality is that the latter is in a constant state of flux, and the only poll that matters takes place in real time on November 8.

Therefore, I prefer an aggregation of polls that minimize the effects of any single sample and demonstrate the trajectory of public opinion across time. RealClearPolitics is my go-to site for this purpose, although Pollster performs a similar function.

Graph from www.realclearpolitics.com

A view of the trend lines in head-to-head polling between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump demonstrates the volatility of this race. Trump temporarily pulled ahead last week, but Clinton appears to have benefited from a post-convention bump and leads her Republican opponent by an average of 4.4% as of this morning. Note the range of polls that contribute to this average, one with Clinton up 9% and another with Trump ahead by 2%. Clinton leads in the four polls conducted since the Democratic National Convention concluded.

Each of the polls presented sample registered or likely voters, of course not one in the same, although the two are definitely correlated. More than anything, pollsters are attempting to build models that accurately predict turnout by partisanship, race/ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, religiosity, etc. Beyond standard errors endemic to polling, diversity in the predicted construction of the electorate also accounts for variation among polls.

Finally, it’s important to note margins of error. The polling data presented represents a point estimate of the state of the race. However, given its current dead heat dimensions, each of the polls aggregated on RealClearPolitics is statistically tied. Take for example the CBS News poll that has Clinton up 6%, 47%-41%, with a 3% margin of error. Conceivably, the race could be tied by subtracting 3 from Clinton and adding 3 to Trump. Conversely, Clinton could be on her way to a landslide victory if the error was cast in the opposite direction (50%-38%).