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A cartoon showing a donkey and elephant boxing, with a dazed voter floating overhead.

Putting the gloves back on

New 'Center for the Study of Politics' seeks a return to civility

by Jason Sanford

From M, spring 2004

In the classic 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart plays an innocent small-town bumpkin who becomes a U.S. senator and then shows how goodwill and faith in the political process can triumph over special interests and corruption.

As the 2004 elections roll into high gear, Americans may soon find themselves wishing they had another Jimmy Stewart to vote for. After the extremely divisive presidential elections of 2000, many people hoped that Republicans and Democrats would come together for the good of the country. Instead, political warfare and cynicism have reached new levels.

Into this minefield steps the University's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs' new Center for the Study of Politics--a place to raise public understanding of politics, serve as a resource to citizens and the media on important policy issues, and show students that politics can be a noble calling.

Anyone interested in politics in the Upper Midwest--from state and local elections to the national presidential race--can find information, polls, and political analysis on the 2004 Elections Project's Web site.

2004 Elections Project

The first big undertaking of the center is its 2004 Election Project, will provide timely, nonpartisan information about the upcoming elections. A principal focus of the project will be the Upper Midwest states of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and South Dakota, which have emerged as critical swing states because of changing demographics in the region.

"A new generation of voters centered in the suburbs are weakening the old political coalitions in the Upper Midwest," says Larry Jacobs, a political science professor and director of the 2004 Elections Project. "For example, here in Minnesota the DFL is finding that their traditional base of farmers and labor is no longer a big enough coalition to defeat Republicans."

Jacobs adds that the entire Upper Midwest has seen a fairly significant shift on the state and local level toward Republican candidates, while Democrats have been able to hang onto the area in senatorial and presidential elections.

Despite national interest in the politics of the Upper Midwest, there is little hard data about the voters or the issues they respond to. Jacobs will be conducting a poll this spring that will, for the first time, identify key voting groups in the Upper Midwest, look at the attitudes and concerns of suburban voters, and see what's driving their votes. Jacobs suspects that many of the new suburban voters don't see the relevance of government in their lives, and they have strong concerns about religion and values.

"What's unique about this survey is that we're going beyond the normal horse-race polls the media does, which merely show which candidate is ahead," he says. "We want to tell why it is that certain candidates are ahead and why people vote the way they do."

While the elections project is expected to break new ground in its study of Upper Midwest voters, the Center for the Study of Politics aims to change the very nature of politics.

Politesse and politics can mix

"The issue of political warfare has been one of the major thrusts of the center," says Brian Atwood, dean of the Humphrey Institute. "I'm hoping that we can return some of the civility that used to exist in political debates." The center will bring in political leaders--such as former U.S. senators--for extended periods to provide a political context for current issues and engage students in discussions and problem solving. Atwood thinks this will help students feel involved and move beyond the cynicism many of them have about politics. "Politics is a noble and virtuous activity," Atwood says. "It is where we handle our differences civilly."

Jacobs has seen tremendous growth in student interest of in politics in the last few years. Political science classes that were sparsely attended a decade ago are now full. He says that the center--and its 2004 Elections Project--have the potential to both energize the students even more and make the University one of the elite political science schools in the country.

"At the end of the day, we want to help stop the destructive side of politics," he says. "Politics is not a grudge match. There's too much at stake."

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