PBS: By the People, Election 2004
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Presidential Campaign Policy

This activity is intended for government students with some prerequisite knowledge of political ideology, vocabulary and electoral politics. It consists of two parts: a presidential campaign staff meeting in which pollsters, policy advisors and the candidate choose viable policy positions for the campaign; and the development of succinct summations of the issues and of the candidate's policy position.

I. Objectives
II. Estimated Time
III. Materials Needed
IV. Background
V. Teaching Procedure
VI. Assessment Recommendations
VII. Extensions and Adaptation Ideas
VIII. Online Resources
IX. Relevant National Standards

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I. Objectives

  • Students will identify thirteen of the major issues of this election
  • Students will describe the role of issues in presidential election
  • Students will recognize the centrist pull of national elections
  • Students will evaluate what comprises a viable policy position

II. Estimated time
90 minutes

III. Materials
Computers with Internet access

  • 5" x 7" index cards

IV. Background
One of the first tasks of a presidential candidate is to provide the public with his or her policy objectives. A candidate without serious, well-thought- out policy positions is not a viable candidate. Policy is so important that it alone can cause a person to run who might not otherwise. In the 1960s, for example, several candidates based their entire run for the office on their opposition to the government's policy on Vietnam. In the 1990s, dissatisfaction with the budget policies of the major candidates led to Ross Perot's independent bid for the White House.

It remains unclear how much of an effect policy stances have on the outcome of elections. Voters in some states, for example, will support a conservative presidential candidate and re-elect an extremely liberal senator. Polls often show that voters are ignorant of the policy positions taken by the candidate for whom they voted.

Policy positions may make a difference in an election. When voters perceive a policy difference between candidates, they rank policy higher than other factors when casting their vote. Candidates also use policy differences when competing for votes. In 1980 when candidate Ronald Reagan asked voters if they were better off then they were in 1976 when they elected Jimmy Carter. Their negative answer caused many Democrats to switch their votes in 1980.

V. Teaching Procedure

1.  To prepare for the staff meeting, the teacher should present the background information and review certain key concepts in American government. Students need to be familiar with the following concepts:
public policy: what it is and how it is made.

  • polls: how they are conducted and the high degree of reliability if properly done and interpreted.
  • powers of the president: what can he or she do (especially in regards to the issues to be studied).
  • ideology: liberal, conservative and the difference between the two.
  • political parties: the main policy differences between Republican, Democrat, Reform and other third parties.

Further, the class (or teacher) must select the following characteristics for their candidate:
age (must be above 35)

  • political party (Democrat, Republican or third party)
  • gender
  • background (senator, congressional representative, vice president or governor)

2. Break the class into groups of two or three. In each group students should be assigned the role of pollster or policy experts.

3. Have students research major campaign issues, polling data and special interest groups. This information is available in Agenda 2000, Friends and Foes and Survey Says.

4. After permitting each group sufficient time to study the material and prepare a briefing for the candidate, the teacher should act as the candidate and begins the briefing.

Each group then provides a short (60-90 seconds summation) of the issue and what polling data reveals about public sentiment on the issue.

  • The candidate responds by revealing three potential policy choices he or she could take on this particular issue.
  • The group then advises the candidate on which position to take.

Important: The teacher/candidate should not be passive in accepting this advice. For example, useful responses are:

  • "That may be sound economic policy, but how will it affect the support I have from organized labor?"
  • "Bad idea, Californians would never go for a higher gas tax, and we all know how many electoral votes they have.

5. Students then produce the issue index cards with the issue described on one side and the adopted policy on the other. Each index card must correctly identify an interest group that would either support or oppose the candidate's policy.

VI. Assessment Recommendations
The following items may present a teacher with an opportunity to evaluate the student's work:
group's presentation

  • index card (marked for description of issue, policy position and correct identification of matching interest group)
  • a quiz on issues reviewed in the briefings.

VII. Extension/Adaptation Ideas
The writing component of the lesson may be extended by having the students write decision memos for the candidate in which they correctly describe the issues, the advantages and disadvantages of possible positions and make a recommendation.

The entire lesson may be extended by forming groups of four to five students and using the policy positions they develop to analyze what the impact those positions would have on a candidate's relationship with special interest groups and how those positions would affect the candidate's ability to finance his or her campaign.

VIII. Online Resources
Brookings Institution
An independent think tank, traditionally liberal but now considered "centrist" (in the political middle), that provides research and analysis on a wide array of domestic and foreign policy issues.

Cato Institute
A conservative policy research foundation headquartered in Washington, DC that seeks to broaden public policy debate to allow consideration of more options that are consistent with the traditional American principles of limited government, individual liberty, and peace.

The Gallup Organization


IX. Relevant National Standards
These are established by McREL at


  • Understands ideas about civic life, politics, and government.
  • Understands the relationships among liberalism, republicanism, and American constitutional democracy.
  • Understands the character of American political and social conflict and factors that tend to prevent or lower its intensity.
  • Understands what is meant by "the public agenda," how it is set, and how it is influenced by public opinion and the media.
  • Understands the roles of political parties, campaigns, elections, and associations and groups in American politics.
  • Understands the formation and implementation of public policy evaluate the influence of public opinion on public policy and the behavior of public officials.
  • Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual and public goals.

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