LEWISTON — Spending a semester engaged in a mock presidential election taught Bates College students how difficult it is to run a political campaign — and win one.

Stephanie Kelley-Romano, a rhetoric professor, built a class around the mock election as a way to explore political speeches, debates, news and advertising in a real-life run for the nation’s top job.

“We had an experience that was pretty unique,” said Gabriel Nott, 22. “We ran for president.”

As it turned out, the class competition proved to be far more like typical runs for the White House than the one playing out in real life.

“We ran a very by-the-book campaign in a year that was definitely not by the book,” Nott said.

Nott and Molly Chisholm faced off as the Democratic and Republican contenders with fake biographies and the necessity of matching their campaigns to the parties they represented.

“We became something more than just our names,” Chisholm said, conscious of everything they did and said for weeks leading up to Election Day. Ultimately, Nott, the Democrat, squeaked by Chisholm by two votes to claim victory.

Other students played roles ranging from campaign managers to reporters, creating videos, social media posts and much more in a bid to encompass the massive efforts that presidential campaigns have made over the years.

Students in the Presidential Campaign Rhetoric class spoke about their experience Thursday at a Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library, part of a free, monthly brown-bag speaker series that features statewide and regional leaders in public policy, business, academia and the arts. The forums are sponsored by the Sun Journal, Bates College and the library.

Several students said getting involved in the mock election opened their eyes to the issues and concerns of people who have a different political outlook.

Michaela Britt, a senior who hopes to break into broadcast news, said working on the fake campaign was “such a cool experience” and gave her “a different perspective” at a time when she is “becoming a real human” who can foresee a future of paying taxes and raising a family.

Kelley-Romano said she hopes students will come away from the class with a greater commitment to their role as citizens in upholding a great democracy.

“I believe in action,” she said, explaining she wants people to engage in a world that is much bigger than what’s shown on television or passed along on social media.

Kelley-Romano said it’s also important that people take an active role in figuring out what’s true amid the swirl of competing narratives from and about candidates and campaigns.

“I don’t think we can wait for somebody to tell us what’s correct. We’re way past that,” she said.

As they tried to sell their candidates to the 700 Bates students who volunteered to vote in the mock election, students in the class discovered how critical it is to come up with a vision that can tie their side to a winning version of the American dream.

That “overall vision of America” is a critical element, said Sam Clough, who held the role of the Democrats’ technical director.

Charlie Gravina, who played Chisholm’s husband, said there are “countless renditions and understanding” of what the American dream means. Finding one that everyone can relate to is crucial, he said.

Students also discovered that it can be tough with a female candidate to find the right balance between both the caring and the toughness a president needs to display.

James Erwin, who had the role of the Republican campaign manager, said women “can’t be too soft” or they may look weak.

Several mock debates during the campaign emphasized to students how seldom political debates are actually about policies.

In real life, said Courtney Foster, the presidential debates are really “conversations about policy” rather than an effort to probe the issues. She said “fluff related to personality and persona” comes to dominate the events.

The experience didn’t turn any of the students into a budding candidate.

“The idea of running for real office is less appealing to me” after his fake run, Nott said, because he’s seen how much time, effort and meticulous work goes into it.


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