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Parkin on Politics, Campaigns, and the Internet
Ohio Ag Connection - 12/06/2018

Now in his 13th year of teaching at Oberlin University, Professor of Politics Michael Parkin has long observed a dynamic political climate both inside and outside of the classroom. His recent National Science Foundation grant will enable him to further his research and incorporate it into his teachings. Much of Parkin's research focuses on the ways in which these candidates communicate with voters online, especially through their campaign websites.

Parkin has been conducting this type of Internet-based research since the early 2000s with his coauthors, Jamie Druckman at Northwestern University and Martin Kifer at High Point University. This is the fifth NSF grant that they have been awarded.

"As with any campaign, voters need to be aware of what candidates are trying to do online: win your support," says Parkin. "Our research shows that these websites are targeted toward a large, general viewing audience, even though campaigns recognize that loyal supporters and the media are the most likely to visit. This means that voters may be surprised to find relatively cautious or vague comments on their favorite candidate's website."

As a result of diligently collecting and observing data over the years, Parkin has come across some unexpected finds in his research, particularly when gauging candidate responses to the burgeoning field of social media. He is interested in how campaigns are often hesitant to adopt new online technologies, despite the potential for those platforms to revolutionize American campaigns.

"Congressional campaigns have been slow to use Facebook and Twitter, and when they do, they are often quite limited and cautious in their embrace," he notes. "I've also been really surprised at some of the websites that candidates post, some of which are ridiculously clunky, contain almost no useful information, and are filled with rather hateful rhetoric."

In addition to understanding candidate use of social media and the Internet, studying these websites has opened up Parkin's research to a broader perspective of how people respond to different campaign strategies.

"In many ways, there are two types of campaigns happening at once in this country: on the one hand, you have incumbents who rely on their name recognition and barely campaign at all, and on the other hand, you have challengers who go to great lengths to convince voters that they should reconsider the status quo. The irony is that the candidates who seem to put the least effort into campaigning almost always beat those who are trying very hard to engage voters in the democratic process."

Parkin incorporates both the content and the methodology of his research in the classes that he teaches, such as in Mass Politics in the Media Age. In light of contemporary events, Parkin acknowledges that the shifting political climate has inevitably shaped classroom discussions, especially following the 2016 presidential election.

"There is no way to overstate how much the Trump victory and administration have changed politics and the way our students think about it," he says. "These are really unprecedented times, and while it makes teaching American politics exciting, it also makes it incredibly challenging. Now, more than ever, I find myself saying 'I don't know' when students ask me questions. There really is a lot that political scientists are trying to figure out these days."

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