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PSC 311: Voters, Parties & Elections

Sample Past Essay Questions

by Jeremy Lewis, Last revised 5 Oct '06 with additional questions.
Textbook questions:
  • Maisel
  • Bibby
  • Traugott
  • Nelson
  • Other Books (some disused)
  • Current questions
  • Identification questions
  • Broader questions
  • 311 Syllabus

  • Questions on Maisel:
    [Maisel 1: Intro; 2: Decision to Run.]  Explain fully the nature of Maisel’s research project: his own goals, his staff, and his survey.  How carefully is the decision to run for office made?  With how much information?

    [Maisel 2-4]  Explain how Maisel decided upon, organized, financed and ran his primary campaign -- and with what results?  What was the significance of the voter base of each candidate?

    [Maisel 2: Decision to Run; 3: Campaign Structure; 4: Finance.]  How was Maisel’s campaign begun, organized and financed, and how typical was this, by the standards of his survey results?

    [Maisel 3: Campaign Structure; 4: Finance.]  How was Maisel’s campaign organized and financed, and how typical was this, by the standards of his survey results?

    [Maisel 4: Finance.]  Where did Maisel seek campaign funding, and how has campaign funding changed since his time?

    [Maisel 5: Campaign Strategy] Did Maisel make any mistakes in campaign strategy, and why?

    [Maisel 6: Tactics.]  How effective were the campaign tactics Maisel used, and how could he have improved?  What did his national survey show about other candidates' tactics?

    [Maisel 5-6: Campaign Strategy and Tactics.]  How effective were the different strategies and tactics Maisel used, and were there any regional variations found in his survey?

    [Maisel 5-6: Campaign Strategy and Tactics.]  How effective were the different strategies and tactics Maisel used, and were there any regional variations found in his survey?  What changes would you expect to find today, twenty years later?

    “Maisel’s campaign was a Columbus-like voyage: he didn’t know what he was running for, against whom, with how much money, on what issues, with what organization – and, like most campaigns, it was doomed from the start.” – Discuss each part fully, using Maisel’s own evidence.

    Discuss each of Maisel's campaign decisions critically, using Maisel’s own evidence.  In the light of his national survey and interviews, were his experiences unique?  [Hints: decision to run; financing; staff organization; media; door-to-door; issues.]

     

    Questions on Bibby:
    [Bibby 1: Overview.]  What are the purposes, paradoxes and characteristics of political parties?

    [Bibby 1: Overview; current affairs.]  What are the purposes, paradoxes and characteristics of political parties?  In the campaigns of 1994 and 1996, have the parties appeared to present clear alternatives for the voters?

    [Bibby 2, 3 & lecture].  How has the American party system changed over time?  Are we in the midst of a realignment of party forces, or merely a deviation from dealigned, weak parties with alienated voters?

    [Bibby 2] Explain the history of the American party system and what makes American parties distinct from those in Europe.

    [Bibby 2] Explain the history of the American party system from 1987 to 1995.  [Hint: for each party system in turn, take a fresh paragraph to discuss its characteristics.  Don't repeat any material used in identifications.] 

    [Bibby 2-3: Party systems]  Discuss the different party systems that have prevailed in the US since 1787, and the realignments that produced each in turn. 

    [Bibby 2-3: Party systems]  What has been the role of third parties?  What signs of realignment -- if any -- are found in the period since 1968, particularly in 1992-94?

    [Bibby 1: Overview; 2: Party battle; 3: Party System.]  What are the purposes, paradoxes and characteristics of political parties? 

    [Bibby: 2 Party battle; 3: Party System.]  How has the American party system developed over two centuries via realignments?  Why have minor parties remained, well, so minor?

    [Bibby 4 & 9]  Explain the structure and role of party organizations in governing.  How much have things changed in Congress since this book was written?

    [Bibby 4] How are American political parties organized, and to what degree are they truly national rather than coalitions of state parties?  .

    [Bibby 5 and Nelson 2]  Explain the nomination system for state and federal legislatures.  How could it be reformed?

    [Bibby 5-6 and Nelson 1-2]  Explain the phases of the nomination systems for president, for state and federal legislatures.  How is it unique in America and how could it be reformed?

    [Bibby 6, Nelson 3.]  Explain the unusual design of the American presidential nominating process.  How did a “New Democrat” for president emerge in the primaries of 1992?

    [Bibby 6, Nelson 3: Nominations]  Explain the phases of the presidential nomination system.  What qualities in a candidate does this test, and how appropriate are those for actual governing?  Does Clinton reflect this pattern or is he more of an exception?

    [Bibby 6] Explain Presidential Nominations in the United States.  How does the process work and is it likely to produce presidents who are actually capable of governing -- or merely of winning office?

    [Bibby 7: Elections]  What are the major features of US general elections and how common or unusual are each of these among liberal democracies? 

    [Bibby 7: Elections]  Analyse the 1996 election campaign so far: does it fit the pattern of previous election campaigns, or does it have new features?

    [Bibby 7: General Elections; Nelson 1: Valence Politics.]  Are general elections different from other elections, and are they mere vehicles for valence politics? 

    [Bibby 7 and Nelson 3]  In the context of general elections, in what ways did the 1996
    election represent change or continuity?

    [Bibby 8, Nelson 4; Chicago ’68 etc]  Describe the connections between parties and the voters via the media.  Are these channels sufficient for a reasonable quality of democracy, or not?  How have they been changing?

    [Bibby 4 & 9]  Explain the structure and role of party organizations in governing.  How much have things changed in Congress since this book was written? 

    [Bibby 4 & 9]  Explain the structure and role of party organizations in governing Congress.  Did Gingrich prove that a strong Speaker can lead like a British style prime minister on a strong discipline and a national issues platform (The Contract with America)?

    [Bibby 8, Nelson 4; etc]  Describe the connections between parties and the voters via the media.  Are these channels sufficient for a reasonable quality of democracy, or not?  How have they been changing?  Did 1996 prove to be a better year than 1992 for democratic quality of media coverage and of tv spots -- and why?

    Questions on Traugott:
    [Traugott] Explain the common problems with opinion polls: poorly constructed samples, invalid questions, improper inferences by the media, and others of your choice.  (Where feasible, give examples from the current campaign.) 

    [Traugott] How should polls be used properly?  How would you determine if a poll has been improperly used?

    [Traugott] Who uses opinion polls, and how do these users differ?

    [Traugott] Given the attached example of a newspaper report of an opinion poll, critically analyze the characteristics of the poll and then interpret the results.

    [Traugott] Given any newspaper report of a poll, what critical questions about the characteristics of the poll would you ask in order to interpret the poll?  [Hints: sample, method, questions, categories, validity, reliability.]
     

    Questions on Nelson:
    [Nelson 1: Valence Politics; Bibby 7: General Elections.]  Are general elections different from othere elections, and are they mere vehicles for valence politics?

    [Nelson 4: Media]  What problems have been found with the role of the mass media in American democracy?  What reforms were attempted in the 1992 campaign?  Has there been  further progress along these lines in 1994-96 -- or did the media reformation described in Nelson’s anthology fizzle out?

    Using Nelson's Table 3-1 and 3-2 explain Nelson's Cycle of Presidents theory.

    Using Nelson's Table 2-5 Explain where each Republican primary candidate drew his support.

     

    Questions on other texts:
    [Campbell & Rockman; Nelson 6 & 7 etc]  Explain the performance of the Clinton administration in the light of Nelson’s theory of the presidential cycles.

    Explain and critically evaluate at least three readings in the Campbell and Rockman reader.  (List the three readings at the top of your answer).  Did Clinton really turn out to be a new Democrat?  How did Clinton perform in 1995-6 after Campbell & Rockman’s reader was published? 

    [Flanigan & Zingale]  If you had to explain to a visiting foreigner the peculiarities of American voting behavior, how would you do it and could you persuade the professor that American voters are both active and rational? 

    [Flanigan & Zingale]  How do partisans and independents differ?  Which ones are the deadbeats?

    [Flanigan & Zingale]  What causes low turnout?  How is this linked to the spread of the suffrage?

    [Flanigan & Zingale]  How ideological is the American electorate?

    What are the Social Characteristics of Partisans & Independents, and how does being partisan affect people's voting?  [Flanigan & Zingale 3-5]

    [Flanigan & Zingale, Downs, Stokes, Fiorina, Key] Explain American voting behavior, and whether American parties and voters are active and rational.

    [Homework: CQ or National Journal Almanac.]  Contrast the Second congressional district of Alabama and its US Representative with the first district and its US Representative. [Likewise for other districts and reps.]

    Compare the political theories of the following writers from the Curtis anthology: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. 

    [Curtis readings]  Report the responses of Rousseau, Burke and Paine to these
    questions posed by an interviewer on late eighteenth century television.
         a.   Is man in the State of Nature a noble savage or a covetous brute? 
         b.   Is society possible, and can it be perfected? 
         c.   What is the means of creating government from a civil society without government?
         d.   What is the proper purpose, size and role of government?
         e.   In what sense if any is there a right of rebellion?

     


    Sample current campaign essay questions.
    [Current Campaign]  Discuss the current campaign for president and for US Congress from Alabama.  To what degree do the presidential candidates -- based on both policy and character -- present clear alternatives for democratic choice? 

    [Current Campaign]  To what degree are the presidential candidates campaigning as leaders of their parties -- or independent of them? 

    [Current Campaign]  To what degree does this election appear to be influenced by the economy, the paid media, the presidential debates, the character and ability of the presidential candidates, and the strength of the parties?

    Using evidence from the 1996 elections:  Explain the 1996 campaign and the election results in the presidential, congressional and Alabama federal delegation arenas.  Do they reverse the 1994 and 1992 elections? 

    Did the 2000 election show that American democracy was degenerating or merely that the country was evenly split?

    Did the 2000 election show that American elections previously characterised by interest-group competition had turned to juridical democracy?

    Should the 2000 election be the final one under a state-based system of presidential selection -- and be replaced by a national direct election?

    [Nelson ’93 and ’97, Bibby, current affairs]  Overall, has the recent presidential election campaign, been of good quality, for democracy and for the citizen -- and in what sense?  Contrast it with the elections of 1992 & 1996.

    [TV debates; documentary, Debating Our Destiny] Explain the recent presidential and vice-presidential TV debates in the light of the history of American presidential campaigns.  To what degree do they add to democracy – and how do they shape the environment in which candidates struggle to survive?

     


    Sample identification questions [key concepts]
    Explain briefly each of the following, in a paragraph of good prose: 
    • valence issues versus wedge (or cleavage) issues; 
    • town meeting versus formal debate format; 
    • name recognition versus issue spots; 
    • free media versus paid media; 
    • Filling the War Chest booklet; 
    • 1996 political tv spots, 
    • the role of minor parties; 
    • winner-take-all elections.
    • primary versus caucus
    • first past the post election
    • proportional representation
    • first-past-the-post (winner-take-all) election versus proportional representation
    • valence versus cleavage issues
    • the first party system, in 1800 election.
    • 1896 election campaign
    • 1932 election results
    • 1992 media reformation
    • Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign
    • strategy and tactics in Clinton's 1992 campaign "War Room"
    • Republican strategy in the current campaign
    • critical realignment
    • state party organizations
    • How news media use opinion polls
    • How campaigns use opinion polls
    • How questionnaires are put together
    • How interviews are conducted
    • sectional voting in the nineteenth and early twentieth century
    • Reasons for low voter turnout in the US
    • dealignment of parties
    • [Almanac] distinctive nature of Alabama politics.
    • “majority-minority” districts
    • [Nivola, ed.]  Downs’ spatial model of voting and Stokes’ criticisms
    • [Nivola, ed.]  Fiorina's argument about collective responsibility
    • Stages or seasons of presidential campaigns
    • George W. Bush v Palm Beach Canvassing Board, US Sup. Ct. (2000)
    • A structured, random sample
    • margin of sampling error
    • Electoral College
    • Sample size (N) and Margin of sampling error. [Traugott, lecture]
    • Critical elections and realignments
    • Differences between primary elections and general elections. [Maisel, lecture.]
    • The Jacksonian revolution. [Bibby, lecture]
    • The New Deal coalition [Bibbly, lecture]
    • Jimmy Carter's coalition [lecture]
    • The Emerging Republican Majority thesis. [lecture]
    • The southern realignment of the past generation [lecture]
    • The various offices needed in a campaign, according to Maisel.
    • Benchmark poll versus tracking poll. [Traugott, Maisel.]
    • The functions of political parties [Bibby, lecture]
    • The issue of what party system we now have, and whether there has been a realignment recently. [Bibby; Lecture.]

    •  
    Broader or more topical questions:
    Do we have a new situation in the 104th Congress where a sort of ‘split prime ministership’ (Speaker plus Senate majority leader) can make propose and dispose of policy in the face of a weakened (Clinton) presidency?

    [War Room, etc]  Explain the role of campaign professionals such as Carville and Matalin.  Do they pose a serious challenge to party organizations from the outside -- perhaps more than independent candidates such as Perot or (potentially) Powell?

    Taking the supplied newspaper or magazine article, explain the argument of the piece and comment upon it in the light of course materials. 

    Do we have a new situation in the 104th & 105th Congresses where a sort of ‘split prime ministership’ (Speaker plus Senate majority leader) can make, propose and dispose of policy in the face of a weakened (Clinton) presidency? 

    Explain the 1996 campaign and the election results in the presidential, congressional and Alabama federal delegation arenas.  Do they reverse the 1994 and 1992 elections?

    Do you accept, in the light of the evidence of 1996, Walter Dean Burnham’s argument in Campbell and Rockman’s reader that there was a permanent Republican realignment in 1994? 

    Is the American presidential voting system broken beyond repair?  What are reasonable alternative systems of selecting a president?

    Are we in an era of highly partisan gridlock -- or is the federal government functioning well in making policy?

     

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