Republican, Democratic Consultants Team Up at GW

Select GSPM courses feature party strategists in joint-teaching roles.

Donkey and Elephant
The Graduate School of Political Management is featuring four classes this semester co-taught by by Democratic and Republican strategists.
December 03, 2014

By James Irwin

The advertisement opens with the shadow of Chris Christie stepping into the batter’s box. A voiceover lists his shortcomings among conservative voters. The Republican governor of New Jersey appointed liberal judges, the voice says. He supported stricter gun control laws. He even helped re-elect Barack Obama.

Whiff. Whiff. Whiff.

Christie strikes out, drops his bat and trudges to the bench.

The 30-second spot is one of four final videos produced by students in a Graduate School of Political Management campaign advertising course. The class, co-taught by Democratic consultant Peter Fenn and Republican consultant Russ Schriefer, explores the strategy, technique and creativity behind developing ads for political campaigns—in this case a possible 2016 Republican presidential primary battle between Gov. Christie and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.).

“Because of the role the primaries and caucuses have had in our politics in the last decade, Russ and I thought it would be kind of fun to focus on a primary race instead of a general election campaign,” said Mr. Fenn, an adjunct professor at GSPM since the mid-1990s. “One of the things we try to do is push the envelope a little bit on the creative side—we try to get students to focus on what messages they think work and then come up with creative ways to get them across.”

Students in the course were divided into two teams, with each side creating two ads—one in favor of their candidate and one negative ad about the opponent. The anti-Christie spot, a “Casey at the Bat” spinoff, describes the New Jersey governor as being out of touch with Republican values. The anti-Paul video, set to the background of holiday music, shows a Grinch-like character stealing government programs off a Christmas tree and going “too far” in his attempt to cut back federal spending.

Political Advertising is one of four GSPM classes this semester being co-taught by Democratic and Republican strategists. The Red/Blue setup can be traced back to an old politics axiom, said Lara Brown, political management program director and GSPM associate professor.

“Politics is a strange profession in that the way to keep winning is to be skeptical of your friends and give your opponents credence—that’s what will keep you on your toes,” she said. “That is, I think, a difficult thing to grasp. In the rest of life you trust your friends, and you ignore your enemies. In politics you want to do the opposite.”

The campaign advertising class examined the strategy behind media buying, messaging, scriptwriting, editing and production. Mini-focus groups within the class were formed among students to critique the work along the way. Feedback also came from Mr. Fenn and Mr. Schriefer, who between them have more than 70 years of political experience.

“I think we’re modeling what it means to be a political professional,” Dr. Brown said. “You never see collaboration like this in a political environment. The partisan worlds are so polarized and the partisan bases are so incredibly self-reinforcing that it’s really pretty extraordinary that the commonality is GW and GSPM.”

As she prepares for a career in campaign management, GSPM student Charissee Ridgeway said the class structure and material were beneficial.

“I think it’s a really good setup because the professors feed off each other and, you get different perspectives,” said Ms. Ridgeway, who helped create the pro-Paul/anti-Christie ads. “The focus on media buying was pretty cool because you don’t often consider the money that goes into not only producing the ads but buying the air time.”

Courses in state politics, digital strategy and audience research also are being team-taught by Republican and Democratic consultants this semester.

“I always had Republicans come into my class to guest lecture. But the decision by the school to have a Republican and a Democrat co-teach these classes is really terrific because it gives students access to both parties,” Mr. Fenn said. “I’ve said this to all my classes all along—you will probably learn more by doing spots for the other party. I think the students very much like to have a bipartisan approach to it.”

Grinch Paul
Chris Christie
Rand Paul Pro
Christie Strikes Out