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Political Capital

2016 presidential campaign keeps experts, commentators and researchers busy

As a political expert and a go-to source for understanding New Jersey politics, Political Science and Law Professor Brigid Callahan Harrison is in high demand for reporters covering elections – especially in a year when Governor Chris Christie pursued the Republican presidential nomination and then backed Donald Trump’s bid.

During election years, you can find Harrison juggling classes, office hours and op-ed pieces with mentoring students and giving back-to-back interviews for newspapers, television and radio talk shows from around the world. All the while helping her students land internships with Congress, the State House or political campaigns. “Historically Governor Christie has been a magnet for the national media, but when you combine that with the Trump factor, it’s been an incredibly busy time,” says Harrison.

Movers and shakers

One of Harrison’s former students, Josh Sanders, says Harrison’s “Women in Politics” class, which he took in his junior year, put him on the path to a career in public service. He now works as a legislative correspondent in U.S. Senator Robert Menendez’s Washington D.C. office.

“She helped set me up with an internship in Senator Menendez’s Newark office and from there I got an internship with his office in D.C. and that eventually led to the job I have now,” the 2012 graduate says. “I would certainly not be where I am today without her influence, her contacts and her help.”

What Harrison understands about politics could fill a book. Several, in fact. American Democracy Now, published by McGraw-Hill Education and co-authored by Harrison, is the leading textbook in government classes at universities across the country.

Her other widely used textbooks include A More Perfect Union, Women in American Politics and Power and Society, now in its 14th edition.

Harrison’s depth of knowledge about politics in New Jersey and the United States combined with her moderate viewpoints, make her a sought-after expert for providing analysis for the media.

She has appeared on ABC, NBC, CBS, NJTV, Bloomberg and Fox News as well as in local and national papers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Star-Ledger and radio including CBS News radio, WNYC and various NPR programs. Harrison has also been a panelist for candidate debates including the New Jersey 2012 U.S. Senate debate and the 2013 New Jersey Gubernatorial debate, which was held at Montclair State.

Brigid Harrison on the gubernatorial debate panel with (from left to right) NJTV’s Michael Aron; Matt Katz, who is now with WNYC; and NBC’s Ron Allen.
Harrison on the gubernatorial debate panel with (from left to right) NJTV’s Michael Aron; Matt Katz, who is now with WNYC; and NBC’s Ron Allen

“I don’t express any specific ideological bent and so appear on any media outlet. I will call things like I see them and say what I think,” she says. “Politicians from both parties get angry with me – that’s when I feel I am doing a good job.”

In November 2015, PolitickerNJ listed Harrison as No. 20 on its 2015 PolitickerNJ Power List. “There’s no one in academia closer to the politics scene than Harrison, the ultimate example of someone who can write books on the intricacies of the history of government – as Harrison has – then turn around and comment in real time on what’s happening at the State Capitol. [She’s] a valuable New Jersey resource,” wrote PolitickerNJ Editor Max Pizarro.

Christie’s run

During the 2016 presidential campaign, her phone rang constantly while Christie was still in the race.

“There were a few weeks where it was just one interview after another,” Harrison says. “Everyone wanted to know about Chris Christie.”

But even after Christie withdrew, the media continued to request for insight regarding his endorsement of Trump and his standing behind Trump during Trump’s Super Tuesday victory speech in a moment that was immortalized in a skit on Saturday Night Live and became an internet meme.

Her take on why both Christie and Trump capture a lot of attention: “Bombast plays well on TV, and for a while Christie had the blunt, straight-talking brand until Trump came in and out-Christied Christie.”

An avocation

Harrison’s love of politics goes back to her childhood, growing up in Runnemede, New Jersey, where her father was on the city council and once ran for mayor. Her family discussed politics around the kitchen table and she was aware of issues like Watergate and Vietnam before other children her age.

“There’s an expression among political people that ‘politics is in your blood.’ Frankly I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in politics – as a second grader I would read about the war in Vietnam in The Philadelphia Inquirer,” she says.

“I don’t express any specific ideological bent and so appear on any media outlet. I will call things like I see them and say what I think. Politicians from both parties get angry with me – that’s when I feel I am doing a good job.”

Brigid Harrison

She earned her BA in political science and economics from Stockton University and decided on graduate school instead of law school. She earned a master’s in international relations and comparative politics from Rutgers and her doctorate from Temple University, where she studied American politics with her mentor, a presidential scholar.

“It was then that I was able to combine my vocation and my avocation and study American politics,” she says.

Most of all, she brings her love for politics and policy to the classroom, where she invites guest speakers and hosts panel discussions.

This semester, she brought in former U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli on Super Tuesday to discuss politics and his career.

Her students were engaged, as usual.

“They’re particularly interested in the election this year. It’s nice to see students really paying attention,” she says. “It makes for great discussions.”

Joel Penney

Professor studies how social media is changing elections

For good or bad, social media is changing the political landscape. Today, anyone with a computer or a smartphone can become a pundit, a campaigner or an activist.

While the 2008 presidential election ushered in the use of social media as a new weapon in the arsenal, eight years later it has become arguably the most important resource candidates now have to spread the word.

“Social media draws people into the political process,” says Assistant Professor Joel Penney of the School of Communication and Media, whose expertise goes back to when he was a University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidate, studying the critical and social aspects of media and the political dimensions of pop culture.

“The political posts in their Facebook feeds are part of the larger conversation, along with family posts, friends’ birthday pictures and entertainment,” he says. “In some ways, it creates a more culturally friendly environment for politics.”

But social media also plays a role in polarizing the electorate, creating space for ideologues, he explains, because people stop having political discussions with people with differing points of view and narrow their world to like-minded thinkers.

Photo of Joel Penney.
Joel Penney

“Posting on social media encourages side-taking and feeds into a broader partisanship of politics,” says Penney, who teaches a class called “New Media and Participatory Culture,” which focuses on the use of social media platforms for marketing and political advocacy as well as its effects on relationships and individual identity. Since the 2008 election, Penney has been studying the use and effectiveness of participatory and digital media such as Facebook and Twitter for social and political advocacy as well as the construction of collective identities. He is working on a book exploring how citizens participate in political marketing in the digital age. While he is studying new media and high-tech data, as a researcher he relies on the old-school technique of interviewing people.

“Candidates have armies campaigning for them and those armies are now engaging in ‘meme warfare,’” he says. “At a very grassroots level, meme warriors are able to do the dirty work of a campaign so the candidate doesn’t have to. But will it have an effect?”

The candidates making the most of social media, Penney says, are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. The same can be said for their supporters. “A lot of what we’re seeing really looks like fandom in popular culture,” he says.

Some pundits theorize that posting to social media and changing profile pictures for political causes has taken the place of actual knock-on-doors campaigning or activism. They see it as less effective, calling it “slacktivism” (short for slacker activism).

While some suggest “slacktivism” is related to self-image and looking “cool” to friends, Penney’s research suggests that is too dismissive. “Political expression online has the potential to be effective, such as contributing to the promotion and marketing of presidential candidates,” he says.

Penney tries to show his digitally savvy students the range of social, political and cultural factors that shape the use of new media. “I try to help them put this phenomenon into a greater social context and consider the broader consequences.”

Adriana Cohen

Alumna makes name for herself as conservative commentator

For Adriana Cohen, a 1993 graduate who is now a conservative political columnist and radio host for The Boston Herald, the Republican primary season has been the gift that keeps on giving.

Not only does she have plenty of material for her thrice-weekly column and daily morning drive-time radio show in Boston, she has so many requests for appearances on Fox News, CNN and other media outlets that she’s been forced to turn some down.

“I still have a busy day-job and a family that I need to take care of as well,” Cohen says with a laugh.

The Republican primary, in particular, has drawn a lot of interest – from the sheer number of candidates to the number of debates to the insults candidates have hurled at each other.

“I think everyone was so surprised that Donald Trump has proven to be sustainable this election. It was supposed to be the summer of Trump and then he stuck around all fall and now there’s a high probability that he could be the GOP nominee,” says Cohen.

Cohen’s day job as a Boston Herald columnist and Republican voice of a Herald radio show called “Herald Drive” provides a launchpad for her column and political analysis. The five-day-a-week 6 to 9 a.m. program that she co-hosts with a Democrat scores big-name guests and is a hit in Boston, she says.

Photo of Adriana Cohen on CNN.

“There’s a nice balance on our show,” she says. “It’s picked up both nationally and internationally – into Canada, France, the U.K. and beyond. It couldn’t be going any better.”

Cohen also spends a lot of time in the field. Before press time, she had interviewed 15 of the original 17 Republican presidential candidates and had been to candidate rallies to see for herself who their supporters are and what they’re thinking. She hosted her radio show from New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary and she plans to attend the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

“In all likelihood, it’s going to be a major food fight at the Republican Convention,” she says. “Republicans are preparing for the worst.”

While some pundits don’t disclose their candidate preferences, as a political opinion columnist with a clear viewpoint, she says, she has some “wiggle room.”

“I liked some other candidates, but they’re now out of the race,” she says explaining her endorsement of Trump. “Do I agree with everything that comes out of his mouth? No. But when you tune out the noise, if the question is ‘Who has created jobs and grown a business,’ it’s Donald Trump.”

Depending on what happens at the convention, she says, she might switch her party affiliation to “un-enrolled.” “The Republican party has gone astray,” she says. “I don’t take this lightly because I’ve been a lifelong Republican, but I’m a bit disgusted with both parties right now.”

Cohen started out as a broadcast communications major at Montclair State but switched to political science and earned a paralegal certificate as well.

“Every day I use the broadcast, political science and paralegal skills that I gained at Montclair State,” she says. “I’m thrilled by where my career has taken me as a result of my time there.”