Students join GOP focus group

by Jayant Subrahmanyam and Ashley Ulrich | 10/6/11 10:00pm

Prior to the Oct. 11 Republican presidential primary debate, 16 Dartmouth students selected by Rockefeller Center Associate Director Ronald Shaiko will convene in the Class of 1930 Room from 2 to 4 p.m. to discuss the traits necessary for an ideal presidential candidate, Shaiko said in an interview with The Dartmouth.

Members of the focus group who will sit on stage during the evening debate will discuss what characteristics a presidential candidate should possess and will then rank those traits in order of importance. Although opinions will undoubtedly vary from person to person, Shaiko said he believes the focus group will be able to agree upon common core elements by the conclusion of the discussion.

The structure of the discussion which will not attempt to educate participants about the platforms of current candidates, but rather identify characteristics of an ideal non-existant candidate ensures that students without extensive political knowledge will still be able to contribute to the discussion, Shaiko said. During the event, participants will compare the ideal presidential characteristics they have identified to those exemplified by figures with whom they are familiar, including former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as well as current President Barack Obama.

Shaiko, who is also a government and public policy professor, will facilitate Tuesday's discussion. While Shaiko will direct discussion topics, he will remain a "disinterested third party" and will not voice his own political views, he said.

Of the 50 students who applied to be in the focus group, Shaiko said he tried to select a roughly even number of students from each class. The group which includes eight men and eight women is composed of four registered Democrats, four registered Republicans and eight students who have either not declared a political affiliation or are Independents, he said. Focus group member Jack Pinto '15 who has not declared a political affiliation said that although he is currently leaning toward supporting the Democratic party in the election, discussing the Republican candidates will still be a valuable learning opportunity.

"I know where I'm leaning, and I don't know if the debate will change my mind," Pinto said. "But knowing what to look for in a leader will definitely help me for the future."

Students participating in the focus group will have the opportunity to watch the GOP debate in Spaulding Auditorium from a set of risers positioned on stage behind the candidates, Shaiko said. The candidates and journalist Charlie Rose, who will moderate the discussion, will be seated at a round table at the front of the stage, according to Shaiko.

Following the debate, the focus group participants will reconvene to discuss whether and how their opinions changed during the debate, as well as which candidates seem to best embody the ideal presidential characteristics they initially identified, Shaiko said.

For many of the participants in the focus group, the chance to view the debate will be as meaningful as participation in the focus group itself, according to Pinto.

"I'm really excited to be on stage, and even if none of [the candidates] win the actual election, it'll be fun to have been able to be involved in something that could potentially be pivotal for the nomination, and something that is so important in the political world," he said.

Fellow focus group participant Joshua Lee '13 said students are excited to hear a wide range of opinions from a cross-section of the Dartmouth population.

"Dartmouth is incredibly diverse, so I want to see how each person sees issues differently," Lee said. "I would also love to hear new opinions and refresh my own personal philosophies, as well as see how different individuals interpret the debate."

New Hampshire's important political influence increases the significance of the debate, according to Lee.

"I think it's great that Dartmouth provides this opportunity, and it's really exciting to be in New Hampshire especially in this political context where so much change is happening," Lee said. "It's really a moment where things matter, and it's awesome to be on the frontline."

Although Dartmouth has a reputation as slightly more conservative than other Ivy League schools, the College remains slightly liberal from a national perspective, Shaiko said. He said he expects the focus group to approach the debate openly, with few biases. Despite registered political leanings, moderate candidates will likely appeal the most to the general student body, according to Shaiko.

Shaiko organized a similar focus group for the 2007 Democratic primary debate after which reporters from The New York Times and The Washington Post interviewed the focus group participants, he said. The media are welcome to meet with focus group participants this year as well, but there is no planned media event, Shaiko said.