David Redlawsk, Department of Political Science
Every four years things get a little crazy for associate professor of political science David Redlawsk. As presidential candidates make forays into Iowa before the state’s first-in-the-nation January caucuses, he speaks almost daily to the media—from local reporters to the New York Times, and from National Public Radio to Australian television. He also teaches a number of election-related courses, and directs the University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll. In his personal life, he serves as precinct chair for the Johnson County Democratic Central Committee.
Iowa, Redlawsk insists, truly is a unique place when it comes to politics. The opportunities are immense and the excitement is palpable. He recently spoke with fyi about life as a political scientist in the Hawkeye State.
What drew you into the field of political science?
I was always interested in politics, even as a kid. In high school I was involved in a couple of losing political campaigns—I always seemed to go for the underdog who had no chance—but I enjoyed it. So I majored in political science at Duke University, which has a very good program. But I really didn’t know what to do with myself so I got an MBA in marketing and began running computer centers in a couple of small colleges. I did that for just about 10 years and then, quite frankly, got bored with computers. I still liked politics, however, and was an active politician in my community, so I went back to school to get a PhD in political science at Rutgers University.
You were a local politician in the East. Any ambition to run again for office?
I’ve thought about it. I served on city councils in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey and I served as chairman of the planning commission for a community in Pennsylvania. Here in Iowa, I’ve kept most of my political work behind the scenes. Right now I’m really enjoying being a professor, which is not incompatible with running for office, but I’d much rather sit back and do the kind of work I’m doing—trying to understand the political environment and helping others make sense of it. I think that is my primary mission at this point.
So what does your research involve?
I’m a political psychologist. I take psychological concepts, particularly ideas of individual decision-making theories, and apply them to the political realm—in this case, voters. I’m interested in how voters make the decisions that they make, how they process the information they get about candidates, and, in particular, how their emotional responses to the candidates influence the way they make their decision. I do a lot of that research through an experimental design, where we bring people into a laboratory and watch them as they make decisions about candidates and try to learn how they’re using the information. It’s very labor-intensive and requires a lot of help to make it happen, so every semester I have as many as six undergraduates working on my projects.
What is the University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll?
It started as a project for teaching and learning—I’m a strong believer in hands-on learning—when my colleague Caroline Tolbert suggested last spring that students in her Intro to Politics course could benefit from survey research and polling. We decided to do a caucus survey to see what Iowans were thinking, and each of the students collected about 10 respondents, around 1,200 total. We realized we had some interesting data, so we wrote a press release and the media picked it up. The provost and the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences found some funding for us to continue with the poll over the cycle of the 2008 election. Students help write the questions, do the calling, and analyze the data, and we are also working on the public relations aspect by helping the public understand the nature of the political environment we’re in. So it’s become a really big project out of something that started off as another way to try to connect students to the real world.
What does Iowa’s political climate mean for UI students?
Iowa is the place to be if you have any interest in political campaigns. It feels like we’re stumbling over presidential candidates at times, and that means students have all kinds of opportunities to work with candidates. I had students in the last campaign, for example, driving John Kerry around and setting up events for John Edwards. This time I’ve got several students interning with Rudy Giuliani. Students bring real excitement to the campaign. It’s a win-win for both sides: students learn a lot about what’s going on in real politics, and candidates get the workers they need to help get people out to the caucuses.
So how is this different than on other college campuses?
Iowa sees the candidates like nowhere else except New Hampshire, so students here can expect to meet the candidates they’re interning for. That’s not true in virtually any other place. There are so many opportunities, and I think that makes it a qualitatively different experience. Students feel much more directly connected to the process by doing it here in Iowa. Caucuses are extremely labor-intensive. You really have to work hard to get people out to caucus. It’s just more exciting and interesting than a primary election.
Quantify the time you spend doing media interviews. Do you enjoy the spotlight?
When we release results from the University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll, I probably talk to the media full-time for a week or two, and at other times, I am talking on average to four or five reporters a week from major publications, such as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, or NBC. It’s a big job that will abruptly end as soon as the caucuses are over and then pick up again in the fall. I’m a political scientist, though, and I think it’s an important part of what I do. I think talking to the press, trying to explain politics to the media so things can be explained to the public, is an important part of being a professor at a public research university. Reaching out, although time-consuming, gives us the chance to take the work we’re doing in the lab or in our offices and make it relevant to the state and to the public as a whole. I consider the media work that I do to be a tremendously important part of my job, and it’s fun, too.
What was the most exciting media interview you’ve done?
Live shots are the scariest—there is no going back, no editing. I recently did one for Bloomberg Television. I was sitting in a UI studio facing a camera, listening through a headset to the person in New York who was asking the questions. I couldn’t see her or a TV. All I had was this camera in my face. You don’t quite know how you look, and it’s a little bit nerve-racking. But it’s also kind of exhilarating.
What do you do in your free time?
Free time, what’s that? Well, I am a political animal, so in my free time, I get involved in real-world politics. Beyond that, I’m on the board of directors for Iowa City Babe Ruth Baseball, a baseball program for 13- to 15-year-old players, and I’m also on the board of directors for City Circle Acting Company in Coralville. I would never go on stage, but I love being involved with the theater behind the scenes. Both my kids are theater majors in college, so they brought it to me.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
My political colleagues who know that I’m an activist and that I’m a Democrat would be surprised to know that I used to be a Republican. I grew up in a town in Pennsylvania that, I like to say, had no Democrats. At Duke University, I was president of the College Republicans, and then I was the College Republicans state treasurer in North Carolina. I began to change my views and eventually changed parties, becoming a very activist Democrat. So I’ve played both sides of the fence, which may be one of the reasons why, despite my personal politics, I get interest from students of all political stripes. I’ve got a really broad perspective, and that’s kind of unusual for a political activist.
by Sara Epstein Moninger