Campaign and Election Activities and Discussion Questions
The race to the White House is on! Grab your students’ attention and captivate them in campaign and election tactics, rhetoric, and processes using our toolkit of activities and discussion questions.
• Watch a Presidential Stump Speech…and Invite Kids to Write Their Own
• Collect or Make Campaign Tokens and Posters
• Separate Fact from Fiction: Analyze the Campaign Rhetoric
• Be an Eyewitness to History
• Host a Mock Election
• Visit a Presidential Historic Site, Library, or Website
• Play a Game of Presidential Trivia
Watch a Presidential Stump Speech…and Invite Kids to Write Their Own
All successful presidential candidates have a standard speech they know by heart that includes their key ideas and plans for the country. This standard speech enables the candidates to speak to voters along the campaign trail without writing a new speech for every stop along the way. Although each candidate may tweak the speech to acknowledge and address the people and places where he or she is talking, the majority of the speech content typically remains the same whether the candidate is talking to voters in Anchorage, Alaska or Miami, Florida. This type of speech is referred to as a “stump speech” because political candidates in the nineteenth century often stood on tree stumps as they spoke to the crowds.
Depending upon where you live, you may be able to take your kids to hear a presidential stump speech. You can read all about rocket scientist Homer Hickam’s experience listening to presidential contender John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail in West Virginia in “The White House, the Moon, and a Coal Miner’s Son” in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. Joe Cepeda’s coordinating illustration is featured at right.
Candidates visit all sorts of public places where you can take your entire family or a group of young people. Even if the candidate visiting your area is someone you may not vote for, consider taking your kids to see him or her anyway. Hearing a presidential candidate give a speech in person is a wonderful opportunity to engage young people in the political process and excite them to become active, involved citizens! After the event, be sure to ask your kids what they thought about the speech and the experience. Did they find the candidate engaging? Was he or she a good public speaker? Did he or she attempt to connect with the local people? How so? Did the candidate use humor, and was it effective or not? What ideas in the speech did they find inspiring or not?
Kids can compare the stump speeches of 2012 Republican candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum in The New York Times interactive piece “Anatomy of a Stump Speech.” Have kids watch or read at least two of the candidates’ speeches and write a list of the types of information included in each, such as a personal story, an attack on another opponent, a quote from a former president, or a particular idea for the future. Ask the kids to compare their lists and determine how the speeches are similar and different. Do the candidates use a positive or negative tone? How does the speech persuade listeners to the speaker’s point of view? Which speech does each young person consider to be the most effective and why? Provide a rubric of criteria for “grading” or “rating” speeches and ask kids to use it to rate each speech…or have kids create their own rubric. Compare the grades assigned by each student. If students assigned different grades to a particular speech, ask students to explain their grades and discuss their reasoning together.
Have kids consider what they would want to say on the campaign trail if they were running for president. Ask them to write a list of the issues most important to them, then ask them to think about how they will present these issues in the speech. Can they support their arguments using facts or statistics? Will they appeal to the listeners’ emotional side using a personal story? Have kids write a rough draft of their speech. Consider having a peer review of each speech to provide constructive criticism on how each speech can be improved. Remind kids that speeches are meant to be heard—not read in silence—so have them each read their speeches to a partner for additional feedback. Ask kids to make final changes as needed and once they have completed a final draft, invite them all to take turns delivering their speeches to the group. Consider having kids grade each speech using the rubric used to grade the speeches of the actual presidential candidates.
Collect or Make Campaign Tokens and Posters
Whether an election is for a seat on the local school committee or the White House, hopeful candidates and their supporters work to promote their campaigns as widely as possible using buttons, bumper stickers, and yard signs.
Campaign tokens can be fun to collect! Encourage kids to attend a local rally or speech if possible or to visit the local campaign office for a candidate. Young people can make their own scrapbooks using 3-hole binders and construction paper to store and save all the campaign memorabilia they are able to collect. Kids may even want to cut newspaper articles and campaign ads to include in their scrapbooks. Another idea is to ask kids to write regular journal entries in their scrapbooks summarizing their thoughts, impressions, and opinions during the campaign and election process. As an alternative to collecting campaign tokens and articles in a scrapbook, kids could also collect news, photographs, campaign slogans, and ads in an online format using word processing or presentation software or even a blog. Be sure to have kids credit the sources of materials collected in their print and online scrapbooks.
Campaign tokens can also be fun to make! Discuss with young people the types of campaign tokens they have seen, then have them choose what type of campaign token they would like to make. There are many possibilities to consider. Buttons, bumper stickers, posters, yard signs, and banners can all be fun to make. Campaign tokens can be designed to promote one of the candidates in this year’s presidential election or students running in your school election. You might also consider having kids make tokens or posters to promote a certain cause that is important to them.
Kits for making official-looking buttons are available at craft stores, but you can also make buttons using poster board, markers, and pins. Cut circles from the poster board, draw your design with pencil, and then color it in with markers or crayons. You can trace around the bottom of a cup to make perfect circles, or you can use a protractor. You can also design buttons using a computer. After finishing the buttons, tape a safety pin to the back so kids can wear the buttons on their shirts or backpacks. Campaign buttons can also be designed and printed on a computer using word processing or graphics software.
Bumper stickers can be made using adhesive-backed paper from an office supply store. Simply cut each sheet to the desired size (bumper stickers are typically 4” tall by 12” wide), use a pencil to draw the design, then use permanent markers to color in each design. Bumper stickers can also be designed and printed using word processing or graphics software.
Separate Fact from Fiction: Analyze the Campaign Rhetoric
Presidential contenders have a LOT to say when meeting with voters and interviewers across the country. Not only do they present their own ideas and plans for the country, they are also known to twist the truth about their past record and achievements to present themselves in the best possible light. Furthermore, candidates also attack, insult, and sometimes tell untruths about their opponents’ records and positions, making it even more difficult for the voting public to determine the truth. (Read more about how mudslinging, misinformation, and other types of dirty tactics have been used throughout America’s history to promote or denigrate presidential hopefuls in “Persuading the People: Presidential Campaigns.”)
We can learn about where each candidate stands on the issues from many different sources, such as campaign websites, speeches, debates, and news coverage. Still, it can sometimes be extremely difficult to determine what is fact and what is fiction.
In their book unSpun: Finding Facts in a world of Disinformation, Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson provide a five-step process to thinking critically, which can be particularly helpful when trying to determine what campaign rhetoric is true or not:
- Keep an open mind.
- Ask questions.
- Look for the best information.
- Weigh the evidence.
A good place to cross-check and validate information is a news fact-checking site. Excellent fact-checking sites include:
- FactCheck.org. This website is a project supported by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania that “aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” Here you can read unbiased, nonpartisan analysis of current campaign ads, debates, speeches, interviews, and news releases.
- “Fact Checker” column in The Washington Post. The goal of this column is to provide “the truth behind the rhetoric” in the national political debates regarding the presidential candidates, political ads, Congress, and specific issues.
- PolitiFact.com. This Pulitizer Prize winning project of the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly is designed “to help you find the truth in the presidential campaign” and other issues facing the nation using its Truth-O-Meter scorecard regarding statements made not only by this year’s group of presidential contenders, but also by current politicians, advisors, and political groups.
Compare Fact-Checking Sites
Invite students to choose one particular candidate and to review fact-checking articles regarding that candidate’s statements on at least two of the fact-checking sites. Ask students:
- What did they learn?
- Were they surprised at how many of the candidate’s statements are true or not?
- Did they find the fact-checking articles helpful or not?
- Do the fact-checking sites “agree” on what is fact and what is not?
- Which site did they prefer and why?
Compare the Truth Scales
Ask students to compare the truth scales used by The Fact Checker column in The Washington Post and the PolitiFact column:
- The Fact Checker column uses a scale of up to four Pinocchios to indicate the level of truth or untruth being told.
- PolitiFact uses a Truth-O-Meter scale ranging from false to true, with “Pants on Fire” indicating the most outrageous falsehood.
Do students find these scales helpful or not? Why? Invite students to make up their own truth scale!
Analyze a Speech or Debate Using the Five-Step Process
Watch a campaign speech, debate, or commercial with young people. Beforehand, review Jackson and Jamieson’s five-step process for thinking critically and ask them to be sure to keep an open mind and to question statements being made in the speech, debate, or commercial. Have kids take notes while watching the speech regarding questions that come to mind. Afterwards, ask students to research their questions. Encourage them to review one or more fact-checking sites, but to look for information using other authoritative sources as well to find the best evidence that either supports or repudiates the claims made by the candidates. A school or public librarian can be an excellent resource to help students with their research! Once students have completed their research, ask them to write their own fact-checking report that analyzes the speech, debate, or commercial. For fun, you can ask kids to provide some type of truth label for each of the candidate’s claims, using their own truth scale. You may also want to invite kids to present their reports to the group or class for further discussion.
Be an Eyewitness to History
Expanding the right to vote to women became a critical issue beginning with the presidential election of 1872 and did not subside from the national conversation until the Nineteenth Amendment was finally passed in 1920 during the administration of Woodrow Wilson. In the Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out piece titled “Eyewitness to History,” author Stephanie S. Tolan imagines a dialogue between a journalist and suffragists who are picketing outside the White House in 1917 demanding the right to vote. The journalist is working for a program that “travels through time to let you witness the major events of the past.” Emily Arnold McCully’s coordinating illustration is featured here.
Ask young people to read Tolan’s dialog and think about the voices being portrayed. Ask young people the following questions: Who is included in the dialog? Who is a real person from history and who is fictional? Does the dialog include perspectives from both sides of the issue? How does the dialog portray opposing sides? What is being said in favor and against expanding the right to vote to women? What do you learn about the women’s suffrage movement from reading this dialog?
Ask young people to think about other critical issues that have faced our nation and how supporters made their voices heard. Such issues they might want to think about include civil rights, wildlife protection, environment protection, prohibition, national defense, and economic disparity. Have students select one issue of particular interest to them and research it at your school or public library. (You might also consider having some students research issues of the past and others select issues being addressed in this year’s presidential campaign.) Ask them to read about both sides of the issue and to determine how supporters for each side made their voices heard. Kids should be asked to take notes during their research.
Using the information learned from their research, ask young people to write their own “Eyewitness to History” dialog! They can imagine they are a witness to a picketing event or rally for their issue of interest to write their own dialog. Students should determine “who” will be included in the dialog in addition to the journalist reporting the event. Remind students that a journalist asks questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? In writing the dialog, students should start with the journalist explaining where and when he or she is and who is with her to set the scene. Start the dialog by having the journalist ask questions of the event participants as Tolan does in her “Eyewitness” dialog. To ensure both sides of the issue are presented, also have the students ask questions of people who are passing by. Kids might want to end their dialog by summarizing facts about the issue. If writing about an issue from the past, kids can summarize how the issue was resolved or not. If writing about a contemporary issue, kids can summarize the ongoing debate and the current status of pending legislation if applicable.
Host a Mock Election
Encourage young people to host their own mock election at home, in school, at your local library, or at your local community center! Depending upon the number and ages of kids within your group, you may want to organize a full-fledged campaign and election with complete media coverage or a simpler voter registration drive and election day.
Discuss with young people the presidential campaign and election process and all the activities that are involved in getting someone elected as president of the United States. (Refer to “Help Wanted: President of the United States,” “Persuading the People: Campaigning for President,” and “Getting the Votes and Getting Elected: The Popular Vote vs. The Electoral College” for more information.) Then determine the activities you would like to include in your own mock election.
Below is a list of three ways you might consider grouping students and their responsibilities. This list includes LOTS of possibilities! You can pick and choose the responsibilities you want to assign based on the time and resources available.
- Campaign Committees. These groups are assigned to each of the major political parties, and each group researches the candidates and their respective platforms so they can create a strategy to promote their candidates throughout the campaign. Ask the kids in these groups to consider the following: How will they promote their candidate? What type of campaign tokens and materials will they create? How will they distribute their campaign materials? How will they inform voters about their candidates’ ideas and plans for the country? Will someone give speeches on the candidate’s behalf? Will they participate in debates? How can they relay information to the media? If possible, take this group to the party’s campaign office in your area and talk to a member of the campaign staff to learn how they are promoting their candidate. Or, invite a campaign staffer to give a talk at your school or library.
- Media. This group reports on the progress of each presidential campaign throughout the campaign and election process. Depending upon the resources available to you, this group can write short news reports to be read aloud during morning announcements or printed in the school newsletter or newspaper. Students may also want to try their skills as a news anchor by video recording a report to be played in class. Another idea is to have these students write questions and interview members of the campaign committees. If students have access to video equipment (such as an easy-to-use flip camera), they may want to record student speeches and debates and then show them in class. If possible, take this group of kids on a field trip to your local newspaper, radio station, or TV station and talk to journalists there about how they cover a presidential campaign, or invite a journalist to talk to your group.
- Get Out the Vote Committee. This group is responsible for all the voting procedures. Encourage these kids to learn about the history of voting rights in America, then have them make plans to hold a voter registration drive, help all students register to vote, produce a marketing campaign that encourages everyone to vote, and run the polls on primary days and election day. (Refer to “Who Gets to Vote?” and “Get Out the Vote! Websites” for more information and ideas.) Ask the kids in this group to consider the following: Should they set a goal for voter registration and what should it be? 100%? How will they notify voters about the registration process? How will they encourage voters to learn about the candidates and where they stand on issues? Will they host a rally to inform voters and encourage them to vote? How can they use print or social media to get voters to the polls?
Find classroom activities and election resources prepared by Project Vote Smart at: VoteSmart.org/education.
Learn more about how the president is elected in the League of Women Voters downloadable guide titled “Electing the President: Everything You Need to Know.”
Check out kid-friendly election coverage, classroom activities, lesson plans, and games at Scholastic’s Election Resources Page for Teachers.
Visit a Presidential Historic Site, Library, or Website
More than twenty states boast presidential birthplaces, historic homes, libraries, and museums. Many of these very special places include extensive exhibits profiling events from the campaign trail and include not only samples of campaign posters and other memorabilia, but also audio and video exhibits that enable you to hear or watch the candidates’ stump speeches and the commercials created to help win votes.
Before visiting a presidential museum or library, be sure to check out the special activities calendar by calling ahead or reviewing the website because many libraries offer child-friendly and family-oriented activities to engage young people during an election year.
For a comprehensive guide to finding presidential sites and museums, listed by state, check out the NCBLA’s “Field Trip Guide: Presidential Birthplaces, Houses, and Libraries.”
If visiting a presidential museum or library in person is not possible, you can visit one virtually by checking out content on the library’s website. Many presidential museums and libraries offer articles, curricula, and other resources you can download and use free. For example, the Jimmy Carter Library website (JimmyCarterLibrary.gov) offers multi-disciplinary educational materials with content for students in grades 2 through 12. And the research section of the George Bush Library’s website (Bush41.org) offers online access to some of its print and audio-visual archives. Included in the visual archives are photographs from Bush’s life, including his time in public office. The photos are organized by topic, such as Various Campaigns, US Vice President, US President, and Presidential Transportation.
Play a Game of Presidential Trivia
Do you know which president was the first to live in the White House? (Hint: It wasn’t George Washington!) Do you know which president served the shortest term? (Hint: He was president for 31 days in 1841.) Do you know which president is famous for having said, “My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you––ask what you can do for your country?”
Find these answers—and make up your own presidential trivia questions to ask young people!—by digging into the NCBLA’s “Presidential Fact Files.” The “Presidential Fact Files” is a treasure trove of information for every one of our nation’s presidents that includes the dates of each president’s terms, party affiliation, family information, as well as legacy summaries and famous quotes. Using the information on each president’s page, you can quickly make up a list of questions regarding a president’s accomplishments or failures, an event that took place during the president’s term, or a famous line from a speech. Each presidential page also includes a “Did You Know?” category, which features additional facts perfect for a trivia game, such as the fact that George Washington was the only president to be elected by a unanimous vote and Theodore Roosevelt was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Jot down questions, type them up, or create questions on the fly by reading the “Presidential Fact Files” web pages from your smartphone or tablet computer. You can choose to play presidential trivia with just a couple people, or you can play with a large group divided into teams. Encourage kids to review the presidential and first lady facts and write their own trivia questions to share with friends and the adults in their lives.
If you plan to play with a group of kids who are different ages, you might want to consider creating a rating system for your questions, such as Easy, Average, and Advanced. Or, consider awarding bonus points for a particularly difficult question.
You can expand your trivia coverage by creating some questions based on America’s first ladies using the NCBLA’s “First Lady Fact Files.” You can also create questions based on the informative essays and stories in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. Be sure to take a look at the presidential images and notes in Bob Kolar’s “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: Who’s in the House?” Kolar’s illustration is featured above.
Sample Trivia Questions and Answers
- Which president was the first to live in the White House? (Answer: John Adams)
- Which president served the shortest term? (Answer: William Henry Harrison)
- Which president is famous for having said, “My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you––ask what you can do for your country?” (Answer: John F. Kennedy)
- Which president was the first to use electricity in the White House? (Answer: Benjamin Harrison)
- Before the passage of the 22nd amendment, presidential terms were not limited to two. Which president served FOUR terms? (Answer: Franklin Delano Roosevelt)
- Almost any adult American citizen is qualified to become president. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution establishes the exact qualifications. What are they? (Answer: Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution establishes that anyone who is a natural-born U.S. citizen, at least thirty-five years old, and has lived in the United States for at least fourteen years can become president.)
- Which presidential candidate was the first to promote his candidacy using television? (Answer: Dwight Eisenhower)
- Which president proclaimed “The Star-Spangled Banner” to be our national anthem? (Answer: Herbert Hoover)
- Which president campaigned successfully in 1840 using the populist slogan “Log Cabin and Hard Cider?” (Answer: William Henry Harrison)
- Which president was so well-known for his silent nature that during a dinner party a guest teased that she had bet a friend she could entice the president to say more than five words during the meal, to which he answered, “You lose?” (Answer: Calvin Coolidge)
- Which first lady worked with the Library of Congress to create the National Book Festival, an annual event first held on the Mall in Washington, D.C. in 2001? (Answer: Laura Bush)
- Who was the only presidential candidate to ever be elected by a unanimous vote? (Answer: George Washington)
- Which president considered himself to have been a “sissy” as a child, having said, “If there was any danger of getting into a fight, I always ran?” (Answer: Harry Truman)
- Which president was the first one to throw the first pitch in a major league baseball game? (Answer: William Howard Taft)
- Which president met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to improve relations and negotiate a treaty to eliminate a substantial number of nuclear missiles? (Answer: Ronald Reagan)
- Who was the first First Lady to sit in Cabinet meetings? (Answer: Rosalynn Carter)
- Which president was honored for his pioneering work in the discovery and study of fossils by having a species of mastodon named for him? (Answer: Thomas Jefferson)
- Which modern president is credited with passage of the Family Medical Leave Act? (Answer: Bill Clinton)
- Who assumed the presidency upon President Lincoln’s assassination? (Answer: Andrew Johnson)
- Which president, in the wake of 9-11, took time off from his duties at the White House to throw the first pitch at a Major League Baseball playoff game in Yankee Stadium to show his support for New Yorkers? (Answer: George W. Bush)
- Which first lady hired a French chef to run the White House kitchens? (Answer: Jacqueline Kennedy)
- Our 43rd president, George W. Bush, is the son of former President George H. W. Bush, who served as America’s 41st president. Who was our country’s first father and son pair to both be elected as president? (Answer: John Quincy Adams served as our sixth president. He was the son of our nation’s second president, John Adams.)
- Which president, having been thrust into the position following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, made the decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan as a means to end World War II? (Answer: Harry S. Truman)
- Who is the only vice president to have assumed the presidency for a reason other than the president’s death? (Answer: Gerald R. Ford)
- Who was the first and only president to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? (Hint: He served from 1921 through 1930). (Answer: William Howard Taft)
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