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Students’ Interest in Politics Leads to Winning Research Project

Brenna Hagan '21 Communication Studies
Widener students and faculty pose with Democratic primary candidate Elizabeth Warren in front of flags in New Hampshire
From left, students Jack Heavner and Cloë Di Flumeri, candidate Elizabeth Warren, Ben Beggs '20, and Professors J. Wesley Leckrone and Angie Corbo, at the New Hampshire primary in February 2020. (Pre pandemic photo.)

Election Day is major moment in the life of our country. For political science students Cloë A. Di Flumeri ‘23 and Jack Heavner ’21, it’s an especially poignant moment capping a year of travel and research marked by exciting connections and experiences that define the Widener commitment to hands-on learning. 

Di Flumeri and Heavner were among five Widener students selected to attend the New Hampshire primary alongside communications and political science faculty last year. As part of an educational and interdisciplinary course, they had the opportunity to attend events for presidential candidates, interview potential voters, report information back to Widener students through interactive video sessions, and – most of all – encourage students to vote in the 2020 election. 

Dr. Wesley Leckrone, a political science and government professor at Widener, accompanied the New Hampshire trip and reached out to Di Flumeri and Heavner to continue their political engagement by participating in Widener’s Summer Research and Creative Activities program this year. Leckrone, an active researcher in American federalism and state and local policy agendas, encouraged Di Flumeri and Heavner to work alongside him to analyze state-of-the-state addresses of governors in each of the 50 states. 

“I am a very American domestic-politics type of person, so I was interested in looking at the trends of what governors were talking about, as well as their partisanship behavior,” said Heavner, a political science and criminal justice double major. “I’ve worked with the Center for Study of Federalism before and knew it was a topic area I was always drawn to.” 

Di Flumeri and Heavner’s research with Leckrone involved utilizing a system to analyze sentences from various state-of-the-state addresses from 2020. The team then circled back to review topic codes assigned to the sentences in search of a unified understanding of the speeches. 

“In that period, we were building intercoder reliability to ensure we had an accurate and consistent evaluation of what the governors were talking about between two people,” said Di Flumeri, an international relations and political science double major. “These codes are pretty general. For example, health of water waste could refer to public land and water management or the environment, two entirely different sections. We really had to understand the context in which governors were speaking about specific topics.” 

Both Heavener and Di Flumeri, who each share a passion for political engagement, were surprised by their findings. Their research suggested Senate and House partisanship had a significant impact on the partisanship of the governor. For example, Republican governors with a Democratic house as well as Democratic governors with Democratic houses coded similar. In other words – the legislature had a bigger impact on the state’s partisanship versus the governor. 

Their coding found that many states were in fact hyper-partisan. “The legislature is going to be a bit more reflective of the people, whereas the governor is often tailoring themselves to the people,” said Heavner. 

By the end of their summer research, the pair had configured coded results for 38 states which they presented at the SURCA Symposium in September. Di Flumeri and Heavner made their mark on the event, ultimately taking home honors for their research titled  “Steering the Ship: Governors’ Priorities by State.” 

Now, as Americans cast votes for the next president, in gubernatorial elections in 11 states and two U.S. territories, as well as in hundreds of local and state contests, Di Flumeri and Heavner’s work continues. By the end of spring 2021, the pair hope to conclude their research by expanding their search to all 50 states for the past five years. This fall, though, their research draws an important conclusion to encourage young voters to engage in their democracy during the election. 

“Governors put a lot of stress on the conclusion that whether Democrat or Republican, we are all American. It diverges so much from what we are seeing in national politics, especially during our current election, said Di Flumeri, a sophomore, who hopes to continue her research alongside Leckrone throughout her time at Widener, studying state-of-the-state addresses from 2010 to present day. “The way that our country is moving in this extremely decisive way is the wrong direction to be moving.” 

Di Flumeri and Heavner hope that young voters find reassurance in their research, understanding that their votes, especially as many college students vote in their first presidential election, really matter. 

As Heavner and Di Flumeri look forward to careers in political science, both are confident their travel experiences, participation in the SURCA program, and expertise of Leckrone, has given them a vast array of tools and knowledge to navigate the world of politics. 

“None of this could have happened without Dr. Leckrone,” said Di Flumeri.

Widener encourages all students to be actively engaged and vote in the upcoming 2020 election. Helpful resources for students voting in the 2020 election can also be found on the Widener Political Science Facebook page. 

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