CIRCLE leads in innovative research
Tisch College research center analyzes civic engagement, electoral trends
Published: Thursday, October 11, 2012
Updated: Thursday, October 11, 2012 08:10
Though the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service continues to perpetuate a spirit of global awareness, one particular program catching fire this election season limits its focus to a national level.
The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) concentrates on dissecting civic engagement and education within the U.S. political process. CIRCLE is an entity that is entirely unique to Tufts, though it was initially launched at the University of Maryland in 2001 before moving to the Hill in 2008.
“Tufts’ strong commitment to active citizenship for its students made it a good home for us,” Director of CIRCLE Peter Levine said.
Levine, an analyst prominent in the political world, often provides commentary on citizenship and engagement for popular media outlets based on research that CIRCLE has done, an example being his article “Taking The President Seriously About Citizenship,” which was published last month on The Huffington Post.
CIRCLE’s research has also been cited by major news sources like the New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, National Public Radio (NPR) and the Los Angeles Times.
According to Felicia Sullivan, a senior researcher at CIRCLE, the center’s studies tend to focus generally on the 18− through 29−year−old population, often incorporating an additional emphasis on traditionally marginalized groups.
“Projects are ... focused on youth and looking at civic engagement broadly,” she said. “For example, our projects often look at engagement in terms of public discourse, how people are engaged within their communities and the culture around political activities.”
To further investigate the ways in which young citizens are politically active in their communities, CIRCLE connects with youth directly.
“We also do a lot of work on improving civic education in middle school and high school and have been part of an effort to strengthen state civics policies across the country,” Levine said.
The media frequently cites CIRCLE’s research because it offers insight into what makes civic education and mobilization efforts effective. In the past, CIRCLE’s research has illustrated that it is cost−effective for political campaigns to focus on reaching young voters. While campaigns had, in essence, dropped young voters from their canvassing lists in the 1980s and 1990s, CIRCLE’s research led to increased efforts on the part of campaigns to capture these young individuals, and voter data showed a huge surge in youth turnout at the polls for the 2004 and 2008 elections.
CIRCLE has conducted many studies aimed at analyzing the differences between the 2008 presidential election and the current race between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.
According to Sullivan, the Romney campaign has done a better job of reaching out to young voters than Senator John McCain’s campaign had in 2008. The issues at the forefront of young voters minds this time around are the economy and student debt.
Particularly relevant to all voters this year are the changes made to voting laws and the resulting implications.
“One of the big differences is that many states have changed their voting laws, typically adding new requirements or restrictions. We will conduct a poll immediately after Election Day that will allow us to estimate the effects of these new laws,” Levine said, noting that activists and legislators may use the results of the study to change state laws in time for the midterm elections in 2014.
CIRCLE research also shows that despite the Romney and Obama campaigns’ increasing usage of social media tools like Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter to engage youth voters, personal discussions on political matters are more likely to mobilize these young Americans. Research suggests that they are more likely to vote if a friend asks them to, Sullivan said.
“It remains true that a young person is more likely to vote and get involved if their friends or family talk to them about it in person than if they post about the matter on their Facebook walls,” she said.
Levine outlined other research projects that CIRCLE will be conducting related to November’s election that could ultimately shape ideas about civic engagement and education, he said.
“In the spring of 2013, we will be working on analyzing our own survey data from the 2012 election and trying to learn what caused young people to vote,” he said.
CIRCLE’s research seems to hold true for many politically active Tufts students. For sophomore Caroline Kimball−Katz, personal discussions with family and friends have played a huge role in her decision to be politically active.
“People in my life have certainly influenced my decision to get involved in politics, my mom more than anyone else,” Kimball−Katz said. “She put the idea into my head of volunteering on a campaign, but I was the one who chose to pursue the Obama campaign.”
In her experience as campus leader for Obama for America and a summer organizing fellow for the campaign, she has also found that the personal connections CIRCLE distinguishes as critical components of engagement can also be fostered by campaigns, thus making a sizable difference when it comes to successfully engaging other citizens.
“The campaign taught me right from the beginning that using my voice was of utmost importance. We can’t rely on Facebook and Twitter to campaign for us. They only hit the surface for a lot of people,” she said. “Real conversations dig much deeper and force our opinions out of our mouths and into the world. This is important because, ultimately, people need to make the decision for themselves.”
Just as Tufts touts and tries to instill a focus on global citizenship and awareness in all of its students, CIRCLE strives to provide a deeper understand of civic engagement, awareness and education on a national level that the media, campaigns and students can use to increase active citizenship nationwide.
“I was originally concerned about the condition of democracy in the U.S.,” Levine said. “I realized that to get democratic reform, we need more active citizens, and to get more active citizens, we need to hook people when they are young, so I moved into youth civic engagement.”