FLUSHING, New York — The room is buzzing as John McCain frantically paces back and forth, Sarah Palin by his side.
“I need an opening and info on Social Security,” he shouts to his speechwriters and policy analysts as they scurry about. It’s the day of the big debate — the final one before Election Day — and McCain and his team have been preparing for weeks. The energy is palpable, but it’s soon interrupted. “This is the end of sixth band; please head to your next class,” a mysterious voice says from over the loudspeaker. Everyone grabs their backpacks and heads out.
The scene isn’t McCain’s campaign headquarters, but a 12th grade classroom in Queens, New York. “McCain,” “Palin” and the rest of the group are actually students participating in Townsend Harris High School’s election simulation, which according to program organizers, is the only program in the country that simulates every aspect of the presidential race, start to finish.
Unlike popular (and surprisingly accurate) indicators such as the Scholastic News Election Poll and the 7-Eleven cup poll, the Harris elections have had only a 50/50 record when it comes to predicting real-world results since the program began in 1996. But it has been accurate in educating students about the election.
“It’s always of interest to us as to why our results are not the same [as the real election],” program organizer Susan Getting told MTV News. “Very honestly, our candidate sometimes just does a better job than the real-world candidate.”
In order to prepare for his role as Barack Obama, senior Damian Charles and his team of policy analysts tuned in to CNN, read the New York Times daily and even checked out conservative news outlets to learn more about the Republican policies.
“All of my views I probably know just as well as [Obama] does,” Charles said. “Because the freshmen ask really hard questions, and I have to be ready to answer them.”
The students are chosen by their teachers to fill specific roles, from the candidates themselves to policy analysts, speechwriters, press secretaries and campaign managers. There are also students assigned to work as election reporters for the school paper or on the live call-in radio show. Others work for one of 15 mock special-interest groups, including MoveOn.org, the Sierra Club and the Christian Coalition. The students also have to complete 10 hours of community service for a real campaign.
Both of the campaigns, represented by two groups of seniors, are given a budget of 4,000 Simbucks, fake money that can be used to purchase in-school demonstration permits and ad time during one of the school’s two election-news programs, or it can be used to pay Federal Election Commission fines for inappropriate campaigning (yes, they also have their own FEC).
The underclassmen each receive 25 Simbucks, which the campaigns compete for by holding fundraisers throughout the semester (there are also some anonymous fat cats who receive 100-500 Simbucks).
“We have bake sales, and we even had a ’Barack Band,’ ” Charles said. “We also hosted Barack Café, where we had lots of food and served the students instead of them coming to us — that’s something that’s never been done before.”
“It’s a wonderful lesson in civics for high school students,” Getting added. “They become very savvy and critical, because they want to make their vote count. They don’t want to choose someone based on a sound bite.”
So how will Harris students make their votes count on their Election Day, Monday (November 3)? Although most students we interviewed support their Obama — largely due, they say, to their liberal upbringings — there are still some who are undecided.
“I’m not leaning towards anyone right now; that’s why I’m doing these different commercials, trying to get informed,” Bill Pastore, Harris’ “Joe the Plumber,” said during a shoot in the boys’ bathroom.
“I really have no idea who I’m voting for,” senior David Genfan said. “Both candidates are doing such a good job.”
“Both of them really know their stuff,” senior Kiran Manikarnika added. “And the students vote on how well the campaign gets out to them — not always on what their views are.”
And although Obama is ahead in both real-world polls and at the school, Getting said her “gut feeling is that our election might be a little closer than one might think. The candidates are very well-prepared, so we’ll have to see.”
To find out who came out on top, check out the Newsroom blog on Monday evening.
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