Eight political professionals from “the Ohio of India” are working at campaign offices in the American bellwether state as part of an international fellowship program.
They’re all University of Akron International Campaign Fellows, participating in a new program that allows students to swap campaign lessons with the political battleground.
“Indians have a lot of interest in US elections, and I think the entire world has a lot of interest,” said Pankhuri Pathak, a fellow who works as spokeswoman for India’s 24-year-old Samajwadi Party. “Over here, campaigning techniques are more sophisticated, more advanced. So we thought maybe we could learn something from here and apply it back home.”
The fellows are high-ranking professionals in their home country – political scientists, communications specialists and strategists from India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.
Unlike Ohio, U.P. sends more legislators to the national governing body, Parliament, than any other state. But like Ohio, it has huge sway over which party wins a national majority and gets to influence who becomes prime minister.
“We call it `the Ohio of India’ because you can’t win an election in India without winning U.P.,” said Hari Kasula, the program’s deputy director.
Groups from Liberia and Brazil arrive later this month.
No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio, and the last Democrat to do so was John F. Kennedy in 1960. The state is an attractive laboratory for these political observers because of its compact mix of big cities, suburbs, mountains and farms that attract almost nonstop presidential stops in election years.
Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump have visited the state about 25 times combined since they clinched their parties’ nominations.
Besides working full-time knocking on doors, making phone calls and stuffing mail for political campaigns, all fellows must complete the university’s class on battleground politics.
Gerald Austin, a longtime Ohio Democratic strategist, conceived the program and says it’s unique in embedding international fellows with US political campaigns. He team-teaches the battleground politics class with the University of Akron’s John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.
On a recent Wednesday night, the class gathered in two separate classrooms – at Columbus State Community College and on the university’s main campus more than two hours away – that were digitally linked by audio and video.
The guest speaker was Tim Monaco from the office of Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, the state elections chief. He fielded dozens of technical questions about how Ohio elections work.
Austin said international connections made through the program are valuable to both sides.
“All these folks are very skilled, experienced in their own country,” Austin said. “India’s the largest democracy in the world. They’ve got 1.3 billion people, and 800 million of them vote. They’re astounded to hear we actually vote, count and declare a winner all on Election Day. So they have a lot to teach us about what they do that we don’t do, and we have a lot to teach them about what we do.”
The Indian fellows can discuss the effects in their country of making Election Day a national holiday, casting all votes into a central digital system – and greeting the first voters at polling places with flowers.
“The Indian system is more easy, and more safe,” Kasula said, while noting he and his colleagues are especially interested in the voter micro-targeting – tailored messages to individual voters based on data such as voting patterns and internet habits – employed by American campaigns.
Indian ballots also feature an option that may have come in handy this year in the US, when two of the least popular candidates on record are running for president: None of the above.
There’s less time to grow weary of the candidates, though. India’s election season is just 45 days long.