Whitaker Porter was torn. She was graduating from high school and planning to attend college in either Texas, an hour drive from her home city of New Orleans, or in the Bronx, a plane ride away.
She chose Fordham College at Rose Hill and never looked back.
“I knew I would be happy at either school, but I wanted something different for college. I wanted to branch out and I thought, ‘What better place than New York City?’”
Porter majored in political science and was so taken with it that she stayed on another year to earn a master’s in election and campaign management at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. A member of the graduate student council, she will serve as the school’s beadle at commencement in May, though she’ll technically graduate in August.
An Interest in Polarization
Then it’s off to help alleviate the yawning partisan gap in U.S. politics. Inspired by classes such as Polarization in American Politics, which she took with professor Richard Fleisher, Ph.D., and informed by her own background growing up in a conservative area of the country, Porter hopes to find ways to bring Americans of different backgrounds together.
“The question at the end of our polarization class was, ‘What does this mean for our democracy? Is this detrimental?’ The answer was, not yet, but it really could be. That’s something that I think has really stayed with me,” she said.
“It sounds cliché to say, but I want to do something to bridge the gap between the parties. It gets really hard because you’re asking people to give up their beliefs to compromise, which isn’t gonna happen realistically. I think bipartisanship is understanding that there’s still partisanship involved, but you’re figuring out a way that it can work.”
She has no delusions about the challenges ahead. But research she’s conducted at Fordham has convinced her that some partisanship can be blamed on structural problems. In a paper she wrote about campaign finance laws, for instance, she found that a majority of Political Action Campaigns (PACs) are associated with corporations or membership and trade groups, and support centrist political positions. So the common perception that corporations and special interests are polarizing agents in politics today is not entirely accurate, she said. Individual donors, on the other hand, tend to reside at the ideological extremes, she noted. And those donors’ influence has grown in in recent years.
“We can see that candidates that position themselves further towards the extremes raise more money from individual contributors. So, limits on contributions change the types of donors that candidates can focus on and raise money from,” she said.
“Who candidates raise money from can effect which types of candidates get elected—either more centrist or more ideologically extreme. I’m trying to avoid a value judgment on which one is better, just trying to understand how the change can happen. It’s not about public policy. It’s about the rules and how they kind of shape what can happen in the public policy sphere.”
From the Theoretical to the Practical
If her undergraduate degree gave her a theoretical grounding, the master’s has given her practical training needed to work in the field. Porter has been interning at the political consulting firm the Advance Group this spring, and for her capstone project, her class is designing from scratch a political campaign for Martha McSally, the junior senator from Arizona. Voter profiles, polling questions, television scripts, a fundraising plan, phone banking—they’re designing all of it, using the knowledge they’ve learned from classes such as Survey Research, which is taught by Monika McDermott, Ph.D.
McDermott, who also taught Porter as an undergraduate, said she was an outstanding student, a fun person to have in class, and someone who was obviously actively thinking about the material being discussed.
“Whit’s got a passion for politics that is very important when you’re going into the political world, because it’s a really rough and tumble world and it’s not for the faint at heart,” she said.
“She’s got the sharp, and I would say, natural instincts of what works and what doesn’t in the political world. Some of that comes from learning, and some of it comes naturally. I think that’s what’s going to make her a success when she lands a job and starts working full time.”
Getting Ready for 2020
Porter’s not sure what she’ll do after graduation yet, but is attracted to consulting, for which there will likely be a great need as the 2020 presidential election approaches. Even if she doesn’t work directly with a 2020 presidential candidate, she anticipates that lower-level political races will also be affected, as voters tend to vote straight Democratic or Republican tickets, creating a coattail effect.
Moving to New York definitely prepared her to confront differing opinions, she said, and even caused her to change some of her own.
“I am not leaving Fordham with the same political beliefs I was brought up with. Coming to New York, you’re just opened up to an entirely different perspective and a different worldview,” she said.
“It’s interesting, because I can also see how people here have no idea what it’s like to grow up in the South, or in a place where conservative values are the norm, and it’s not always a bad thing. I feel like I have this really interesting perspective of both ideologies and how they’re so different. They kind of just shoot past each other without ever really intersecting.”