“I didn’t come from a political family,” said Costas Panagopoulos, Ph.D., whose parents emigrated to the United States from Greece only a few months before he was born. “Politics was something my parents more or less avoided most of the time, but it didn’t take long for them to realize I was different in that regard.”
Panagopoulos was seven years old when he realized the importance of politics. It was 1980 and American hostages had been held in Iran for more than a year. Worried that the standoff would result in World War III, Panagopoulos recalls his amazement that the political powder keg was defused with the election of Ronald Reagan.
“That really stirred my political consciousness,” Panagopoulos said.
Almost three decades later, Panagopoulos is still fascinated by politics, studying the subject with a scientist’s eye and stirring the political consciousness of Fordham University students as an assistant professor of political science, teaching at the Rose Hill and Lincoln Center campuses.
He is also the director of the master’s degree program in elections and campaign management in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He has tailored the program as a training ground for students in practical electioneering.
Often scholars study elections but have little understanding of real-world campaign logistics, he said, while political operatives slug it out in the campaign trenches without ever picking their heads up to see the bigger picture.
“I try, in my work, to bridge that gap between theory and practice and to bring politics to life in the classroom,” Panagopoulos said.
The program exposes students to all facets of campaigning by providing a foundation in standard political science and lessons on everything from voting behavior to statistics. Students learn how to target voters; how to use the media to get out a candidate’s message; how to hire and supervise a good fundraiser; and how to hire and direct polling experts.
Panagopoulos learned some of the lessons during his own bid for office in 1992, when he was just out of high school and decided to run for the Massachusetts legislature.
He lost by less than five percentage points to the incumbent and gained an appreciation for the complexity of campaigns. “What struck me was just how advanced the process of political campaigning was, even at the time and for a low-level race,” he said.
It wasn’t just about knocking on doors and shaking hands on Main Street, though. Panagopoulos did his share of shoe-leather campaigning. Campaigns are won, he said, by scouring voter records, seeing who votes and why, and reaching those voters.
“Strategically targeting which doors you’re going to knock on is important when resources like time and money are constrained,” he said.
Panagopoulos, 34, earned his bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University and his doctorate in politics from New York University. While he was a doctoral student at NYU, Panagopoulos won a spot in the American Political Science Association’s Congressional Fellowship Program, a rare honor for someone so young.
He spent his fellowship year working for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in Washington, D.C.
In his research, Panagopoulos tackles a wide range of questions about political behavior using a variety of methodological approaches. His most recent research projects involve conducting field experiments to gauge the impact of mass media and other voter contact techniques on electoral participation and competition, techniques Panagopoulos honed as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies.
“Grassroots mobilization can be critical to election outcomes,” Panagopoulos believes, “and field experiments increasingly shed light on important questions about the effect of various mobilization efforts and activities.” In many cases, the findings of this research have helped to dispel many longstanding myths about electioneering, Panagopoulos said, and have enabled political operatives to mount more efficient and effective campaigns.
“Social science literature suggests through experimental research that door-to-door contact is much more effective than things like direct mail and cold calls and even some mass media, for example,” he said.
In the last presidential election, there were plenty of campaign ads on the air, but there was also a significant push for the ground war in which supporters went door to door, particularly in swing states.
“That’s a function of real world politics learning something from social science,” Panagopoulos explained. “Both parties generally are getting much better at figuring out who voters are and reaching out to engage them in the process. That’s a positive and healthy thing for a system that relies on the democratic process to make sure that representation is happening in the way the founders intended.”
Panagopoulos also researches and teaches courses in campaign finance. “Money and Politics,” a popular undergraduate course he developed and is currently teaching on the Lincoln Center campus, challenges students to think critically about the role of money in the political and electoral process. Teaching the course against the backdrop of the high-stakes, high-intensity 2008 presidential campaign is especially timely, he said, given that it is shaping up as the most expensive in history, and the press will undoubtedly look at a candidate’s ability to raise money as a proxy for his or her viability.
For his part, Panagopoulos will be monitoring the race for the 2008 campaign closely both through and as part of the media. It’s something he has done before. In 2006, he worked for NBC News as part of its “Decision Desk” team. He helped reporters prepare for exit poll coverage and monitored House of Representative races, helping decide when to call them. Panagopoulos also frequently appears on local and national television venues including CNN, NBC News and Fox News to comment on developments in electoral politics and has been quoted extensively in the New York Times, USA Today, and The Los Angeles Times.
Although he wears many hats, Panagopoulos loves teaching and has been inspired by Fordham’s students.
“I find them to be very energized and concerned,” he said. “We’re probably entering a new era of heightened interest and participation on the part of young people in American politics.”
By Joshua Payne