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USF professor in high demand for political analysis

TAMPA, Fla. -- The morning of Election Day 2000 started for USF Professor Susan MacManus as dozens of other elections days had, with rounds of interviews with newspapers, radio and television stations on what the day might bring.

What she couldn’t predict is that 36 hours later the nation would have no clear-cut winner, but instead a brewing electoral crisis.

Nor did MacManus know she, too, would be propelled into an international media spotlight.

For 36 hours in that epic Bush v. Gore election, MacManus gave interview after interview with no sleep and almost no breaks as news organizations around the world tried to make sense of the unprecedented crisis.

“I got home at 2 a.m. to be up at 4 a.m. for one of the morning shows when the phone rings,” she now recounts. “It was a reporter in Tokyo who asks: ‘What’s going on in Florida?’”

Good question -- and one MacManus has been working on answering for more than 25 years of studying the unique politics of Florida and its emergence as powerhouse on the national political stage.

As a Distinguished Professor of Political Science for the University of South Florida, the 2000 Presidential Election and the ensuing recount has made MacManus one of the most sought after political experts in the country while she also remains one of USF students most sought after professors.

With the relentless demands of what has become a continuous election cycle, MacManus has turned Florida’s political battleground into an unparalleled living classroom for her political science students. And this week, Florida’s political landscape -- which the Christian Science Monitor recently dubbed a “double paradise” for political junkies for its high-stakes GOP primary prize and its swing-state status in the upcoming general election -- literally lands at USF’s door with the Jan. 23 NBC News, Tampa Bay Times, National Journal Republican Presidential Candidates Debate.

“Florida is the biggest swing state and the most diverse and the most likely to be representative of Republican votes across the country,” MacManus said.

Given the media’s demands for her analysis, MacManus often finds herself in the thick of big political events, taking her students with her to see in person the election machinery at work. She also incorporates the real-world grind of politics -- such as the on-going drawing of new Congressional district maps -- and turns them into class assignments so students have hands-on experience on the less glamorous side of governing.

MacManus also serves as the faculty adviser for Pi Sigma Alpha, the political science honor society, which has named USF’s branch a “best” large university chapter a record-setting six times. The chapter stages an election year straw poll of USF students which provides valuable political insight into trends in the youth vote.

“Dr. MacManus was by far the most influential professor that I ever had in college. Her passion and knowledge of the political process was simply contiguous,” said Rep. John Legg, a former student who has gone on to serve four terms in the Florida House of Representatives.

“Once exposed to her classroom, you simply could not help but get engaged. Her insight in the voting patterns of various age groups, her analysis of the redistricting process, and other political science research, has been instrumental to me in the legislature and the election process.”

MacManus has been a USF professor since 1987, long before the I-4 Corridor meant anything in political parlance. But in the relatively brief history of modern Florida, it’s been enough time for the professor to witness the state’s surge as a home for divergent political trends which now drive modern politics.

Florida’s demographic shifts laid the groundwork for the state’s battleground status, MacManus explains. Retirees -- both conservative Midwesterners and more liberal New Yorkers and New Englanders -- flooded into the communities respectively on Florida’s west and east coasts. Immigration adds an additional twist: from conservative Cuban immigrants in Miami to more Democratic-leaning Hispanics in central Florida.

The daughter of a pioneering Florida family, MacManus’s personal history also is one of modern Florida. Her grandfather was the first permanent settler of Lutz and a pioneer in the citrus industry. MacManus grew up in Land O’Lakes, and family members brought their competing political viewpoints to the family dinner table, cultivating her interest in politics early.

But it was her groundbreaking book “Young v. Old: Generational Combat in the 21st Century” that set MacManus on the path as a leading political analyst. The work has been lauded as the first scholarly look to paint a comprehensive picture of how America’s aging population would change its politics and government on all levels.

“Florida is a state composed of people who weren’t born here; two-thirds of the voters weren’t born here and really it is a state in transition,” MacManus said.

Very few scholars had focused exclusively on Florida, so when the state burst into the public’s consciousness in the 2000 recount, MacManus became the media’s go-to expert. She has been quoted in newspapers worldwide upwards of 4,000 times since and continues to travel to key political events for real-time analysis.

Her students, fortunately, get to go along for the ride.

MacManus is known for taking them to the political events where news is made -- most recently the state Republican party convention and straw poll where now-former candidate Herman Cain surged in popularity. Equal time was given to the state Democratic convention, where students mingled with powerbrokers and witnessed the unfolding strategy to keep Florida in President Obama’s win-column.

“People underestimate how interested the students are in the issues,” MacManus said. “They think they are interested in the celebrity of politics. But that’s not so.”

Students in her classes -- MacManus has more than 130 undergraduates she is teaching this term -- get a real-world taste of politics quickly. In this spring’s term, her media and politics class will produce a 30-second political advertisement to learn exactly how that particular brand of media magic is made. In the fall, students volunteer for campaigns and track three voters’ opinions in the final weeks of the campaigns.

Tyler Myers, a USF graduate who is the former president of the campus chapter of Pi Sigma Alpha, said MacManus stressed to her political science students how unique their education would be by virtue of their geographic location.

“She is one of the most knowledgeable people in the world in what she does and it’s incredible to learn from her,” Myers said. “She brings candidates and political analysts -- people who you ordinarily would not have an opportunity to interact with -- right into the classroom. The information and theory is interesting, but to be able to back it up with real people who do this with their lives -- including her -- really helps flesh out the whole academic experience.”


Filed under:Arts and Sciences Government and International Affairs    
Author: Vickie Chachere