Loyola University Maryland


Common Text Study Guide

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Cover Art For How To Win An Election Book

Each year, Loyola chooses a Common Text for all first-year students to read before arriving on campus. During Fall Welcome Week, the entire Class of 2020 will convene and you will discuss this text with your academic advisor and your fellow students in your Messina group. It is important that you read the text with care and come prepared to discuss the ideas presented in this study guide. The Common Text is considered “common reading” and may be included in Messina course discussions, tests, or assignments. We will also sponsor lectures and events throughout the year to address themes raised in the text and the upcoming election. 

View a Large Print PDF copy of the Common Text Study Guide 


The Class of 2020 begins college in the fall of 2016, a U.S. presidential election year.  Indeed, when we convene during Fall Welcome Week in August 2016, the national nominating conventions will be behind us and the general election will be in full swing.

Amid national conversations that are likely to be polarized and acrimonious, Loyola’s Class of 2020 will engage the election—freely and frankly, and with the experience and evidence of the past as our guide.  We will read together How to Win an Election which is Quintus Tullius Cicero’s letter to his brother, Marcus, a candidate for Consul (the highest office in the Roman Republic) in 64 B.C.

We may be concerned about contemporary politicians and politics, but it might help us to make sense of our disillusionment to know that much of what we find so troubling has been part of political campaigning for millennia.  Cicero’s How to Win provides, as Philip Freeman puts it in the book’s Introduction, “a keen sense of how elections are won in any age.”  Students who love the “game” of politics will relish Cicero’s clear-eyed recommendations.  Students put off by America’s political flaws will gain a clearer sense of why our politics can be so disheartening, perhaps as a first step to improving conversations about the public good.

In any event, one of the many wonderful things that Jesuit universities do is contemplate, debate, and pursue the common good through public and private words and deeds. Written as frank advice to a candidate from his brother, How to Win an Election is our invitation to you to engage contemporary political questions and this year’s election thoughtfully and generously, and with the shrewd and critical wisdom of the ages.

Questions and Issues to Consider

Hunting for Votes: Flattery and Other Forms of Manipulation 

1. The author of How to Win an Election seems to think that political success requires candidates to recognize weaknesses in potential voters’ and supporters’ character and then exploit those weaknesses.  For example, he admonishes his brother “to learn the art of flattery – a disgraceful thing in normal life but essential when you are running for office” (p. 63).  And later the author suggests, “The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you,” which might sound commendable until he adds, “On the other hand…stick to vague generalities” (p. 79).

2. If we think of the candidates as hunters – but hunting for voters and supporters not animals – flattery and vague appeals to hope are bait they employ to trap their prey.  Just as hunters in the wild need to identify and exploit what the targeted animals desire and need, candidates must identify and exploit human desires and needs to succeed in their hunt.  As you read through How to Win, try to spot other strategies that depend upon the manipulation of our vulnerabilities.  Do politicians today also target human weaknesses?  The same ones?  Different ones?  Can you come up with, say, three specific examples of such manipulation from the current election that strike you as comparable to those recommended in How to Win and assess the extent to which you think they are likely to be effective?

Positive vs. Negative Messaging: Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer

3. There’s been a lot of discussion in the media about the tone of the 2016 Presidential campaign. After all, according to Quintus, “politics is full of deceit, treachery, and betrayal” (p. 57). Think about the balance of positive vs. negative content in the coverage of the 2016 election. Quintus tells Marcus to “remind them [voters] of what scoundrels your opponents are and to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves” (p. 79). Have candidates and the media taken this suggestion by Quintus to heart? On balance, do you feel you’ve heard more negative or positive things about candidates’ character and policies?

4. Candidates from both parties have worked hard to appeal to some subset of the diverse voting blocs in America (e.g., women, African-Americans, Hispanics, young people, the middle class, etc.). Quintus tells Marcus to “secure supporters from a wide variety of backgrounds” (p. 29). He also suggests that “there are three things that will guarantee votes in an election: favors, hope, and personal attachment. You must work to give these incentives to the right people” (p. 33).  Using the 2016 election as a context, can you identify who are “the right people” or groups that candidates are targeting? Has campaign messaging helped you to feel a “personal attachment” or connection with a particular affinity group and in turn a candidate or party? How much of a role has identity politics played in the 2016 election? How much should candidates work to appeal to segmented groups/”the right people,” as opposed to the broader population?

Do Ideas Matter? What Roles do Policy, Ideas and Rhetoric Play in the Winning of Votes?

5. Scholars have noted that How to Win an Election seems oddly short on advice concerning policy.  That is, the author does not seem to think it important for candidates to explain or even indicate the policies and programs that will be enacted after the election.  Indeed, it almost seems a candidate doesn’t need to have any programs or policies at all!  There are different ways to look at this. One way – while issues mattered in Roman election campaigns, it was wisest to avoid addressing them because being clearly identified with a point of view or program would alienate too many voters.  Another way – issues existed and mattered, but your stand on those issues did not really resonate with voters – they were paying attention to the sort of Roman you were (or presented yourself to be…) and the extent to which your election would pay off for them personally.  Do you find these explanations plausible?  That is, that policies and programs might have been irrelevant or even dangerous to electoral success?  Use our current election for comparison (and come up with three specific examples) – are voters really interested in specific programs and policies, or are they mostly reacting to the extent to which the candidates push the right buttons and seem like the right sort of people, “our sort” of people?

6. The political and electoral world How to Win an Election addresses can seem tribal. Whole sections of the text are dedicated to advising the candidate to appear to be a member or advocate of as many groups as possible. Identify in the text what sorts of groups the candidate had to win over and the strategies the text recommends employing to do this.  There seems, then, to be little in the text that we would identify as ideology or political philosophy, and hardly a thought to identifying what direction the country should go in or what sort of country the Romans should want.  Rather, the focus is more on satisfying specific groups – it can strike the reader that the core of Roman politics was ‘us vs. them,’ or, at least, taking care of our own.  These days pundits and politicians make much of political ideology, of grand visions for the country’s future, but to what extent are our politics, despite all the highfalutin rhetoric, really about us vs. them, taking care of our own?  Can you come up with examples from the current presidential campaign that suggest ideology and political philosophy really matter?  Examples that suggest American politics and this election are really about tribal identity?  And how would the author of How to Win interpret your examples?

Youth Political Engagement and Social Media Authenticity

7. Quintus encourages his brother, Marcus, to “make good use of the young people who admire you and want to learn from you,” (p. 7). He later suggests, “It will help your campaign tremendously to have the enthusiasm and energy of young people on your side to canvass voters, gain supporters, spread news, and make you look good” (p. 51). Each election cycle, we hear a lot of hype about the value of winning “the youth vote.” Thinking about the 2016 election cycle, what in your opinion have candidates done to appeal to you and your generation as you are about to vote for the very first time?  

8. Part of connecting with the youth vote is engaging with the media young people use, which in 2016 means apps like Snapchat, Instagram, and more. Quintus tells Marcus, “it is vital that you use all of your assets to spread the word about your campaign to the widest possible audience” (p. 75). Think about the ways you have encountered and will continue to encounter political information this election cycle. Do you feel a connection? In what ways does this shared material seem authentic to you?  In what ways might it be just another manipulative attempt to persuade the youth vote?  Can it be both?


Contact the Messina Office at 410-617-2669 or visit www.loyola.edu/messina for a list of academic and support services available to Loyola students, including helping you make the transition to campus and college life.

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