"I enjoyed the challenge of coming up with something to say that hadn't been said by the previous presidents."
When Seth Masket teaches undergraduate classes in political science, he likes to return, again and again, to a key question: "Where are politics happening?"
Politics are happening under the legislative dome, of course. But they're also happening at the corner empanada shop or the neighborhood diner, where, among other things, party players meet, screen potential candidates and plot strategy. These below-the-radar klatches seldom make the morning newspaper, but they're unquestionably the events behind the headlines.
Chair of the University of Denver political science department, Masket has become one of his field's rising stars. His 2009 book, No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2011), was dubbed by noted political scientist Sam Popkin, of the University of California at San Diego, one of the "best studies of the ways that parties and politics get conducted in any American state."
The larger public knows Masket through his tweets and blog posts. Thanks to these communiqués, he has emerged as a go-to source for reporters and commenters seeking insight into how political parties work. It's not uncommon to see his observations cited throughout the political blogosphere or in newspaper reports. Just recently, his commentary on the Obama and Romney ground games, posted at a blog devoted to advancing knowledge of political parties, was cited throughout the political blogosphere.
Masket's interest in politics was nurtured from birth. His parents, both avid Democrats, gave him a middle name in honor of the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, a Republican who helped to write and pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
By the time he'd conquered first grade, he was deep into the electoral fray. "I helped run an election in my second-grade class between Carter and Ford," he recalls. A few years later —"to try to convince my grandmother to vote for Carter over Reagan"—he drew his first political cartoon. "I think I was unsuccessful," he says, recalling his grandmother's ballot box record.
As an undergraduate at the University of California-Berkeley, Masket couldn't decide between tantalizing career paths. "For a while, I thought I was going to be a reporter," he recalls, noting that he covered student government for the college paper. But an internship with the House Committee on Aging in Washington, D.C., convinced him that he wanted to trade the objectivity of journalism for the grit of politics.
After graduation, he worked for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader. He took a leave of absence from that job to volunteer for the first Clinton-Gore campaign. When Bill Clinton moved into the Oval Office in 1993, Masket volunteered on the transition team. "It eventually turned into a job," he says, noting that he presided over a perch in the correspondence office, where he wrote presidential messages recognizing, say, Boat Safety Month or the latest Grammy winners.
"I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed the challenge of coming up with something to say that hadn't been said by the previous presidents," he says. In time, he also took on more serious correspondence, even handling letters on Clinton's controversial efforts to reform health care.
In 1996, Masket moved back to California with his future wife and began asking serious questions: "Where do I see myself 10 or 20 years from now?"
With a master's degree in campaign management from George Washington University already under his belt, he decided to pursue a PhD in political science at the University of California Los Angeles. That's where he began studying local politics, in part because it represented unexplored turf. "It seemed like everyone was working on Congress," he says. Meanwhile, in California alone, "there were a lot of stories to be told that hadn't gotten much attention."
His research led him to some groundbreaking observations about the functioning of political parties and the sources of party polarization. The parties, he says, act as gatekeepers—picking extreme candidates they like and then "freezing out everyone else."
Masket's work challenged common assumptions about how candidates make the ballot. "The views people have of how you get into office are pretty off the mark," he says.
Looking at the current presidential campaign, Masket finds much to fuel his interest. For example, he says, "the pairing of Romney and Obama. Neither of them is really given over to much emotionalism. A lot of self-control. I'm sort of curious as to what the [Oct. 3] debate between them will look like."
Given each candidate's discipline, Masket expects a substantial debate devoid of fireworks. He'd prefer something with a few surprises, such as the snarky retort that forever defined the 1988 vice-presidential debate featuring Senators Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle.
"I'd love to see a debate with some memorable moment," Masket says. "A 'you're no Jack Kennedy' moment would be awesome."