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A Unique "Eye" on the Election

Story by
Nancy Joseph

As UW senior Ilona Idlis watched Bill Clinton, Gabby Giffords, and President Obama address delegates at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, she was struck by the enormity of the political moment. But rather than cheering with the crowd, she jotted notes. “I was there to tell a story,” says Idlis, majoring in journalism and political science. “I had to work.”

And work she did, producing more than half a dozen blog posts and about 130 tweets during the convention. She shared delegate reactions to Bill Clinton’s speech, reported on the Gay and Lesbian caucus, and had fun with attendees’ outrageously patriotic fashions. The posts appeared on UW Election Eye 2012, an on-theground election blog written by UW students and faculty in partnership with The Seattle Times.

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Ilona Idlis jots notes as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley answers another reporter's question. Media credit: Alex Stonehill

David Domke, chair of the UW Department of Communication, developed and oversees Election Eye, which has been active throughout the tumultuous 2012 election season with about 30 journalism students participating. “When you take students out of the classroom into an immersive experience like a campaign, it’s transformative,” says Domke “They have to use good judgment, have courage, and try again after they fail.” 

Idlis knows a thing or two about courage. When she joined Election Eye in January, traveling to South Carolina with the team as primary season heated up, her only previous journalism experience had been a stint on her high school paper and two introductory journalism courses. “I would say she was in over her head at first,” recalls Domke, who organized the trip. “But she hung in there and kept coming up with ideas and kept working. This is what it’s all about.”

Idlis and other UW students have since reported on hotly contested Republican primaries, a gubernatorial recall vote, religion and the election, and other timely topics, sharing their insights online. The Seattle Times, which hosts the blog, also promotes some of the stories prominently on its webpage. 

“We’re not graded on our blog entries,” says Idlis. “You finish and move on to the next story. So having the additional validation of The Seattle Times running the story, saying they want other people to see it, that feels really good.”

Starting Small in 2008

Although Election Eye hit its stride during this election season, the idea was born in 2008. Domke was teaching a class about blogging and chose to have students focus on that year’s presidential election. There were no plans to travel, but with the Idaho caucuses shaping up to be close, Domke rented a van and traveled with students to the Democratic Northern Idaho Caucus. He later secured funding to take eleven students to Texas for five days to report on that state’s primary and caucus.

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Will Mari, right, chats with the chair of South Carolina's GOP in the "spin room" after a FOX News debate. Media credit: fIlona Idlis

“I was pretty sure that was the end of my career,” jokes Domke as he recalls watching teams of students drive away from the Houston airport in rental cars to hunt down election stories. “It turned out to be an incredible experience. They ended up writing a piece for The Advocate, and the Houston Chronicle picked up some of our stuff.”

The Texas trip became more dramatic as Domke developed a serious leg infection that required hospitalization. His students continued to cover the primary, cranking out stories and checking in with Domke by phone from his hospital room. Will
Mari, a senior at the time, recalls Domke encouraging the students to continue without him and telling them how proud he was of them.

It was Mari who convinced Domke to resurrect the election blog idea in 2012. “He’d been asking me for four years to do it again,” Domke says of Mari, now a PhD student in communication. “He wore me down, so we did it. And I’m glad we did.” This time, Domke asked Department of Communication donors Daniel and Margaret Carper if they might provide financial support. Their generosity helped cover the cost of students’ travel to primaries and national conventions.

A Steep Learning Curve

Election Eye 2012 kicked off with visits to several states with key primaries for the Republican Party. Domke, Mari, and Idlis joined with other students, faculty, and Pulitzer Prize-winning alumnus David Horsey (‘76) for a trip to South Carolina, where they met Newt Gingrich’s sisters, interviewed the head of a Republican Super PAC, and witnessed rising star Rick Santorum win over a crowd.

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The UW's Election Eye team in South Carolina included (clockwise, from upper left) David Domke, David Horsey, Anita Verna Crofts, Will Mari, Ilona Idlis, Almeera Anwar, Alex Stonehill, and Lindsey Meeks.

“I’m a Young Democrat in Seattle and never realized what a bubble Seattle is,” says Idlis. “Watching Santorum connect with people—it humanized what I had previously written off as the radical right. It was really the beginning of what would be the most important lesson I learned, even more important than being a skilled journalist: to be open to other views.”

Trips to Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Idaho followed. In Las Vegas, Idlis got into a press conference—“Always act like you’re supposed to be there; it’ll get you far,” she quips—and asked Newt Gingrich a question about an anticipated Donald Trump endorsement that failed to materialize. “Afterward I shook [Gingrich’s] hand and thanked him for answering my question. I was bouncing off the walls the rest of the night,” she recalls.

Such defining moments are what Election Eye is all about. Domke likens it to basic training, where you go in green and emerge all grown up. “It’s intense,” he says. “You have to decide in the blink of an eye who to talk to, what follow up question to ask. There are so many challenges and so much problem solving. It’s a very steep learning curve.”

More students had the opportunity to experience that learning curve during spring quarter, when the Department of Communication offered two Election Eye courses, one for undergraduates and another for Master of Communication in Digital Media students. Beyond writing blog entries, the students were encouraged to use a range of media to share their stories, from tweets to photography to videos.

“Campaign coverage is now playing out on Twitter, 140 characters a tweet,” explains Domke, who adds that the Communication Department’s journalism program has been restructured to reflect changes in the field. “Students have to learn to communicate through a number of platforms, primarily digital.”

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Will Mari uses his rental car as an office during a phone interview. Media credit: Ilona Idlis

Mari figures he has written more than 30 blog entries and hundreds of tweets during this election season, often focusing on religion and politics, a topic of personal interest. “I’ll use whatever medium it takes to get the story out there,” he says. “I don’t care if I have to tweet it, put it out on Facebook, use video, old-fashioned print, or blog entries.” Adds Idlis, “People want to be having a conversation with their news source now. That is where media is going. When they teach writing in high school, the word ‘I’ is knocked out of you. I had to learn to put that back in.“

Idlis, Mari, and other Election Eye bloggers are likely to have many more opportunities to communicate with a broad audience. After contributing to Election Eye for nearly a year, interviewing national politicos and reporting from the frontlines of the election, they have the real-life experience that media employers seek.

“Election Eye has defined my undergraduate experience,” says Idlis. “It has taught me more about the political process than any political science class I’ve taken and more about journalism than any other program could. I’m very grateful. I feel like ten years down the line, I’ll still be talking about it.”

Visit UW Election Eye 2012 at

Want to read some favorite blog posts? Check out this post in which Ilona Idlis writes about crashing the green room before a Republican debate, or this post in which Will Mari ponders religion and politics in America as observed throughout the election season.