Bringing Election-Year Politics Into The MBA Classroom, 1,000 Voters At A Time

Michigan Ross and The Financial Times are partnering on a monthly poll to track how American voters perceive financial and economic issues in the lead-up to the 2024 US presidential election. Professor Erik Gordon is leading the discourse. Michigan Ross photo/image

When Erik Gordon was asked last fall to be a part of a group of professors who would help come up with questions for the monthly Michigan Ross-Financial Times poll, he jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the project.

Gordon, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, convened a group of five Ross professors to develop questions for the monthly poll, which tracks voter sentiment on pressing financial and economic issues leading up to the U.S. presidential election in November. 

He admits he also had ulterior motives in taking on the project. He realized it would be a goldmine for the students in his MBA courses, providing real-world data about some of the business problems they study in the classroom. 

“I thought to myself, ‘Oh wow, wouldn’t it be fun to peek at the data when it comes back and ask my students what are the ramifications of the public feeling this way?” he says. “To be able to walk into the classroom, and say ‘These are numbers that were collected last week’ gets the students’ attention. It’s a good way to center the classroom around the real world.” 

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Ross Professor Erik Gordon: “To be able to walk into the classroom, and say these are numbers that were collected last week gets the students’ attention”

The poll, which was announced in October 2023, is running for 12 months leading up to the U.S. presidential election. Every month, the poll surveys 1,000 registered voters to get a sense of how economic sentiment will affect the presidential election. Gordon and the other professors helped craft some of the original questions for the poll, ones that are repeated monthly. They also contribute monthly questions about timely matters like housing affordability, perceptions of big technology companies and the state of the electric car market. 

Gordon takes what he sees as the more compelling findings and incorporates them into the classes he teaches on venture capital and private equity. For example, the poll shows that voters are disenchanted with technology companies, with both sides stating that they believe they have too much power and influence, according to the results of the January poll. In the poll, 57% of voters said they believe technology companies have too much power and influence.

This finding became a springboard in one of Gordon’s classes for a larger discussion on what kinds of antitrust regulations might be imposed on these companies in the near future and what this could mean for students’ careers if the Biden administration stays in power. The antitrust policy at the Federal Trade Commission is driven largely by politics, which is impacted by consumer sentiment, he says, or data from polls like this. Many of Gordon’s students end up pursuing jobs at early-stage technology companies, which typically offer students a lower salary than big tech companies, but include stock options as part of the upfront compensation package to sweeten the deal. Indeed, stock compensation can make up as much as 70 percent of total compensation at early stage companies and tech companies, so this finding has caught their attention, he says.  “These companies tell the students that they’ll make a lot more money on stock options than they’ll ever make on salary,” Gordon says. 

His students often take those jobs, but they now realize they may need to start rethinking whether it makes sense to accept a position with an offer that relies so heavily on equity awards, he says. In his class, he asks students if they think they should negotiate their compensation package or even reconsider their career choice in light of the poll data and current economic climate. Some seem to be doing that, he says, noting in the last few months several have come to his office hours to speak with him about stock options.

“I don’t want to overstate it and claim that my students are having big career path changes, but I’ve had a good number of students come in and want to sit with me in my office and learn more about the technicalities of stock options,” he says. “That doesn’t really happen very often.”

WOLVERINE FUND USES POLL TO MAKE INVESTMENT DECISIONS

Gordon also serves as the faculty advisor for the Wolverine Venture Fund, a student-run venture fund which invests money from the University of Michigan endowment into high-risk, high-return investments. This year, when Gordon was helping students decide what investments to consider, he turned to the poll for timely data on consumers’ views on purchasing electric vehicles. The March Ross-FT poll showed that only 39% of voters are even willing to consider getting an electric vehicle right now, a finding that surprised Gordon and his students, given the amount of hype around electric vehicles the last few years.

At the beginning of the semester, students in the fund considered an investment in an electric vehicle company that had strong sales growth figures and an attractive pitch deck. After getting the March poll data, Gordon says he told them to think more carefully about that investment and investigate current consumer interest in  electric vehicles.

He encouraged his students to call around to Tesla car dealerships and others to see if there was still a waiting list for some of the cars. Car dealers told students there was no longer a waitlist, and, in fact, they had six or seven cars on the lot ready to go. “They told them, ‘Come on over, and what would it take to get you into one of the cars?’” Gordon says.

With cooling market demand, they realized this year might not be the best time to invest  in this sector and ultimately ended up putting their money elsewhere, Gordon says.

“They realized electric vehicles will take over and be the dominant technology, but it’s going to take a lot longer than we thought,” he says. “The poll numbers got us into a real hands-on, real world discussion of how early stage investing works, where if you invest in the right idea at the wrong time, you can go broke.”

Erik Gordon teaching in the Wolverine Fund class. Michigan Ross photo

OTHER PROFESSORS USE POLLS FOR CLASSROOM DISCUSSION

Gordon is not the only Ross professor using the poll data in the classroom. Sarah Miller, an associate professor of business economics and public, says in a Michigan-Ross podcast discussing the poll that she uses the data to encourage her students to to detect and analyze patterns in the data.

“I’ll  put up a scatter plot and say, ‘Okay, what do you guys see here?'” she says on the podcast. “One of the lessons I’ve learned working on the Ross-FT poll is that the best way to start thinking about what is going on is take a look at what the data says and see if you can make meaning from it. I have done this last semester and plan to continue.”

Marcus Collins, a clinical assistant professor of marketing at Ross, says on the podcast that he also uses the data in the classroom as it helps his students gain different perspectives on how people regard brands and insight into the different cultural perspectives of voters.

Gordon says he is eager to continue using the poll data in the classroom this fall, and is looking forward to looking at the issues the candidates choose to focus on in the last few months of the election and incorporating them in the classroom. He says he plans to look at the last two or three elections where economic issues played the deciding role, going back to when Jimmy Carter lost his reelection bid in 1980 because of inflation, and have students analyze the data.

“I wish there was an election every year because it helps me animate the classroom with discussions about what’s happening right now and what it means for economics and business, as well as what it means for my students’ careers,” Gordon says.  “We’re going to have fun in the fall with this. I’m going to be sad in November when the poll is over. By the next January terms, I’ll probably be back to my usual boring self.”

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