Pennsylvanians will cast ballots in a presidential primary next week, but the Republican contest has already been decided — at least in the mock election held by one of the state’s best public schools.
At J.R. Masterman High School, students recently put their lives on hold for a week to eat, sleep and breathe as Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Donald Trump.
And try as they would to make it all about policy and ideas, just as in the real presidential race, this campaign too often ended up being about something flimsier.
In this case: food.
“We had cheese, salsa, but we ran out of meat fairly quickly because people tend to go for the meat,” said senior Joel Chacko, who portrayed Ted Cruz.
Outside of the cafeteria during the lunch rush, his campaign dished out the Texas senator’s foreign-policy platform in exchange for free tacos.
“I feel like people actually really learned something while they were getting their tacos, but at the same time, they were really interested in the food,” said Chacko/Cruz.
It’s all part of what’s become a more than 15-year tradition at Masterman. The advanced placement government class chooses a political race and then breaks up into teams. Candidates are chosen, as well campaign managers, speech writers and handlers.
And the fight for votes is no joke. Yeah, it’s for a grade, but also bragging rights.
That means making campaign commercials, developing a social media strategy, and understanding a candidate’s platform down to the fine print.
Assuming the positions of Republican field
In becoming Ohio Gov. John Kasich, senior Maryanne Cosgrove applied the same sort of dogged attention to detail that got her accepted to Yale.
“I’m spending hours on John Kasich’s website, just reading through his fact sheets, reading through exactly what he says,” said Cosgrove/Kasich. “We’re not making any of this up. It’s exactly what the candidates say.”
Teacher Steve Gilligan said it’s not just his class that gets swept up in the horse race.
“It pretty much takes over the entire school,” he said. “In fact, you walk down the hallway and you hear people say, ‘I’m for Kasich’ or ‘Where’s Bernie Sanders? Why isn’t he here?’ A lot of stuff like that.”
So where are the Democrats?
Here’s how event organizer Alexis Riddick broke it down to the very liberal student body before the debate in the auditorium:
“Allowing you to listen to ideas that you already know and agree with does not encourage political efficacy,” she said.
Still, internal polling during the week-long campaign put Kasich — seen as the establishment moderate in the real race — as the odds-on favorite.
Going on the defense
As for Trump?
“This is a beautiful crowd, like really attractive. And I think I would know. I did own Miss Universe for a while,” said Fiona Bardhoshi as Trump at the campaign kickoff event.
Standing on the stage in the auditorium, Bardhoshi wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat and exuded the tycoon’s unflappable confidence.
“We are losing. And try as they might, no one else can fix the things we are losing at,” she said.
Like all the campaigns, hers honed in on how to frame their candidate’s views to fit their audience — so less talk about 55-foot border walls and more on curbing the defense budget.
“And so actually a couple kids told me today, ‘Wow, surprisingly, I agree with that. I can see where he’s coming from,'” said Bardhoshi.
Cruz staffer Sirudi Beckman was not swayed at all by Trump — or any of the candidates for that matter.
For her, the real take-away is being able to talk a good game against conservative friends and family come November.
“And just to have all of the facts in a book, ready to talk about at any point, any topic, to be able to pull out an argument and say, ‘Look, this is the actual policy, this is what we’re doing, this is what we’re comparing it to,'” she said.
The food court of public opinion
Just like in the real race, money, of course, can make a huge difference. The campaigns that can afford the best food, draw the best crowds.
In theory, each campaign is capped at $125, money of their own — or their parents.
But that’s for “hard” money purchases — things like plates, napkins or store-bought food. Ingredients that are altered in any homemade way count as “soft” money, which has no limits.
“If we somehow prepare it in any way, shape or form. If we cut the fruit and put it in the cup, if we toast the bread, apply whipped cream to waffles, whatever, it counts as soft money,” said David Ludwig, a Cruz campaign manager.
Cruz speech writer Owen Fox said, yes, that’s a ridiculous distinction.
“But it’s what you have to do, and I think it’s equivalent to candidates having to do whatever it takes to fundraise even if it means compromising their beliefs,” he said.
By election day, the candidates felt it was anyone’s race to win, and the campaigns pushed to get a large turnout. At Masterman, that meant allowing kids access to the usually off-limits elevators to get to the ballot boxes on the fourth floor.
“Kinda like you would go to a nursing home with a bus to get people out to vote,” said Gilligan.
And the winner is …
As the students tallied the results, one name was repeated again and again:
“Kasich, Kasich, Kasich, Kasich.”
Garnering 60 percent of the vote, Cosgrove as Kasich offered a modest victory speech — one fit for a second-semester senior who’s already got her college ticket punched.
“I’m planning to wear sweatpants and a nice sweatshirt tomorrow,” she said. “I’ve been in pantsuits for a week, and I am very excited to no longer be in pantsuits and button-up shirts.”
In this race, Cruz came in second, Trump a close third.
That may not reflect what actually happens in Pennsylvania’s primary, but then again, if Masterman students had their way in the 2014 governor’s race, Tom Wolf would be just another millionaire driving a Jeep.