Bill's Run

PBS Premiere: June 29, 2004Check the broadcast schedule »

A Political Journey in Rural Kansas: Lesson Plan: What Do People Want from Politicians?: An Exercise in Information Gathering

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This lesson plan is designed to be used in conjunction with Bill's Run: A Political Journey in Rural Kansas and/or Last Man Standing. Each of these films profiles candidates running for state office from rural districts.

In Bill's Run: A Political Journey in Rural Kansas filmmaker Richard Kassebaum has documented the candidacy for the Kansas House of Representatives of his younger brother Bill, a rancher, father of two, part-time county attorney, and son of former senator Nancy Kassebaum.

Because of who Bill is and the political stands he takes, Bill's Run provides a springboard for communities interested in exploring a wide range of issues, including:

  • civic participation (or the lack thereof),
  • the power of incumbents,
  • political dynasties, politics as a profession, and the accessibility of office to common citizens,
  • the difficult balance between the competing demands of politics, family, and work,
  • education funding and its relationship to tax policy, and
  • the disappearance of rural communities.

Last Man Standing brings viewers inside a 2002 political campaign for Texas state representative from the district that includes the hometown of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson's. The fiercely contested race illustrates the shift from Texas as a Democratic stronghold to a state in which all major offices are held by Republicans. The blow-by-blow details of the behind-the-scenes race to voting day sheds light on what works in American politics today -- and where our politics, in an increasingly diverse nation, might be going in the future.

Each film is an hour long and each demystifies the political process by presenting candidates as real flesh and blood human beings.

POV documentaries can be taped off-the-air and used for educational purposes for up to one year from the initial broadcast.


Students will:

  • Evaluate various methods of sampling opinions
  • Consider the role of polling in elections
  • Consider the role of media reporting in the outcome of elections
  • Gain skills they can use to analyze and evaluate media information
  • Use a variety of mathematics, listening, interpersonal communication, and critical thinking skills
  • Work in teams

9 - 12

Civics / Government


  • Civics / Government
  • Journalism
  • Mathematics
  • Media Literacy
  • Political Science
  • Statistics


VHS or DVD copy of Bill's Run and/or Last Man Standing
VCR or DVD player & monitor

ESTIMATED TIME: Four to six class periods plus debate research & preparation time.


Political reporting by mainstream media is often about the race rather than the issues. And those reports are generally based on polling data. This lesson is designed to give students a sense of how polling data is collected, how collection methods can alter outcomes, and whether or not reports on such research are valuable news items or not when deciding whether or not to support a candidate.

Because the films included in this lesson profile real people, living complex lives, they are excellent tools for sparking discussions about political participation rather than the more typical media discussions that focus on political rhetoric. Linking the films and the exercise can provide a gateway to involve students in discussions about civic engagement and youth participation in politics. Check the websites listed in the Resource section for additional ways to follow up on this theme.


Step 1: View either Bill's Run or Last Man Standing

Prior to screening the film, assign students to look specifically for what criteria people seem to be using to decide for whom they will vote. Have them keep a running list as they view.

After viewing, have students share their lists. Combine the things that students noticed to form one master list and save a copy to use later.

Ask each student to create a second list of the criteria they would use to select a candidate running for their state legislature. If time allows, encourage students to compare their lists with the master list taken from the film.

In all discussions, encourage students to be honest and thorough. For example, many might be tempted to claim that physical appearance isn't important, but in practice, few candidates who are not "good looking" win. Ask students to think about which physical characteristics seem to matter: height, weight, gender, age, skin color, etc.?

Step 2: Research Assignments

Choose a current election on which to focus. It can be national, state, local, or even a school office as long as the outcome has not yet been decided. An election like those in the films, where the outcome isnÌt easily predictable, will work best. Tell students that they are going to do research to see if they can predict the outcome of the election.

Prior to sending students out to gather information, decide what your minimum sample size will be. There are many options at this stage, depending on the level of your students, how complex you want the exercise to be, how much time is available, and what subject area you teach.

If you are teaching statistics, students should understand the concept of random sampling and should be asked to determine how many people they will need to interview in order to obtain a valid sample.

For civics or government students, or for students who have never done this kind of research, you may want to keep the sample size relatively small, e.g., twenty.

Once you have determined the required sample size, divide the class into four teams, each of which will gather information using one of the following methods:

Group 1: Pose an open-ended question: What things about a candidate for ___________ [fill in the blank indicating the election you are researching] are most important to you when deciding how to cast your vote? Record all answers received.

Compare what people say about what is important to them to the positions and characteristics of each candidate and use your results to predict which candidate will win the election.

Group 2: Based on the lists created in Step 1, make a list of at least twenty possible criteria that people might use to choose a candidate for _____________ [fill in the blank indicating the election you are researching]. Make copies of the list to hand to people and ask them to check off all the criteria that they use. Tally the results.

Compare the most popular choices with the positions and characteristics of the candidates and use the results to predict which candidate will win the election.

Group 3: List at least six major issues in the election and poll people to determine where they stand on those issues.

Compare the candidatesÌ stands on the issues with the results of your poll to predict which candidate will win the election.

Group 4: Ask people directly which candidate they intend to vote for.

Use the results of your poll to predict which candidate will win the election.

Step 3: Reviewing Results

Each group should present its results and predictions to the rest of the class.

  • What are the strengths and limitations of each method?
  • Did all the groups predict the same outcome? If not, what accounts for the differences?
  • Which method will be the most accurate predictor and why?
  • Is there additional information they might have solicited that would improve their ability to predict (e.g., were the people they interviewed eligible to vote or likely to vote)?**
  • Can students draw any general conclusions about what they do and donÌt learn from polling about elections, candidates, and issues?

** Though it is possible for students to design interview or polling questions that ask people for information about themselves, it is not needed or recommended for the purposes of this lesson. Every university and research institution has a process for approving research involving human subjects. That process can be time consuming. It includes submitting intended questions and explaining how you will keep information confidential. It is not ethical to conduct research on people without completing this process. Since students will not likely have the time or the access to the needed resources, it is best that they not attempt to ask interview subjects to reveal any personal information. You can, however, engage in discussion about what kinds of information they think would be valuable if they were able to ask.


Assign students to track media stories about an election for a period of one week, noting every mention of polling results or demographic research. Every notation should include a comment about whether or not the polling or research method used was discernable from the report, and if so, what the method was.

At the end of the week, students should turn in their lists, along with a one or two paragraph comment on whether or not they thought media was providing useful information by reporting the polling or research results they heard, saw, or read. As always, students should be asked to explain their conclusions.


  • Let students research local voting patterns. How many people in their community are registered? How many are eligible to vote? Are some parts of the community over or underrepresented? Who is trying register voters or run "get out the vote" campaigns in your community? How might you help?
  • Study the history of the Voting Rights Act. Compare U.S. voting laws and voter participation rates with rates in other countries. Let students lead a discussion about why they do or don't intend to vote and why the majority of Americans who are eligible don't vote.
  • After viewing at least one of the films, assign students to debate: Yes I would run for office / No I wouldn't run for office.
  • Assign students to read and review Joel Best's Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists (University of California, 2001). 
  • Invite a campaign staffer to discuss their research methods with the class, including how they gather information and what they do with the information that they gather.


Civic Engagement -- The website of Public Citizen, a non-profit public interest organization, includes a variety of resource materials and links related to civic engagement. -- This non-partisan organization focuses on public engagement by conducting research on public opinion. Their Issue Guides summarize key campaign issues, including all major positions and key facts and figures. -- the website of the Pew Center for the People and the Press includes a wide range of well-respected research reports on media-related issues, including: Evenly Divided and Increasingly Polarized: The 2004 Political Landscape available at: -- Project Vote Smart profiles thousands of candidates and officials using five basic categories: biography, issue positions, voting records, campaign finances and performance evaluations. -- This non-partisan website, run by the Annenberg School at University of Pennsylvania, evaluates the accuracy of claims in political ads. -- the website of National Voice includes a useful state-by-state reference to existing voter registration and civic engagement initiatives. The Youth Vote Coalition is a national nonpartisan coalition of diverse organizations dedicated to increasing political and civic participation among young people. The site includes a downloadable handbook of best practices to recruit young voters, articles, easy links to elected officials, and much more. -- A project of the University of Maryland and the Pew Charitable Trust, CIRCLE conducts research on civic participation by young people and provides a variety of resources, including a handy set of fact sheets on young voters.

Many universities also run civic engagement research and projects. To find out more, use your web browser to search on "civic engagement."

Statistics / Polling -- This website, run by an individual, provides a very useful set of links to websites related to statistics, probability, and critical thinking. -- Gallup is one of the polling organizations frequently cited in media reports. This part of their website explains how their polls are conducted.

Level IV Grade : 9-12

Listening and Speaking

Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes


Standard 9.2: Uses a variety of criteria (e.g., clarity, accuracy, effectiveness, bias, relevance of facts) to evaluate informational media (e.g., web sites, documentaries, news programs)


Standard 10: Understands the characteristics and components of the media


Standard 19: Understands what is meant by "the public agenda," how it is set, and how it is influenced by public opinion and the media

Standard 22, #5: Understands the process by which United States foreign policy is made, including the roles of federal agencies, domestic interest groups, the media, and the public; and knows the ways in which Americans can influence foreign policy

Language Arts -- Writing

Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process
Standard 2: Uses the rhetorical and stylistics aspects of writing
Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes


Standard 5: Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Thinking and Reasoning

Standard 1: Understands and applies the basic principles of presenting an argument
Standard 2: Understands and applies basic principles of logic and reasoning
Standard 3: Effectively uses mental processes that are based on identifying similarities and differences
Standard 6: Applies decision-making techniques


Standard 6: Understands and applies basic and advanced concepts of statistics and data analysis

3. Understands the concept of correlation (e.g., the difference between a "true" correlation and a "believable" correlation; when two variables are correlated)

6. Understands how the reader's bias, measurement error, and display distortion can affect the interpretation of data
7. Understands sampling distributions, the central limit theorem, and confidence intervals
8. Understands how concepts of representativeness, randomness, and bias in sampling can affect experimental outcomes and statistical interpretations
9. Understands that making an inference about a population from a sample always involves uncertainty and the role of statistics is to estimate the size of that uncertainty