Polls and Elections: The Conditional Effects of Competing Messages during Presidential Nominating Conventions

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To what degree can positive impressions made by presidential candidates be successfully counteracted by subsequent negative messaging? Can the impact of negative messaging be nullified by subsequent positive impressions? These are questions that matter to candidates and parties during the presidential nominating conventions, and they are questions that scholars have yet to examine fully. Conventions are unique events where the convening party has a few days of breathing room to campaign with the full attention of the electorate while the opposition takes a traditional step back. In effect, the parties take turns ceding a massive information advantage to one another. As a result, there is a strong incentive for the party that convenes first to anticipate and preempt the opposing party's messaging as much as possible, and it is in the best interests of the party that convenes second to try and counteract any messaging presented by the first party. While scholars have devoted attention to modeling the impact of single conventions, how the conventions jointly impact opinion at the individual level has not been studied. We think that considered together, the conventions within a given election cycle present an ideal opportunity to study how individuals deal with sequential competing messages and a compelling way to examine the extent to which information screening and biased processing are involved in the formation of individual opinion about candidates for the American presidency.

With a few exceptions, most empirical investigation of campaign effects during conventions has been concerned with aggregate-level outcomes. Unfortunately, conclusions about the different ways that individuals are impacted by conventions cannot reliably be drawn from aggregate-level data. Recently, researchers have recognized that measuring variation in both individual characteristics and exposure to information during conventions is necessary before a complete picture of how conventions shape public opinion can be gained (Cera and Weinschenk 2012; Hillygus and Jackman 2003). Panel data collected around single conventions has made it possible to isolate a persuasive effect triggered by convention speech consumption from a general partisan bias-activating effect associated with exposure to the rest of the intensely political convention information atmosphere. In this article, we attempt to further advance individual-level investigation of convention effects by isolating and considering individual exposure to information from both conventions within a given election cycle.

The Informational Role of Conventions

The study of campaign effects came to occupy an important place in the political behavior literature as scholars began to focus on their informational role. However, because of their complexity and length, a comprehensive model of campaign effects has eluded us. Focusing on the specific events and activities that occur during election cycles, such as debates and conventions, has made the study of campaigns more tractable (Hillygus and Jackman 2003; Holbrook 1996; Shaw 1999). Sharer succinctly described the usefulness of conventions to the study of campaign effects: "The convention is unique in the degree to which it is spatially and temporally bounded, and hence intellectually manageable. The context for its actions, then, can be examined in an unusually comprehensive fashion" (1988, 1). During a convention, the convening party captures nearly all conventional media coverage and monopolizes it for several days. The result is a one-sided onslaught of campaign information; "the only time during the campaign when parties are able to exercise clear control over the flow of information" (Holbrook 1996, 80). This aspect of conventions is particularly important because the audience during conventions is generally vast and diverse, consisting of partisans of both stripes and independents alike. In this way, conventions have the potential to both energize partisan supporters and influence independents' and opposition partisans' perceptions of the candidates. …