Bringing out the Hook: Exit Talk in Media Coverage of Hillary Clinton and Past Presidential Campaigns

Article excerpt

Abstract

In this article the authors measure a phenomenon they name "exit talk": the undertheorized pressures that second-place contenders for presidential nominations face to exit the race. Content analysis of media exit talk from the 2008 Clinton candidacy compared with that of key comparators from other modern presidential campaigns suggests that Clinton experienced greater levels of exit talk than her historical comparators, though less explicit pressure to exit than was exerted on Ronald Reagan in 1976. The authors also find that a higher percentage of Clinton exit talk was unattributed to its source. They investigate the potential causes for these findings and recommend further study of whether this heightened pressure to exit constitutes an unexamined hurdle for female presidential contenders.

Keywords

presidential election, nominations, exit, Hillary Clinton, media

The presidential campaign of 2008 was unique in a variety of ways, including high levels of public interest in the campaign, record-breaking campaign spending, and, of course, an unprecedented contest for the Democratic nomination between an African American man and a white woman. The outcome of the Democratic nominating contest in 2008 also challenged a key contention of the political science literature: that the front-runners who emerge in the preprimary season (or "invisible primary") usually win their party's nomination (Mayer 2003, 2008). Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was a vivid example of a clear early front-runner (Newport 2007; Citrin and Karol 2009; Todd and Gawiser 2009) who ultimately lost.

Various commentators argued during the campaign that as the contest between she and Senator Barack Obama wore on, Senator Clinton was subjected to unprecedented pressures to exit the race. We take these claims as an opportunity to explore a facet of campaign politics that has been undertheorized, a phenomenon we label "exit talk": news coverage and media commentary that discusses whether, when, and how a candidate might end his or her campaign and leave the nominating race. Situated within the literature on candidate messaging and attrition during nominating contests and the literature on the media's role in winnowing candidates, this study compares exit talk in media coverage of Hillary Clinton with that of four past candidates (Ronald Reagan in 1976, Ted Kennedy in 1980, Gary Hart in 1984, and Jesse Jackson in 1988) who waged long campaigns and came in second in their parties' nominating contests. Our data show that exit themes were more numerous in media coverage of Clinton than any of these comparators and that exit talk around Hillary Clinton's campaign was qualitatively different, emanating more from unattributed sources and/or reporters themselves rather than from named sources. To verify that finding and assess to what degree this may reflect changes in media norms and routines since 1988, we include a comparison of exit talk around Clinton with three other trailing candidates from 2008: John Edwards, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee. We conclude our study with a discussion of the factors that contributed to the prominence and character of Clinton exit talk in 2008.

Exit Talk and the Nomination Attrition Game

Nominating contests are by definition a process of attrition (Norrander 2006). Most candidates will face decisions about when and how to exit the race-a process that has been dubbed the "calculus of concession" (Haynes et al. 2004). Several factors appear to drive candidates' decisions. Money is key, of course, as is the number of delegates a candidate wins in early contests and the candidate's standing in national polls. Candidates who are truly "office seekers" are likely to exit a race earlier than "nontraditional," "policy-seeking," or "agenda-seeking" candidates, whose goals are not necessarily hampered by remaining in a race they seem sure to lose (Haynes et al. 2004; Norrander 2006).1

Media coverage looms as another important factor in candidate attrition since it is deeply intertwined with campaign fund-raising and political viability. …