Early Primaries, Viability and Changing Preferences for Presidential Candidates

By Collingwood, Loren; Barreto, Matt A. et al. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Early Primaries, Viability and Changing Preferences for Presidential Candidates


Collingwood, Loren, Barreto, Matt A., Donovan, Todd, Presidential Studies Quarterly


The 2008 election witnessed many states pushing their presidential primary dates earlier than ever. By the end of February 2008, 38 states had already held caucuses and primaries, up from only two, Iowa and New Hampshire, that voted by March 1, 1976. Yet despite front-loading in 2008, the contest was especially protracted on the Democratic side. Given the fluid context of primaries and observed swings in national polls, many Democratic voters likely switched candidate support over the course of the 2008 primary campaign. In this article, we examine how perceptions of early state outcomes affected voter choice and candidate momentum. Early wins may have sent signals to voters about candidate viability, an important cue for some people. Although early primaries of 2008 left many voters with a relatively brief window to assess candidates, the calendar nonetheless allowed a non-front-runner candidate to benefit from momentum and win the Democratic nomination. But what are the dynamics of such a process?

Prominent observers of U.S. presidential nomination politics suggest that front-loading should advantage early front-runners and mute a non-front-runner's chance of building momentum from an early win (e.g., Polsby and Wildavsky 2008, 108; Wayne 2008, 121). At the outset of the 2008 Democratic contest Hillary Clinton led a crowded pre-Iowa field in opinion polls for over a year, and she had a 20 percentage point lead in national polls taken immediately prior to the 2008 Iowa caucus. (1) That soon transitioned into an exceptionally close contest between Clinton and Barack Obama. (2) Obama and Clinton both experienced important wins in early states, with their relative strength in national polls changing, at least in part, as voters switched their support from one candidate to another. How stable were voter preferences as these contests unfolded? Do voters form and change preferences in response to outcomes in earlier states? Although cross-sectional and aggregate data have helped answer these questions, there are, surprisingly, few panel surveys of primary voters. (3) We examine individual-level proclivity to change candidate preferences during a single primary season; and we assess how this is influenced by awareness of previous state outcomes, perceptions of viability, and shifting evaluations of candidates. This process illuminates the dynamics of momentum.

The 2008 presidential primary represents a particularly interesting case to observe momentum because the campaign itself started so early. In January 2007, almost all major candidates had announced their presidential campaign and started an aggressive outreach effort to make their case with voters. Indeed, by October 2007, still 13 months before the general election, the Democratic candidates had already participated in 10 nationally televised debates, and opinion polls suggested the public was more familiar with the candidates than in any previous open-seat year (Fox News Opinion Dynamics Poll 2007). Despite this prolonged period to "get to know" the candidates and high name familiarity for major candidates, substantial proportions of registered voters were undecided when asked to evaluate two of the three major Democratic candidates. In mid-October 2007, 39% of registered voter respondents in a national poll could not rate John Edwards as favorable or unfavorable, and 37% could not rate Barack Obama (CBS News Poll 2007). Hillary Clinton was able to maintain at least a 20-point lead over Obama and Edwards throughout the entirety of 2007. (4) Yet in the end she fell short, we argue, owing to the momentum that Obama generated throughout a string of victories that changed his perception with voters from merely likeable, to viable. (5)

Viability and Voting in Presidential Primaries

There are key differences in models explaining voting behavior in presidential primaries and general elections. General election models often include candidate qualities, ideology, issue preferences, and most importantly, partisan identification as explanatory variables in voter decision making (Stone, Rapoport, and Abramowitz, 1992). …

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Early Primaries, Viability and Changing Preferences for Presidential Candidates
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