Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Do Early Birds Get the Worm? Improving Timeliness of Presidential Nomination Forecasts

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Do Early Birds Get the Worm? Improving Timeliness of Presidential Nomination Forecasts

Article excerpt

One of the challenges that researchers forecasting presidential nominations must overcome is the ability to make their predictions in a more timely manner. Two models successfully forecast wins for Al Gore and George Bush as the respective Democratic and Republican nominees in 2000 (Adkins and Dowdle 2001b; Mayer 2003a). Unfortunately, the lead time of each model was so short that neither was published until well after the party nominations were effectively secured (Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain both withdrew from contention on March 9). While scholars forecasting the general election employ a variety of measures of presidential approval and indicators of economic performance available many months before the date of the general election, the data in the nomination forecasting models are generally not available until late January or early February of the election year. The principal objective of this research is to investigate whether lead time can be improved by making use of data available well in advance of the beginning of the primary season.

A secondary objective of this research is to address methodological issues surrounding the data traditionally used. Polling and fundraising are the two principal sources of data for forecasting presidential nominations. Unfortunately, these data are highly correlated and raise important questions about the validity of forecasting models (Adkins and Dowdle 2000, 2001a, 2001b; Steger 2000; Norrander 2000b). It is reasonable to assume that donors to presidential campaigns are strategic, choosing those who are well-known, well-respected, and viable candidates to win the nomination and general election. Thus, with only a few notable exceptions, such as John Connally in 1980 and Phil Gramm in 1996, fundraising in the early days of the campaign closely mirrors candidate standings in the polls. This research explores whether alternative measures of financial support and data available earlier in the year prior to the election can overcome these issues in forecasting presidential nominations and still produce accurate predictions of the party nominees well before the primary season begins.

Forecasting and the Exhibition Season

Since the reform movement of the 1970s, both major parties effectively selected their presidential nominees during the primary season held in the months before the conventions (Aldrich 1980). Although considered quite unstable throughout the 1980s, the presidential nomination process settled into a "rhythm" or "pattern" in the 1990s that led to a greater degree of predictability in determining nomination outcomes (see Barilleaux and Adkins 1993; Mayer 1996a). Part of the reason for the stability is the emergence of an "exhibition season" prior to bellwether races such as the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. (1) Before the reforms, very little campaign activity occurred in the year prior to the presidential election. In fact, the dominant paradigm in presidential nominations focused on generating momentum during the primary campaign by winning or finishing "above expectations" in early primaries and caucuses (see Bartels 1988). While frontrunners existed at the start of the primary season, "dark horse" candidates such as George McGovern and Jimmy Carter successfully converted their strong performance into resources that could be used to finance their campaigns in subsequent primaries.

Soon after the McGovern-Fraser reforms were implemented, it became apparent that exhibition season campaign activities would significantly impact nomination outcomes (Keech and Matthews 1976; Hadley 1976; Goldstein 1978). The frontloading of primaries earlier in the campaign calendar that began in 1988 stabilized the system as candidates adapted their strategy by raising money and organizing much earlier. At the outset of the year prior to the presidential election aspirants generally have little money, no formal organization, and little national name recognition, but by the end of the year these candidates issue formal declarations of their candidacy, raise millions of dollars, hire hundreds of professional staff, open a dozen or more state offices, and fine-tune their campaign message. …

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