Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Crystallization of Voter Preferences during the 2008 Presidential Campaign

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Crystallization of Voter Preferences during the 2008 Presidential Campaign

Article excerpt

Even as the media dwell on--and speculate about the potential impact of--the many events that unfold daily during the course of presidential election campaigns, certain fundamental variables powerfully structure the election day vote. At the individual level, party identification is of great importance, increasingly so in recent years (Bartels 2000). (1) Other factors also matter at the individual level, including socioeconomic class and issue positions. Short-term forces such as economic conditions also shape the vote. On election day, voters tend to line up as political scientists predict they will.

To a growing number of scholars, the primary function of election campaigns is to deliver the so-called fundamentals (Andersen, Tilley, and Heath, 2005; Arceneaux 2005; Finkel 1993; Gelman and King 1993; Stevenson and Vavreck 2000; for a more nuanced view, see Vavreck 2009). Finkel (1993) shows that much of the change in presidential vote preference during the 1980 campaign was attributable to "activation" of political predispositions, where voters bring their preferences in line with their preexisting partisan and racial identities. Relatedly, Gelman and King's (1993) analysis of 1988 shows that the effects of party identification and various demographic variables on presidential vote preferences increased during the election year. Andersen, Tilley, and Heath (2005) show much the same pattern during the 1997-2001 and 2001-2005 general election cycles in the United Kingdom, where the effects of election day vote predictors increased as the campaign progressed; Arceneaux (2005) demonstrates a similar pattern across a set of nine European countries. (2) In Gelman and King's (1993) terminology, campaigns appear to "enlighten" voters about which candidates best represent their interests.

This model of campaign effects implies that voters' preferences come into focus during the course of the campaign. That is, preferences crystallize. Early on, voters are expected to be largely unformed. During this period, voters may simply be undecided. They also may express weak preferences. Some may "flirt" with candidates from the other party. As the campaign unfolds, according to the model, voters increasingly support the candidate of their preferred party. Voters' preferences also increasingly reflect their true "interests." This crystallization may be driven by a number of mechanisms. Following Gelman and King (1993), campaigns help voters learn which candidate best represents their interests, and this leads typically them back to their partisan attachments. (3) As Alvarez (1998) argues, uncertainty about candidates' issue positions is reduced as campaigns unfold. Alternatively, following Finkel (1993), the campaigns may activate voters' political predispositions, as they can learn that the candidates really are partisans, representing Democratic and Republican position and interests. Yet another possibility is that campaigns lead voters to perceive events using their partisan screens, prompting them to view candidates of their own party more favorably (and increase the intensity of their support) as the campaign unfolds. The latter mechanism is implied in The American Voter (Campbell et al. 1960) and in subsequent work showing the effects of partisanship on perceptions (Bartels 2002; Wlezien, Franklin, and Twiggs 1997).

The general pattern is clear: voters' preferences come into focus over the course of presidential election campaigns. The specifics, however, are less clear. What is the exact pattern of crystallization? That is, is it concentrated during the intense general election campaign after the conventions? Or does it play out over the longer campaign leading up to the conventions? These questions remain largely unanswered in the extant literature, and evidence is elusive. Our aim in this paper is to take a small step forward, focusing specifically on developments during the 2008 election campaign.

The 2008 presidential election was unusual in several respects. …

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