Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Presidential Campaign Quality: What the Variance Implies

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Presidential Campaign Quality: What the Variance Implies

Article excerpt

Although most commonly viewed as leader selection mechanisms,(1) presidential campaigns and elections serve many other purposes as well. They are also, for example, the principal means for ensuring democratic accountability (e.g., Key 1966; Schattschneider 1960). They are devices for achieving a measure of mass political equality (e.g., Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995, 12). They are potentially decisive arenas for ratifying mass partisan alignments and realignments (e.g., Burnham and Chambers 1975; Sundquist 1983). And, as I argue here, they are political system maintenance vehicles, able under some circumstances to promote both problem-solving momentum and popular support (Buchanan 1996a).(2)

Campaign Quality: Definition and Significance

My subject is campaign quality, which I define in terms of preelection political behavior most likely to encourage the two postelection consequences just identified: problem-solving energy and citizen support. To be sure, there are ways other than campaigns to generate these system-level benefits. For discussion of other sources of "diffuse" support for the political system, for example, see Easton (1965, 1975). For identification of noncampaign sources of policy momentum, see Baumgartner and Jones (1993) and Kingdon (1995). Also, campaigns reliably generate many vital public goods other than policy signals and support that do not depend on "quality" as the term is defined here.(3)

Campaign quality matters nonetheless because of its potential for adding value in two areas--regime support and authoritative policy signals--clearly essential to the viability of the polity, yet frequently "undersupplied" by other sources.

Political Discontent

Political discontent with government, its institutions, and its leaders, for example, is plausibly regarded as a latent threat to diffuse support (Luttbeg and Gant 1995, 162; Craig 1993; Miller 1974). Various indicators of discontent have been increasing for several decades, with few explanations or solutions in sight (Hunter and Johnson 1997; Luttbeg and Gant 1995; Craig 1993). Because few alternative mechanisms can match the potential of a presidential campaign for influencing mass political attitudes and behavior,(4) such campaigns are potentially important vehicles for addressing and reducing political discontent, with potentially beneficial consequences for civic investment and system support.

Policy Consensus

Chronic difficulties in creating elite and mass consensus behind specific remedies for pressing national problems--from the approaching insolvency of Medicare and Social Security to the social and economic decay of the inner cities--have been attributed to everything from partisan gridlock (e.g., Johnson and Broder 1996) to institutional paralysis (e.g., Rauch 1992; Olson 1982). Whatever the barriers to consensus, it is clear that the forum of a presidential campaign and election can be used indeed, sometimes has been used--to generate policy momentum by signaling mass endorsement of policy solutions or directions.

What Drives Quality?

What most directly determines whether these latent possibilities come to fruition in particular election years? It is the actions of the major campaign protagonists: candidates, media, and voters. Candidates, for example, may simply choose to campaign in ways intended to inform as well as attract voters, leading them to focus on specific national issues and to support proposed solutions, creating policy momentum if not mandates for particular candidates or policies. Variations on these themes occurred in 1964, 1980, and 1992.(5)

Although studies show that such practice is far from common (Patterson 1993; Lichter and Noyes 1995), broadcast and print news organizations--the principal sources of nonpartisan information about upcoming elections available to the public--may elect to cover campaigns in ways that draw attention to the larger meanings of the choices voters face and thereby facilitate mass learning about national problems, proposed solutions, and candidate qualifications. …

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