Saturday, July 22, 2017

Campaigns That Matter

By Jay Wendland

Earlier this month, my book, Campaigns That Matter: The Importance of Campaign Visits in Presidential Nominating Campaigns was published.  This project began as my Master’s degree paper in 2010 and quickly morphed into my dissertation, which was defended in 2013.  In both of these research projects, I analyzed the 2008 presidential nominating contests and the role that campaign visits played in influencing voters’ decision-making processes.  In this book, I build off of my previous work and include data on the visits made throughout the 2012 and 2016 campaigns as well.  Throughout every campaign season, we hear about the various rallies, town hall meetings, and stump speeches candidates make, but political scientists have largely ignored the role these campaign events play in the voting booth.  Do these visits get more people to come out to cast a ballot?  And more importantly to the candidate, do they help garner votes? These are the two main questions I attempt to answer throughout this book. 

Photo from showing Bernie Sanders at a rally.  Sanders achieved record numbers of attendees at many of his rallies, including a Seattle rally that attracted roughly 30,000 people! 

However, before I could answer these questions I needed to pull together research done on various aspects of campaigns (e.g. advertising, media strategy, and political communication) to develop a theory for why visits should impact voters.  I argue that visits are an important avenue of learning for voters. When running for office, candidates are charged with convincing voters to vote for them.  Most of the research done on campaigns focuses on advertisements and media coverage, while visits have largely gone overlooked.  This is likely due to the fact that data on media coverage and ads are much more readily available than are the data on visits.  Candidates must report their campaign spending broken down by state on a monthly basis.  However, they are not required to report where they visit.  Sure there is media coverage of these visits, but there is no central agency collecting this data.  The Federal Election Commission [FEC] is charged with collecting and reporting the spending habits of candidates.  There are also various websites that report this information in a more user-friendly manor than does the FEC—like  Yet with the ever-growing number of PACs, SuperPACs, 527 groups, and 501(c) groups even keeping track of spending related to a campaign is getting to be a difficult task.  Nonetheless, these spending reports are generally used as a proxy for a candidate’s advertisements, as these are usually the biggest expenditure a candidate has.  Ads have proven to be helpful to candidates—both in mobilizing voters as well as persuading them to vote a certain way.  I argue that campaign visits should have an even larger effect than ads do, as candidates are able to personalize visits more than ads.  Candidates are given ample time to explain their issue positions and build a relationship with their audience.  In a 30-60 second ad, candidates cannot fully elaborate their position on an issue.  But, in a 15-30 minute speech, a candidate can clearly articulate their plan and try to connect with those in attendance. 

Photo from YouTube showing Donald Trump at a rally.  Throughout the campaign season, Trump continuously bragged about the size of the crowds at his rallies.  It turns out that Trump did receive an increase in support due to his visits.  In fact, Trump's visits increased his support over 100%.  

After crafting this theory, I begin my analysis by examining whether or not campaign visits are strategic in nature.  Ultimately, what I find is that they are.  Candidates spend the invisible primary phase (the year-long run-up to the Iowa Caucuses) trying to fundraise and build a name for themselves.  Then, once voting begins, candidates focus on the number of delegates they are accumulating.  Throughout the invisible primary phase, candidates are focused on states with more delegates available, those that hold early contests, states that do not hold their contest on the same day as another state, and states that uses a winner-take-all [WTA] delegate distribution.  Once voting starts, the number of delegates and shared contest dates are still important, but states that hold primaries are more important than states that hold caucuses.  Caucus states receive fewer visits, likely due to the fact that they have fewer delegates and because caucuses require a bigger time commitment from voters.  I turn then to answering the questions of whether or not visits impact mobilization and candidate preference.  In terms of mobilization, visits appear to help increase turnout for long-shot candidates.  Candidates that are well known do not seem to receive a bump in turnout due to their campaign visits, whereas candidates that are less well known do receive a bit of a bump in turnout.  In terms of vote choice, candidates that out-visit their opponent do receive an increase in votes.  So, when running for office, if you want your visits to matter, you need to ensure you are holding more campaign events than your opponent. 

Photo from NPR showing Hillary Clinton with a Cheesesteak in downtown Philadelphia in the 2008 Democratic nominating contests.  Showing affinity for local customs is one of the benefits of campaign visits.  

Ultimately what I have tried to do with this book is shed some light on the impact campaign visits have on voters.  Little has been done to analyze their effects and much more research is needed to fully understand their effects—I spend a significant amount of time in my conclusion discussing future avenues of research based on my findings.  Nonetheless, even though they have been overlooked, campaign visits do matter.  And more importantly, if we are to understand the impact of presidential campaigns, campaign visits need to be included in any discussion of how that campaign influenced voters.