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The Timeline of Presidential Elections: How Campaigns Do (and Do Not) Matter

The Timeline of Presidential Elections: How Campaigns Do (and Do Not) Matter

by Robert S. Erikson

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In presidential elections, do voters cast their ballots for the candidates whose platform and positions best match their own? Or is the race for president of the United States come down largely to who runs the most effective campaign? It’s a question those who study elections have been considering for years with no clear resolution. In The Timeline


In presidential elections, do voters cast their ballots for the candidates whose platform and positions best match their own? Or is the race for president of the United States come down largely to who runs the most effective campaign? It’s a question those who study elections have been considering for years with no clear resolution. In The Timeline of Presidential Elections, Robert S. Erikson and Christopher Wlezien reveal for the first time how both factors come into play.   Erikson and Wlezien have amassed data from close to two thousand national polls covering every presidential election from 1952 to 2008, allowing them to see how outcomes take shape over the course of an election year. Polls from the beginning of the year, they show, have virtually no predictive power. By mid-April, when the candidates have been identified and matched in pollsters’ trial heats, preferences have come into focus—and predicted the winner in eleven of the fifteen elections. But a similar process of forming favorites takes place in the last six months, during which voters’ intentions change only gradually, with particular events—including presidential debates—rarely resulting in dramatic change.   Ultimately, Erikson and Wlezien show that it is through campaigns that voters are made aware of—or not made aware of—fundamental factors like candidates’ policy positions that determine which ticket will get their votes. In other words, fundamentals matter, but only because of campaigns. Timely and compelling, this book will force us to rethink our assumptions about presidential elections.

Editorial Reviews

Jon Krosnick

Americans have long been fascinated with presidential election campaigns and the polls that accompany them. Each time a new poll is released, we interpret it as indicating something real about the rising or falling fortunes of candidates—and assume these changes have implications for what happens on election day. With ambitious and insightful scholarship, Robert S. Erikson and Christopher Wlezien offer a striking critique of these assumptions, issuing a startling wake-up call that suggests much of the tremendous effort—and money—spent during campaigns may in fact be a waste. Any candidate interested in winning an election should read this book, as should anyone interested in truly understanding voters.
Gary C. Jacobson

“This is an important, original book by accomplished political scientists at the top of their game. Robert S. Erikson and Christopher Wlezien have addressed a central question in the study of presidential elections—to what extent do the actual campaigns matter?—and provided an account of election dynamics that anyone with a passing knowledge of presidential elections can understand, but whose technical sophistication will be appreciated by political scientists. The Timeline of Presidential Election Campaigns will be regarded as a landmark by the presidential research community.”
New Yorker, Ten Best Political Books of 2012 - Ryan Lizza

"Every political pundit should be required to read this book before covering the 2016 campaign."
Political Science Quarterly

“What do voters make of presidential campaigns? Do they update their beliefs about the best candidate as campaigns progress? Or are their minds made up before the campaigns have even started? . . . Robert S. Erikson and Christopher Wlezien have done an excellent service in writing about how voters react to campaigns, and future research on the way in which presidential campaigns shape election outcomes would be well advised to ground their work in what Erikson and Wlezien have accomplished.”
Congress and the Presidency

“A comprehensive and most convincing exercise. Robert S. Erikson and Christopher Wlezien lay bare the macro-dynamics of modern American presidential elections. They show how the outcomes of these elections can be predicted, and why. In their explanation of the “why,” the critical role of the campaign reveals itself. . . . Anyone seriously interested in presidential election campaigns and forecasting cannot do without it.”
Perspectives on Politics

“Erikson and Wlezien bring the tools of time series analysis to bear on the fundamental tension that haunts every scholar, reporter, or consultant trying to understand the effects of campaigns: how much of the final outcome is determined by what the candidates do (or what happens to them) in the weeks leading up to the election and how much is driven by the things out of their control. . . . If you study presidential politics or time series analyses, there is a lot to like in Timeline. The connection between the method and the substance is close and tight, which makes this book a great example of how the right method can help illustrate important nuances in the substance of a problem. . . . But by far, the most important contribution the book makes is to illustrate that presidential campaigns matter in predictable ways.”
Monkey Cage Washington Post

“[A] masterful volume."
Public Opinion Quarterly

“The Timeline of Presidential Elections offers a sober, rigorous, and highly readable probe of what trial-heat polls have to say about election campaigns.”

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University of Chicago Press
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Chicago Studies in American Politics
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The Timeline of Presidential Elections

How Campaigns Do (and Do Not) Matter

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-92214-0

Chapter One

Election Campaigns and Voter Preferences

Imagine the timeline of a presidential election campaign. We begin the timeline at some early point before the election, perhaps as soon as polls ask voters whom they will support. The timeline ends on Election Day. At the beginning, the polls reveal the electorate's preliminary vote intentions. On Election Day, at the end of the campaign, the electorate reaches a final verdict. In this book we trace the national vote division as it evolves over the campaign timeline.

We ask: How much does the vote change over the timeline? Is the shift a smooth trajectory, or does the aggregate vote lurch over the timeline in a series of bumps and wiggles? What are the forces that influence the vote and when do they occur? When new events affect the vote decision, how long do the effects last? To what extent are their effects temporary and to what extent do they persist to affect the outcome on Election Day? These are some of the questions we address in this book. Their answers inform us about the importance of the election campaigns—often beginning before the national party conventions—on the outcome of the presidential election.

How much do campaigns matter? Here, some division can be seen between the views of political practitioners and journalists on the one hand, and academic scholars on the other. Especially in the heat of the campaign, practitioners and journalists emphasize elections as a battle of rival campaigns, with the winning team determined by campaign quality plus the random shocks from unexpected campaign events. In the extreme, elections are decided by which side is better at the public relations art of persuading voters.

Of course, all observers recognize that campaign outcomes involve more than a combination of salesmanship and luck. When political scientists study elections, they tend to emphasize the political environment—often referred to as the "fundamentals" of the campaign. Many concede that campaigns may matter, but that they do so mostly to channel the vote toward a verdict that can largely be seen in advance from the fundamentals. Always prominent in discussions of campaign fundamentals is the economy's performance. But the fundamentals can also include the electorate's net evaluation of the competence and perceived ideological positioning of the major political parties and candidates (Lewis-Beck and Rice 1992; Gelman and King 1993; Holbrook 1996; Campbell 2008a; also see Popkin 1991). In the extreme, the fundamentals of the election are in place before the campaign begins, and the campaign is a mere conduit to drive the voters' decision to its deterministic decision.

Election outcomes are not simply the residue of campaign quality plus a dose of chance. Neither are they the automatic result of deterministic forces that can be foreseen in advance of the campaign. Voters are influenced by a variety of factors, some stemming from the candidates' campaigns and some beyond the candidates' control. The general puzzles that motivate many discussions of elections remain: how much do campaigns affect elections, and how much do the fundamentals shape the campaign and its effect on the voters? (See, e.g., Holbrook 1996, 2010; Campbell 2008a; Stimson 2004; Bartels 2006; Ansolabehere 2006; and Vavreck 2009.)

In this book, we translate general arguments about the effects of campaign events into a set of formal expectations. We then analyze all available national polls from the fifteen presidential elections from 1952 through 2008. We have three main goals. The first is to identify the dynamics of the electorate's vote intentions over the campaign timeline. The second is to assess the extent to which changes in voter preferences over the campaign timeline persist to impact the Election Day vote. The third is to model the sources of electoral change over the campaign timeline. To complement the analysis of aggregate poll results, we also examine individual-level poll responses. This allows us to observe the crystallization of voter preferences over the campaign timeline.

At the beginning of an election year, trial-heat polls reveal little about the eventual Election Day verdict By April, however, the electorate forms impressions of the candidates that bear some resemblance to the final verdict. As the campaign progresses, the electorate's vote division typically resembles the outcome that analysts predict from the fundamentals, though not perfectly and sometimes not much at all. The vote division rarely ends where it starts early in the election year, but, except (occasionally) in the aftermath of the party conventions, change is usually gradual. As we will see, the relative stability of the electorate's preferences is often masked by sampling error in polls. And the real movement in the electorate's preferences often is nothing more than short-term change that fades quickly. Elections are decided by the slow evolution of campaign events that leave an impact that lasts until Election Day.

This book analyzes all available national vote intention polls for the fifteen presidential elections from 1952 through 2008. The sheer volume of polls—nearly 2,000 of them—allows us to assess the dynamics of aggregate electoral preferences in considerable detail. We can determine whether and how preferences change over the course of the election year; indeed, we can quantify and date the change. We also can determine whether and the extent to which the change in preferences we observe actually lasts to affect the outcome. Finally, we can assess the causes of aggregate preference change.

To complete the story, we analyze individual vote preferences at different points of the campaign. This makes more understandable those patterns we see at the aggregate level. We are thus able to offer a comprehensive accounting of preference evolution. What we glean from our analysis provides answers to important questions about electoral preferences: how do they change over time, why do they change, and with what effect on the final outcome?

In some ways, the timeline of a presidential campaign is like a season of major league baseball. In the spring, each team and its fans believe they have a chance at getting to the playoffs and winning the World Series. It may seem that, with a few good breaks, any team can go all the way. In the end, however, the teams with the highest caliber of talent at the start of the season usually get to the playoffs. The list of postseason entries still can include occasional surprises, which makes the long season interesting.

The electoral parallel is obvious. In the spring of election year, parties and candidates, plus their supporters, see a pathway to victory. Political journalists and pundits speculate that the outcome will depend on who runs the smartest campaign and how the outcome may turn on chance events. But the outcome can typically be foreseen from the fundamentals of the campaign; the candidate favored by the economy and presidential performance usually wins. Surprises are possible, however. Just as in baseball, the season must be played out to determine who wins.

We show how, over the timeline of presidential campaigns, the electorate's collective vote choice undergoes a slow evolution. Most of our analysis concentrates on what polls show within 200 days of the election. The 200th day before the election (ED-200) occurs in mid-April. At that time, the likely major-party candidates are identified and matched up in the pollsters' trial-heat questions in each of our 15 election years. Those polls, however, are an uncertain guide to the final outcome. After the fact, we know that polls at ED-200 can explain slightly less than half the variance in the final vote division. (We also show that polls from the beginning of the election year have virtually no predictive power, which means that preferences start to come into focus as the nomination process unfolds.) The polls from April also provide a useful guide to the Election Day winner, as the polls are "right" more often than not. Polls as of ED-200 "erred" only in 1980, 1988, and 1992, while showing a plurality for the final winner in eleven other instances. (In 2004, the ED-200 polls showed a virtual tie.) In short, the early polls are fairly useful for identifying the winner. Where they "err," we do not blame the early polls but rather attribute it to the flow of subsequent events. In other words, the campaign seems to matter.

As everyone who closely follows election polls knows, the numbers bounce around a lot from day to day, and can vary from poll to poll within the same reporting period. Much of this is noise from sampling error. Our book attempts to extract the signal of the ever-moving division of voter preferences over the campaign. This electoral movement is slow—far less than one might think from comparing two polls from nearby dates. With a series of graphs and statistics, we track this slow evolution of voter preferences.

We also identify some of the sources of this slow evolution. Early polls typically start with one candidate ahead by a more one-sided margin than the final vote. Seemingly, if surprise snap elections were called in April, voters would give lopsided verdicts often quite different from their Election Day verdict. We see three periods in the campaign timeline during which aggregate preferences get reshuffled more than usual. The first is during the early stages of the primary season, when voters often are first learning about some of the nominees. The second is during and after the period when the political parties hold their national conventions. The third is the final run-up to the election during the final campaign week, a time when many voters decide. In each instance, the electoral verdict tightens, moving closer to 50–50.

Of course it is important to know what drives electoral change over the campaign. We show that even by April, trial-heat polls incorporate considerations that no longer matter by Election Day. Yet April polls also contain information that persists to become part of the final electoral verdict. Between April and November, something happens. In some fashion, the campaign delivers the economic and political fundamentals to the voters. It also delivers less tangible information that analysts cannot readily identify.

1.1 Electoral Campaigns and the Presidential Vote

It is well known that presidential election outcomes are predictable, at least up to a point. Despite all the media attention paid to the many events and drama during campaigns, there are certain things that powerfully structure the vote on Election Day. At the individual level, party identification is of great importance. Other factors also matter at the individual level, including class, other social cleavages, and policy preferences, to name but a few of the many things that structure individuals' votes. The point is that voters tend to line up in fairly expected ways on Election Day (see Gelman and King 1993; Campbell 2008a; Andersen, Tilley, and Heath 2005).

To point out the obvious, the electoral verdict changes from election to election. It is not that everyone changes or even that most do, as the bulk of partisans vote for their parties or candidates of their parties year in and year out. The ones that change tend to be those who are least attached to particular parties. These "floating voters" are more likely to reflect short-term considerations, such as the state of the economy or the more general performance of the incumbent president (Zaller 2004). There is more to election outcomes than the recent degree of peace and prosperity, but incumbent presidential performance in these domains tells much of the story (see, e.g., Fair 1978; Hibbs 1987; Erikson 1989; Lewis-Beck 2005; Holbrook 2010). Political factors, including the candidates' policy positions, are also important (Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson 2002; Vavreck 2009).

1.1.1 The Fundamentals

A common view is that the campaign delivers the fundamentals (e.g., Gelman and King 1993; Campbell 2008a). The fundamentals are typically described as a set of economic and political circumstances known long before the election, so that the results are knowable in advance, perhaps before the eventual outcome is evident in the polls. The campaign effectively brings home the fundamentals to voters. If the final result departs from what the fundamentals predict, then the campaign must have failed to fully enlighten voters by Election Day.

Our view is different. We conceive of the fundamentals not by their content but by their persistence. The fundamentals are those things that cause a long-term shift in voter preferences—long-term, that is, for the length of the campaign. Some campaign effects come and go. The fundamentals have effects that last. Some of these are anticipated early on in the campaign; others evolve over the course of the campaign. We would like to observe all the forces that affect the fundamentals directly. Although we can identify some of the major culprits—such as the economy, candidates' positions on issues relative to voters, and aggregate party identification—many sources go unmeasured. However, the distinction between underlying (and somewhat movable) fundamentals and short-term fluctuations frames our analysis. In subsequent chapters, we describe vote intentions over the campaign timeline as a combination of long-term fundamentals—the accumulation of permanent influences on the campaign—and short-term influences with little consequence (unless they occur close to Election Day).

1.1.2 Fundamentals: External and Internal

As we have discussed, the notion of the fundamentals of a campaign can incorporate many things. They include the electorate's partisan identity and its evaluation of the sitting president's performance. Voters also respond to their social and economic self-interests and policy preferences, among other personal motivations. The fundamentals also include the policy positions of the major presidential candidates. In one sense, the fundamentals represent the vote that occurs when the electorate focuses on the task and becomes "enlightened." (We elaborate on this process later.) Of course, reasonable people disagree about what it means to be enlightened. What are voters' interests? To what extent do the candidates represent these interests? Is it enlightened to judge the sitting president on the basis of late-arriving economic growth? We are agnostic on these issues. To us, fundamentals include anything that has a lasting impact on voter preferences. We can identify some of the factors that do matter on Election Day but not all.

It is useful to distinguish between "internal" and "external" fundamentals. As we have seen, some of the factors are internal to voters and apply personally. Voters are members of different groups. Although group characteristics are stable over the course of the campaign, their electoral effects may grow, emerging as the election becomes salient. When a person's group characteristics or group interests affects his or her vote, we can include that among the fundamentals. Voters also have partisan (and ideological) predispositions that form a basis of vote choice. As voters rely on these dispositions for their vote choice, that too can be included as part of the fundamentals.

Other fundamentals are external to voters in that they arise from the political environment and the candidates themselves. The economy is the usual suspect. Economic prosperity benefits the party of the sitting president; recession favors the out-party. Political factors are important as well, such as candidates' position-taking and the popularity of the sitting president. Economic and political circumstances are powerful influences on each election. These external fundamentals together with the internal fundamentals largely determine what happens on Election Day.

1.1.3 The Fundamentals and the Campaign

How can a discussion of fundamentals help to frame our understanding of election campaigns? One's first thought might be that the influence of fundamental variables tells us that campaigns do not matter. From this perspective, campaign effects are the difference between the result and the prediction from the fundamentals. To the extent the outcomes are predictable, therefore, campaigns have "minimal effects" (see, e.g., Finkel 1993). This view resonates in certain parts of the literature (Lewis-Beck and Rice 1992). After all, candidates who are likely losers will not embrace the fundamentals (e.g., the economy) but rather seek another tack. (On this point, see Vavreck 2009.)

There's another view, which James Campbell (2008a) refers to as the "predictable campaign." Here, predictability does not mean that campaigns do not matter, just that the effects of the competing Democratic and Republican campaigns cancel out (also see Fiorina and Peterson 2002). Strategists for both presidential campaigns do the best they can with the cards they are dealt. All we observe is the net effect of the fundamentals. If both candidates do well, the logic goes, we should expect partisanship to structure partisans' votes. We also should expect that things that are important to voters, such as the economy, will swing their votes and the final result. When campaigns do what they are supposed to, the result turns out as we expect.

This latter interpretation may appeal. It fits the facts and explicitly incorporates the effects of campaigns, at least conceptually. After all, while the contrast with the minimal effects view is clear, the empirical regularity is precisely the same. What differentiates the two views are their assumptions: one presumes that predictability implies minimal effects, whereas the other presumes that it means there are substantial campaign effects but that they cancel out.

1.1.4 Enlightenment (Learning)

The conventional political science wisdom is a bit different from the general caricatures we have just described. Here, Election Day predictability implies that election campaigns "enlighten" voters about their interests and things that are important to them, for example, government performance (Gelman and King 1993; also see Andersen, Tilley, and Heath 2005). From this view, campaigns deliver the fundamentals by providing information to voters. In the course of taking positions, emphasizing issues, and challenging each other, campaigns help people sort themselves by party and take stock of performance (also see Arceneaux 2005). This view overlaps some with the "predictable campaign" perspective. It also appeals for much the same reasons: it fits the facts and includes a role for the presidential candidates' campaigns to help shape the election outcome.


Excerpted from The Timeline of Presidential Elections by ROBERT S. ERIKSON CHRISTOPHER WLEZIEN Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago . Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Robert S. Erikson is professor of political science at Columbia University and the author or coauthor of several books, including The Macro Polity.Christopher Wlezien is professor of political science at Temple University and coauthor of Degrees of Democracy, among other books.

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