Expert Commentary

Following the rules? Candidate strategy in presidential primaries

2009 paper in Presidential Election Studies on the allocation of campaign resources and correlations with available state delegates.

In U.S. presidential nominating contests, campaigns must figure out how to allocate limited resources in order to maximize outcomes in terms of contests won and party delegates gained. Strategies may, of course, depend on the relative strength of a candidacy and be contingent on available money and candidate time.

A 2009 study from Washington State University and Houston University published in Social Science Quarterly, “Following the Rules? Candidate Strategy in Presidential Primaries,” analyzes how presidential candidates in the 2004 and 2008 elections directed advertising dollars and allocated candidate visits to individual states. Because party rules constantly change, the authors note, the previous political science literature on how rules influence strategy is now dated. Ultimately, the scholars attempt to look at how predictable resource allocation is when compared against current party delegate allocation rules.

The study’s findings include:

  • “The number of delegates available in a state had no impact on how much advertising candidates did in the state, nor was the interaction of frontrunner status with delegate totals a significant predictor.”
  • Frontrunner candidates “concentrate their resources in states with winner-take-all delegate allocation and … long-shot candidates … focus on proportional allocation states. Although there were no significant differences between frontrunners and long shots in their allocation of advertising to winner-take-all states, we did find that frontrunners were less likely than long shots to place advertising in proportional allocation states.”
  • Overall, “candidates do appear to be ‘following the rules’ when it comes to their allocation of advertising, though we did fail to find support for the idea that a state’s delegate total influenced the behavior of candidates — or that it influenced frontrunners and long shots differently.”
  • In terms of visits to states, the results were less variable relative to the strength of candidate: “Delegate totals predict candidate visits to a state, with increasing numbers of delegates leading to increasing visits, as was our expectation for frontrunners. However, the delegate total by frontrunner interaction term is not statistically significant, which indicates that the impact of delegate totals on frontrunners and long-shot candidates is effectively the same..”
  • Finally, the “behavior of other candidates matters for resource allocation. Candidates make more visits to and advertise more in states in which the other candidates are airing more advertising.”

The study’s authors conclude that their findings “suggest that the rules of the game do matter for the behavior of candidates, affecting frontrunners and long shots differently in some cases.” They also note that these results “speak to the theoretical arguments of several scholars who have argued that candidates (disregarding their status as a frontrunner or not) should allocate resources more heavily in proportional states.”

Tags: presidency, Iowa/New Hampshire