Expert Commentary

Exit talk in media coverage of past presidential campaigns

2011 study from Political Research Quarterly on the pressures faced by trailing contenders for presidential nominations to leave the race.

The 2008 U.S. presidential primaries were bruising for both major parties, with more than a half-dozen candidates on each side battling for the nomination. With each departure, pressure mounted on the remaining candidates to keep their campaigns alive or, if they were perceived as fading, to pull out. The Democratic contest was exceptional because the two strongest candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, remained locked in a seesaw battle until early June of that year.

A 2011 study published in Political Research Quarterly, “Bringing Out the Hook: Exit Talk in Media Coverage of Hillary Clinton and Past Presidential Campaigns,” looked at coverage of the Democratic primaries and the pressure put on candidates to withdraw. The authors, from Louisiana State University (now at University of Texas-Austin) and Portland State University, looked at the five presidential campaigns from 1976 to 2008 to better understand such “exit talk” — both attempts to push candidates out and counter-assertions that candidates should remain in, as well as general discussions of the issue — and the role it played in these contests. Attention was paid to both explicit and implicit calls for candidates to withdraw by rivals, party elites and the media, as well as denials by trailing candidates.

The study’s findings include:

  • Across all five campaigns studies, the primary origin of sourced exit talk — on-the-record comments attributed to people — was trailing candidates’ organizations (67.4%), followed by the opponent’s organization (15.5%), and party elites (7.2%). “It appears that the predominant form of exit talk is … assertions designed to maintain the trailing candidate’s appearance of competitiveness.”
  • Overall, leading campaigns were the source of only 28.5% of explicit calls for trailing candidates to withdraw. In 2008, the number was even lower: just 9.3% of the exit talk concerning Hillary Clinton came from the Obama campaign.
  • Concerns by party leaders over the primary battle damaging their chances in the general election were consistent across all contests studied. “These concerns, expressed openly by various partisans, or simply speculated upon by reporters, contributed to the relatively heavy exit talk” in both 2008 and 1980.
  • Timing of exit talk varied with the specifics of the campaigns and candidates. For Reagan in 1976, 96% of the exit calls occurred in March of that year; for Kennedy in 1980, 32% of the talk occurred in June of that year and 34% in August just before the Democratic convention.
  • During the 2008 contest, Hillary Clinton experienced greater levels of exit talk (6.9% of her coverage)  than candidates in the four other contests. The next-highest amount was Edward Kennedy in 1980 (6.3%).
  • Among sourced exit talk, 60.3% of Clinton’s coverage involved calls for her departure or discussion of her possible departure, exceeded only by Kennedy in 1980 (61.2%) and Reagan in 1976 (62.5%). Reagan experienced more explicit pressure to quit the 1976 race (23%) compared to Clinton (10.8%) and Kennedy (7.8%).
  • The study found that exit pressure was “quantitatively different” for Clinton. “Much of the exit pressure took the amorphous form of unsourced reporting on whether and when she would ‘have to’ leave the race.” In particular, coverage shifted markedly from sourced to unsourced talk between May and June of 2008.
  • Overall, “our findings of greater exit talk regarding Reagan, Kennedy and Clinton fit a general, commonsense pattern: Exit talk swirls most fiercely around the closest-fought and politically most consequential trailing candidacies.”

The study also includes a review of literature on the five primary contests, with an emphasis on the challenges facing Clinton.  “While women candidates do not suffer from across-the-board gender disadvantages, especially when running for lower offices … they are more likely to have their political ‘viability’ questioned than are men, a disadvantage manifest in fund-raising and media coverage.” Nonetheless, “very few if any trailing candidates have lost their nomination bid by such a narrow margin as Hillary Clinton did in 2008.”

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