Expert Commentary

Explaining the decision to withdraw from a U.S. presidential nomination campaign

2011 study from the University of Nevada, the University of Wyoming, and UC Merced on the true factors that cause candidates to end their campaigns.

Both the “invisible primary” phase of the presidential campaign and the sequence of party primaries and caucuses constitute what is known as the “winnowing process.” But, as a 2011 study published in Political Behavior points out, for many candidates “there is a substantial lag between the recognition that they will not win the nomination and the termination of their campaigns.” What factors precisely, then, prompt a decision to withdraw?

The study, “Explaining the Decision to Withdraw from a U.S. Presidential Nomination Campaign,” analyzes candidate withdrawals from 1980 to 2008 and tries to establish which factors are the true triggers for such candidate decisions. The study’s authors — from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; the University of Wyoming; and the University of California, Merced — challenge a number of assumptions, including the notions thatmedia coverage and the amount of cash on hand directly affect the duration of a candidacy.”

The findings include:

  • There are two types of primary campaigns: those that actually seek to win the nomination and those that seek “profile elevation.” Ultimately, the decision to withdraw is explained by key variables that change in value as the campaign progresses.
  • Candidates who already have significant name recognition are more likely to drop out. Likewise, “Candidates with lower levels of name recognition are less likely to drop out on a given day and thus have longer candidacies, all else equal.” However, statistically speaking, “recent media coverage of the candidate does not decrease his or her likelihood of withdrawing.”
  • Those who have held major office before are more likely to drop out, as many have stronger connections to their political party. Moreover, those who deviate from party orthodoxy are less likely to drop out “because it is less costly for party outsiders to engage in lengthy, losing candidacies than it is for party insiders.”
  • Fundraising prowess and campaign cash-on-hand levels do not have as strong a correlation to withdrawal as many suppose: “While candidates’ ability to raise money may be a precursor to other factors shaping candidates’ decision making, fundraising in and of itself may not directly influence how long a candidate remains active in a nomination campaign, all else equal.”
  • A large number of candidates left in the field and low poll rankings make it more likely that a given candidate will drop out.

The findings “suggest that the winnowing process is driven more by national public opinion than by campaign resources,” the authors state. “It appears that candidates are more likely to stay in the race when they are currently polling well, regardless of their available resources or how well they polled before the Iowa caucus.” The downside of these dynamics is that candidates “closely connected to their party drop out more quickly than those who are party outsiders. Thus, voters in states with later contests may end up choosing from a field in which there are a few insurgent-style candidates and only one candidate (the frontrunner) from their party’s mainstream.”

Tags: elections, presidency, Iowa/New Hampshire