Expert Commentary

Momentum in the 2008 presidential contests

2009 study in Polity on how trends in the last presidential campaign conform to political science theory.

Scholars have long been in interested in describing precisely and theorizing what role campaign momentum — the use of a victory to push a lead more decisively against opponents — plays in the electoral process.

A 2009 study from Rowan University published in Polity, “Momentum in the 2008 Presidential Contests,” looks at how both the recent primary and general election seasons unfolded and whether or not they conformed to established theories and patterns. The study explores political scientist Larry Bartels’s idea of voter behavior as an “iterative” learning process and uses this as the normal model for interpretation. In the primaries, this means that “various state contests and their results present new information to voters. As their perceptions of the candidates change as a result of this new information, voters may switch allegiance. Voter perceptions may arise from their beliefs about the issue positions of the candidates or their conclusions regarding the likelihood of each candidate winning.”

The study’s findings include:

  • In the 2008 Republican nomination contest, momentum “played its traditional role.” This meant that after “seeing the candidates’ performances in the early states, voters rallied to [John] McCain as the best candidate in the field. As he became more likely to win, voters viewed him more favorably.” A chief explanation for this trend was that foreign policy issues became salient because of events outside the campaign, and this favored McCain: “Voters reprioritized the characteristics they wanted in a nominee once foreign policy became a more important issue in the race. Voters did not reassess the candidates; they changed the job description.”
  • Statistical analysis of Barack Obama’s performance in his primary struggle with Hillary Clinton suggests “no evidence that the Obama campaign ever achieved any significant momentum. We cannot argue, therefore, that Obama was able to use his early victories to improve his standing in later states. The campaign consisted of 50 individual contests, with the early states having no impact on the later ones.” Because of strong identity attachments to each candidate, wall-to-wall media, and huge sums of money raised, the normal “iterative learning process” was “eliminated,” as voters already knew the candidates well at the outset.
  • In the general election, the iterative process model was likely on display again. As the financial collapse unfolded in September — crystallized with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers — Obama opened up a seven-point lead in the polls that he would maintain through Election Day. Though it is not certain, it is highly plausible that Obama’s lead is partially explained by this frame-changing event and this “new information” on economic issues, playing to Obama’s perceived strengths relative to McCain.

The author concludes that the various stages of the 2008 elections “provide valuable insight into the role of momentum in contemporary elections. They reinforce the notion that momentum can only have an impact through campaign mechanisms, such as money, organization, and free media. Additionally, momentum can only have an impact if voters are in a position to change their minds. Despite some of the evidence from the 2008 cycle, momentum will continue to be an important factor in presidential campaigns.”

Tags: presidency