Expert Commentary

Role of party nominating conventions in the presidential election cycle: Research roundup

2016 roundup of research focusing on the role of party nominating conventions in the presidential election cycle.
(David Trilling)

The 2016 presidential election cycle has been filled with speculation about what could happen at the Republican and Democratic party conventions this summer, given the highly contested nature of both primaries.

There is lengthy research literature on the role that the party nominating conventions typically play in the election cycle, and while each cycle is different, there are some historical patterns that are worth considering. For example, the phenomenon of the post-convention “bump” or “bounce” has received attention both in the scholarly literature and by data journalists, although it is worth noting that the effect is not always reliable.

The Pew Research Center offers a concise look at brokered conventions over time, as well as how candidates fare as convention balloting takes place during contested conventions. Scholars and commentators have been weighing in on the potential dynamics. For example: Princeton’s Julian Zelizer has pointed to the 1976 GOP Convention as a useful precedent to consider, while Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution has spelled out some hypothetical scenarios for 2016.

For a deep dive into the history and relevant political science, see Before the Convention, by Duke’s John Aldrich, as well as Kamarck’s Party Politics.

The following are other papers and reports that journalists might find useful as they think about, plan for and cover the conventions:



The Presidential Nominating Process and the National Party Conventions, 2016: Frequently Asked Questions
Coleman, Kevin J. Congressional Research Service, December 30, 2015.

Excerpt: “One phenomenon that fuels speculation in 2016 about an extended primary season and a brokered Republican convention is the fact that the state parties do not have uniform rules for whether the delegations are “bound” to vote a certain way at the national convention, and that the results of some contests have no effect on the selection of delegates. In several of the primaries and caucuses, the results will not determine which candidates receive delegates or how many they receive, which makes the process somewhat unpredictable. To win the nomination, a candidate needs 1,236 of 2,470 total delegates to secure the Republican nomination. There has been similar speculation regarding the Democratic convention; a candidate needs 2,382 of 4,763 total delegates to secure the nomination.”


Polarized Networks: The Organizational Affiliations of National Party Convention Delegates”
Heaney, Michael T. American Behavioral Scientist, October 19, 2012, 1-23. doi: 0002764212463354.

Excerpt: “Not only do Democrats and Republicans belong to almost entirely different sets of political organizations, but they also encounter significantly different network structures in their organizational environments. The Democratic environment is relatively pluralistic, while the Republican environment is relatively hierarchical. This difference ensures that not only are Democrats and Republicans exposed to different organizations, they are also exposed to different approaches to organizing politics. Thus, new generations of activists are socialized into a system with systematic party-based differences in the content and structure of organizational networks.”


(Where) Do Campaigns Matter? The Impact of National Party Convention Location
Atkinson, Matthew D., et. al. The Journal of Politics, Vol. 7, Issue 04, October 2014, pp 1045-1058. doi:

Excerpt: “Democracy requires campaigns to communicate proposed policies so voters can make informed choices. Our findings suggest that campaigns can influence voters with events like nominating conventions—voters appear receptive to the stimulus of the increased information flow. However, predispositions and context heavily condition these effects, so campaigns may matter less than perhaps democratic theory suggests they should. Although many blame the Electoral College for narrowing the geography of presidential campaigns, our analyses suggest there are only so many places strategic candidates would want to campaign regardless of the Electoral College, given the need to balance the gains and backlash that depend so greatly on context.”


“The Individual-Level Effects of Presidential Conventions on Candidate Evaluations”
Cera, Joseph; Weinschenk, Aaron C. American Politics Research,  40(1) 3–28, 2012. doi: 10.1177/1532673X11409860.

Excerpt: “The focused information delivered to the electorate during the conventions in the form of speeches by the candidates and their closest supporters had a clear persuasive impact. After both conventions, increasing exposure to speeches yielded candidate evaluations increasingly favorable to the convening candidate. This effect persisted even after respondent partisan affiliation and preconvention evaluations were controlled. In addition, after each convention, we detected emergent partisan bias regarding postconvention candidate evaluations. Regardless of which party was convening, candidates were guaranteed more favorable postconvention evaluations among individuals sharing their party affiliation, even after controlling for preconvention evaluations and exposure to the televised prime-time speeches. Therefore, this emergent bias must be the result of the partisanship-soaked atmosphere surrounding the speeches—the convention ‘hoopla.'”


On to the Convention!
Bello, Jason; Shapiro, Robert Y. Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 123, Issue 1, 1–9, Spring 2008. doi: 10.1002/j.1538-165X.2008.tb00614.x.

Excerpt: “Momentum appears to work in opposition to the rules. If momentum is strong, the rules do not matter, but if momentum is weak, then the rules become critical. However, to fully understand when and how momentum is important, we need to understand the basics of the delegate selection institutions. Two very different systems have developed as a result of the divergent trajectories of reform in each party. The Democratic system is marked by central control and proportional voting. The number of delegates, the method of allocating pledged delegates to candidates, and the ways of selecting the individual delegates are all dictated by the central party. In marked contrast, the central Republican Party oversees only the number of delegates each state receives and leaves the rest up to the states themselves.”


Presidential Nominating Conventions: Past, Present and Future
Panagopoulos, Costas. The Forum, January 2008, Vol. 5, Issue 4. doi: 10.2202/1540-8884.1217.

Excerpt: “Parties and candidates may strive to avoid bloody and divisive primary battles by settling nominations well in advance of the convention, but there is no assurance of achieving this. Stubborn contenders have the option to take their fight to the convention floor where delegate commitments can dissipate after initial balloting rounds. In the extreme, even presumptive nominees may stumble seriously (or be otherwise imperiled) in the period between the end of the primaries and the convention, leaving only the delegates at the convention to respond. The possibility alone of such developments implies conventions retain, at the very least, the capacity to serve as decisive and determinative political events in the process of presidential selection.”


How Do Campaigns Matter?
Jacobson, Gary C. Annual Review of Political Science, 2015. 18:31–47. doi: 10.1146/annurev-polisci-072012-113556.

Excerpt: “Investigations of campaign effects have been as eclectic in their theoretical underpinnings as in their research strategies. Campaigns aim to influence the behavior of individual citizens, persuading those who might do otherwise to show up at the polls and to make the ‘right’ choice. The study of campaign effects is thus the study of when, how, and why campaign messages influence or fail to affect individual behavior. Although many studies of campaign effects are necessarily agnostic about just how campaign activities ultimately register at the individual level (all studies based on aggregate data, for example), explicit or implicit notions of how information provided by campaigns influences knowledge, perceptions, opinions, and behavior underlie all of them.”


Keywords: National Party Convention, nomination, delegates, vote share, public opinion, presidential campaign

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