Expert Commentary

Journalists, catch up on political science research trends! A wonky guide to early Election 2016

Roundup of 2014 and 2015 research on issues relevant to the 2016 campaign, including the nomination process, debates, partisanship, scandals, financing, polling and social media.
(David Trilling)

With the first presidential primary debate scheduled for August 6, attention to Election 2016 is set to heat up in a substantial way.

Lamentably, much of the coverage in the coming months will be focused on the proverbial “horse race,” with polls driving the focus, not issues, and with social media only accelerating a “gotcha'” news culture. Some of those news media trends are endemic to campaigns, even if voters have long said that they want to hear more about the issues.

It’s worth remembering that substantive angles about campaign dynamics can be found in the research world. Research can also provide a critical perspective that serves as an antidote to shallowness and a focus on the “game” aspects of campaigns or the latest campaign tactics and spin. Since the presidential primary in 2012, the political science and research community at large has done another round of reflection, debate and data-crunching, producing intriguing findings and perspectives on a wide variety of topics. Many of these findings will be surfaced and brought to bear in places such as The Monkey Cage and WonkBlog at the Washington Post; The Upshot at the New York Times; and Vox and FiveThirtyEight. All are worth following during the election season, given their focus on data- and research-driven coverage.

Presidential primaries are the subject of a vast body of research literature, going back many decades. Still, there are many emerging trends and new issues that bear watching. A few examples:

  • As a group of researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania, and the Pew Research Center have found, the rise of third-party groups and Super PACs resulted in more deception and misinformation during the 2012 election cycle, as ads run by such groups contained falsehoods at higher rates. (Follow for more detail on this theme during the 2015-16 election cycle.) It’s a trend that’s likely to continue, given the continuing rise of negative and attack ads during recent election cycles.
  • The campaigns themselves are becoming more data- and numbers-driven, a kind of “computational management” that journalists would be well served to monitor and explore with a healthy degree of skepticism.
  • Early primary and caucus states, such as Iowa, often see predictable dynamics and patterns. However, there is some evidence that demographics, and thus outcomes, could be changing.
  • As issues of race, gender and inequality continue to be front and center in public discourse, it is worth reviewing some of the research literature on how these issues play out and shape campaigns.

There are many more evolving issues and themes to catch up on, as the recently published academic papers below suggest, including financing and Super PACs, political advertising and candidate branding, social media, polling and consultants, and voter behavior and political identity.

Have another topic you want to catch up on? One of the easiest ways to search is to go to Google Scholar, which indexes papers from all the top poli sci journals (and working papers from all over.) Click on the “All Versions” tab if you need access to an open version.


Financing, Super PACs

“Deception in Third Party Advertising in the 2012 Presidential Campaign”
Winneg, Kenneth M.; Hardy, Bruce W.; Gottfried, Jeffrey A.; Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. American Behavioral Scientist, February 2014. doi: 10.1177/0002764214524358.

Abstract: “In this article, we profile the advertising activities and deception levels of the top 2012 spending independent expenditure groups that focused on the presidential contest. From December 1, 2011, through Election Day, November 6, 2012, independent expenditure groups spent more than $360 million on presidential television advertising, according to Kantar Media CMAG. More than a fifth of the dollars spent by the top groups purchased ads containing at least one claim judged as misleading by independent fact checkers. The proportion of dollars that these groups spent on ads containing at least one deception was much greater during the primaries than afterward. During the primaries, the pro-Romney super PAC ‘Restore Our Future’ led the pack both in dollars spent on ads containing at least one deception and in the proportion of its ads found deceptive by the fact checkers. During the general election, in the post-primary period, the pro-Obama super PAC ‘Priorities USA Action’ devoted the most dollars and greatest proportion of its total dollars to ads in which fact checkers found at least one deceptive claim. During some but not all of the 2012 election year, the percentage of third-party ads containing at least one deceptive claim was higher among those groups not required to disclose their donors than it was among those required to do so. ”


“Following the Money: Super PACs and the 2012 Presidential Nomination”
Christenson, Dino P.; Smidt, Corwin D. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 2014, Vol. 44, No. 3.

Abstract: “The entrance of Super Political Action Committees (Super PACs), outside groups with no caps on fundraising or independent expenditures, prompts a reexamination of the role of money in campaigns and elections. We investigate the influence of Super PAC expenditures in the 2012 Republican nomination contest. A compressed calendar makes nomination campaigns expensive and money crucial, especially for lesser-known candidates, such that outside expenditures likely made a difference. Indeed, we find Super PACs helped to extend Santorum’s long-shot candidacy but also helped Romney by weakening momentum from Gingrich and Santorum wins. Using panel data of candidate dynamics, we also find that candidate and Super PAC expenditures within various key primary states reactively complement each other. However, we do not find dispositive evidence that Super PACs coordinate with campaigns, thereby acting, at least in this context, within the bounds of their legally mandated independence.”


Nomination process, debates

“Epilogue: What 2012 Nomination Contests Tell Us about the Future of the Republican Party”
Rapoport, Ronald B. Electoral Studies, October 2014. doi: 10.1016/j.electstud.2014.09.005

Abstract: “Analysis of Tea Party activists within the Republican Party illustrates the ‘good-news, bad-news’ aspects of intra-party factionalism. The good news is that nomination contests between Tea Party and establishment Republicans, divisive as they appear, do not necessarily undermine support for the party’s nominees in the general election. Support for Tea Party candidates among its activists in the 2012 presidential nomination fight produced increased support for Romney–Ryan in the general election. At the same time, however, activism for Tea Party candidates contributed to increased negativity towards the Republican Party among Tea Party activists, suggesting that the factionalism within the party is unlikely to be soon resolved. Finally we find that negativity towards the Republican establishment is playing an even greater role than negativity towards President Obama in producing continuing or increased Tea Party movement activity. This suggests that the movement has the potential to survive beyond Obama’s presidency.”


“Has the Tea Party Era Radicalized the Republican Party? Evidence from Text Analysis of the 2008 and 2012 Republican Primary Debates”
Medzihorskya, Juraj; Littvaya, Levente; Jenne, Erin K. PS: Political Science & Politics, October 2014, Vol. 47, Issue 4, 806-812. doi:

Abstract: “Much ink has been spilled to describe the emergence and likely influence of the Tea Party on the American political landscape. Pundits and journalists declared that the emergence of the Tea Party movement pushed the Republican Party to a more extreme ideological position, which is generally anti-Washington. To test this hypothesis, we analyzed the ideological positions taken by candidates in the 2008 and 2012 pre-Iowa caucus Republican presidential-primary debates. To establish the positions, we used the debate transcripts and a text-analytic technique that placed the candidates on a single dimension. Findings show that, overall, the 2012 candidates moved closer to an anti-Washington ideology — associated with the Tea Party movement — and away from the more traditional social conservative Republican ideology, which was more salient in the 2008 debates. Both Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, the two candidates who ran in both elections, shifted significantly in the ideological direction associated with the Tea Party.”


“Momentum and Media in the 2012 Republican Presidential Nomination”
McGowen, Ernest B.; Palazzolo, Daniel J. Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2014, Vol. 44, Issue 3, 431-446. doi: 10.1111/psq.12131.

Abstract: “This article uses Aldrich’s (2009) formula to devise ‘momentum scores’ that allow us to track momentum for the major candidates in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination throughout the primary season. Though Mitt Romney had a major advantage in fundraising and endorsements before the primaries began, his biggest gains in momentum came late in the primary season. We compare momentum changes to media mentions and tone of coverage derived from content analysis of major newspapers. Though media content corresponds with changes in momentum for each candidate, the media response to momentum for the front-runner is weaker compared with his competitors.”


“Monkey Business: The Effect of Scandals on Presidential Primary Nominations”
Rottinghaus, Brandon. PS: Political Science & Politics, April 2014. doi: 10.1017/S1049096514000249.

Conclusion: “The front-loading of the presidential primary season creates an environment where candidates must compete early and vigorously for the nomination of their party…. Viability and perceptions of efficacy are critical to candidates in these contests. From the evidence presented here, the most significant impact of scandal is on a candidate’s ability to raise campaign funds. Viability is signaled by the ability to increase one’s campaign coffers, especially in crowded fields where no candidate demonstrates the ability to take the lead in a race…. Perceptions of vulnerability because of scandal clearly take a toll on individual candidates’ fundraising efforts. Oddly, scandals have a small positive effect on a candidate traded shares. Campaigns may aggressively defend themselves during these moments, causing a small increase in popularity…. Republican nominees are more significantly disadvantaged by scandals during the race for the nomination of the Republican Party. The depth of this negative effect is most prominent in fewer funds raised and fewer endorsements garnered.”


Political advertising, branding

“(Mis) information and the Electorate: The Dynamics and Individual-Level Effects of Political Advertising Claims”
Allen, Barbara; Stevens, Daniel P.; Berg, Jeffrey. Social Science Research Network, August 2014. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.2486711

Conclusion: “Using a unique dataset based on the presidential campaign in 2008, we have indicated that the accuracy of advertising claims has important effects on the public that are independent of its tone. In our analysis of the way in which campaigns use exaggeration and distortion over time, we showed that while there does not appear to be an ever-increasing spiral of inaccuracy in which distortions from one side lead to more distortions from the other, there were discernible patterns to the levels of inaccuracy in Republican and Democratic ads in 2008. Thus, for example, the Democratic ad campaign ended with claims that were looser with the facts on issues and traits than at any other point during the campaign. When we looked at this systematically, we showed that, while the Republican ad campaign seemed to plow its own course, levels of inaccuracy in Democratic claims were responsive to inaccuracy in Republican claims. In terms of their effects on the polls, greater issue inaccuracy in Republican and Democrat ads were associated with gains for McCain, and greater trait inaccuracy in Republican ads with gains for Obama. In terms of enhancing ‘intended effects,’ straying further from the facts appears to hold at least as much risk as benefit.


“The Branding of Candidates and Parties: The U.S. News Media and the Legitimization of a New Political Term”
Milewicz, Chad M.; Milewicz, Mark C. Journal of Political Marketing, July 2015. doi: 10.1080/15377857.2014.958364.

Abstract: “Political marketing research indicates that brands and branding are a robust aspect of politics. However, little is known of the broader cultural appreciation of political branding. Through a content analysis of major U.S. newspapers over a 40-year period, we provide evidence that the U.S. news media is increasingly aware of political branding. Moreover, we present a typology of media treatment that indicates that the national media in the U.S. increasingly perceive brands and branding in the public sphere as an innate, multifaceted, and effective part of modern politics.”


Social media

“Twitter Use by Presidential Primary Candidates During the 2012 Campaign”
Bethany Anne Conway; Kate Kenski; Di Wang. American Behavioral Scientist November 2013 vol. 57 no. 11 1596-1610. doi: 10.1177/0002764213489014.

Abstract: “This study examines Twitter use by presidential candidates during the 2012 primary election. The Twitter feeds and activity levels of candidates from the Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, and Americans Elect parties and their campaigns were gathered over a 3-month span. Variables examined include the number of tweets posted, followers gained, and followers added as well as the occurrence of hashtags, user mentions, hyperlinks, and content categories within tweets. Results showed candidates’ presence on Twitter was not uniform. Tweet frequency did not necessarily result in followers gained. Interestingly, the candidates who tweeted the most were not major party nominees. As the Republican primary campaign progressed, the amount of daily tweeting by the candidates was not higher than it had been earlier in the primary season.”


“Twitter and Elections: Are Tweets Predictive, Reactive or a Form of Buzz?”
Murthy, Dhiraj. Information, Communication & Society, Vol. 18, Issue 7, 2015. doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2015.1006659.

Abstract: “Twitter has been used actively by candidates and voters alike in a diverse range of elections around the world including the 2010 U.K. elections, the 2012 U.S. presidential elections, and the 2013 Italian elections. However, Twitter has often been found to be a poor predictor of electoral success. This article investigates what role tweets play during elections and whether they are more reactive than predictive. Using the specific case of the 2012 U.S. Republican presidential primary elections, this article explores how candidate’s Twitter presence affects electoral outcomes and whether the sentiment and frequency of candidate-related tweets is related to campaign success and offline success at the ballot box. This study finds that tweets were more reactive rather than predictive. Additionally, sentiment analysis revealed that tweets were generally neutral towards candidates. An interesting finding of our study is how candidates used Twitter to generate ‘buzz,’ political capital that did not translate to success at the ballot box. We specifically explore how Huntsman’s daughters used YouTube videos and tweets that were perceived as a ‘backstage’ look into the campaign and ultimately generated high levels of buzz. Though tweets do not seem to be reflective or predictive of an election campaign offline, they are being used for social media campaigns which can and do get covered by traditional media. ”


“Social Watching a 2012 Republican Presidential Primary Debate”
McKinney, Mitchell S.; Houston, J. Brian; Hawthorne, Joshua. American Behavioral Scientist, October 2013. doi: 10.1177/0002764213506211.

Abstract: “This study examines the ‘Twitter election of 2012,’ and specifically young citizens’ ‘social watching’ behaviors while live-tweeting a 2012 nationally televised Republican primary debate. We find several important relationships between key demographic, social, and political engagement variables and participants’ social watching activity (frequency of tweeting while watching the debate). We also find important links between tweet content (frequency of candidate mentions in tweets) and debate viewers’ candidate evaluations.”


Polling and opinion

“Online Polls and Registration-Based Sampling: A New Method for Pre-Election Polling”
Barber, Michael J., et al. Political Analysis, May 2014, 22:321-335. doi: 10.1093/pan/mpt023.

Abstract: “This article outlines a new method for surveys to study elections and voter attitudes. Pre-election surveys often suffer from an inability to identify and survey the likely electorate for the upcoming election. We propose a new and inexpensive method to conduct representative surveys of the electorate. We demonstrate the performance of our method in producing a representative sample of the future electorate that can be used to study campaign dynamics and many other issues. We compare pre-election outcome forecasts to election outcomes in seven primary and general election surveys conducted prior to the 2008 and 2010 primary and general elections in three states. The results indicate that the methodology produces representative samples, including in low-turnout elections such as primaries where traditional methods have difficulty consistently sampling the electorate. This new methodology combines Probability Proportional to Size (PPS) sampling, mailed invitation letters, and online administration of the questionnaire. The PPS sample is drawn based on a model employing variables from the publicly available voter file to produce a probability of voting score for each individual voter. The proposed method provides researchers a valuable tool to study the attitudes of the voting public.”


“The RAND Continuous 2012 Presidential Election Poll”
Gutsche, Tania L.; et al. Public Opinion Quarterly, 2014, Vol. 78, 233-254. doi: 10.1093/poq/nfu009.

Abstract: “The RAND Continuous 2012 Presidential Election Poll (CPEP) was conducted within the American Life Panel, an Internet panel recruited through traditional probability sampling to ensure representativeness. Because the CPEP asks the same respondents repeatedly about their voting preferences, observed changes are attributable primarily to individuals changing their minds and not to random sampling fluctuations. The CPEP asks respondents to state in terms of percent chance both their preferences for a candidate and the likelihood that they will vote. Moreover, we asked the respondents about their actual voting after the election, so we can study the predictive power both within sample and out of sample (the national results). The CPEP appears to have predicted well. Our final prediction of the difference in popular vote between Obama and Romney differed about half a percentage point from the final tally, which would place it near or at the top of the polling firms. The probabilistic questions, even months before the election, were strongly related to actual voting behavior. Our approach allows us to gain insights into stability of voting preferences and the effect of events on individual preferences; for example, various shifts can be clearly related to major events.”


“Political Uncertainty and the 2012 US Presidential Election: A Cointegration Study of Prediction Markets, Polls and a Stand-out Expert”
John W. Goodella, Frank McGroartyb, Andrew Urquhartb. International Review of Financial Analysis, May 2015. doi:10.1016/j.irfa.2015.05.003

Abstract: “Political uncertainty is increasingly seen as important to financial markets. Particularly US presidential election uncertainty is linked to uncertainty regarding future US macroeconomic policy. But what is the best vehicle to measure political uncertainty? We examine both the cointegration and causal relationships between the Iowa and Intrade presidential futures markets (IOWA, INTRADE), along with the results of election polls (POLLS); as well as published election predictions of Nate Silver (SILVER), who was arguably the most followed political forecaster during the 2012 presidential election season. We document strong evidence that SILVER and the two prediction markets were all highly cointegrated; while POLLS was not. Consistent with the assertion made by others that INTRADE prices were manipulated in 2012 for non-pecuniary reasons, we also evidence that IOWA and SILVER both Granger-caused INTRADE. Our findings are also consistent with previous findings that election markets outperform polls as prediction vehicles. Overall, while confirming that INTRADE, IOWA and SILVER are cointegrated, we note that the three series consistently differed in the degree of optimism in an Obama victor. These results pose important questions for researchers interested in estimating political uncertainty, and assessing the efficacy of prediction markets and their international integration.”


Other angles

“Leviathan’s Reach? The Impact of Political Consultants on the Outcomes of the 2012 Republican Presidential Primaries and Caucuses”
Cain, Sean A. Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2015, Vol. 45, Issue 1, 132-156. doi: 10.1111/psq.12174.

Abstract: “Recent scholarship into American political parties argues that the power to nominate presidential candidates has not entirely devolved from the party to voters but retains party influence via a network of allied actors including political consultants. Once party elites coalesce around a preferred candidate, primary voters tend to comply with their will. However, scholarship has not yet shown whether consultants help produce this effect. Consultants, even those with close contractual ties to the party organization, do not behave as this view expects, and they worked for several GOP candidates in 2012, enhancing intraparty competition rather than rallying around the front-runner.”


“Obama and Nationalized Electoral Politics in the 2014 Midterm”
Gary C. Jacobson. Political Science Quarterly, March 2015. DOI: 10.1002/polq.12290.

Excerpt: “Four years on, the coalition that reelected Obama should represent an even larger share of the electorate in 2016. However, as the 2014 election made very clear, that coalition is harder to mobilize, and its participation at the levels observed in 2008 and 2012 cannot be taken for granted. Moreover, presidential candidates attempting to win a third consecutive term for their party have a poor track record in elections since 1948; only two of eight have succeeded. Thus, while national demographic trends favor a generic Democrat in 2016, a Democratic presidential victory is by no means a sure thing. Far closer to certainty is that national politics during the 114th Congress will bring another highly partisan and polarized electorate to the polls in 2016.”


“Family as a Framing Resource for Political Identity Construction: Introduction Sequences in Presidential Primary Debates”
Sclafani, Jennifer. Language in Society, 2015, 44, 369-399. doi: 10.1017/S0047404515000238.

Abstract: “This study investigates the construction of political identity in the 2011–2012 US Republican presidential primary debates. Focusing on candidates’ self-introductions, I analyze how candidates use references to family members and roles to frame their political identities or ‘presidential selves’. Family references are shown to (i) frame candidates’ personal identities as family men/ women; (ii) interweave the spheres of home and politics and consequently, their private and public selves; (iii) serve as a tool of discursive one-upmanship in self-introduction sequences; and (iv) demonstrate intimate familiarity and expertise on the topic of national security. This study extends research on family discourse and identity by examining the rhetorical function of mentioning family-related identities in explicitly persuasive public discourse, and contributes to sociolinguistic research on political discourse by examining how family identities serve as a resource for framing political identities.”


“Viability, Information Seeking and Vote Choice”
Utych, Stephen M.; Kam, Cindy D. Journal of Politics, January 2014, Vol. 76, No. 1, 152-166 doi:10.1017/S0022381613001126.

Abstract: “Existing research suggests that candidate viability influences strategic voting decisions among citizens. We argue that viability can influence electoral decision making beyond strategic considerations. We analyze original experimental data and novel observational data to examine viability’s impact on vote choice and information seeking. We conduct two mock primary election campaigns within the Dynamic Process Tracing Environment where we experimentally manipulate candidate viability. In both experiments, we find that subjects read more information about viable candidates, report more favorable ratings of viable candidates, and are more likely to vote for viable candidates. We demonstrate the generalizability of these results by assessing the relationship between viability, as measured with Gallup polls, and information seeking using observational data. There, we develop a unique measure of information seeking based on Google searches for the names of political candidates. These observational data reinforce the relationship between viability and information seeking.”


“A Primary Cause of Partisanship? Nomination Systems and Legislator Ideology”
McGhee, Eric; et al. American Journal of Political Science, October 2013, Vol. 58, Issue 2, 337-351. doi: 10.1111/ajps.12070.

Abstract: “Many theoretical and empirical accounts of representation argue that primary elections are a polarizing influence. Likewise, many reformers advocate opening party nominations to nonmembers as a way of increasing the number of moderate elected officials. Data and measurement constraints, however, have limited the range of empirical tests of this argument. We marry a unique new data set of state legislator ideal points to a detailed accounting of primary systems in the United States to gauge the effect of primary systems on polarization. We find that the openness of a primary election has little, if any, effect on the extremism of the politicians it produces.”


“Dollars on the Sidewalk: Should U.S. Presidential Candidates Advertise in Uncontested States?”
Urban, Carly; Niebler, Sarah. American Journal of Political Science, April 2014, Vol. 58, No. 2, 322–336. doi: 10.1111/ajps.12073.

Abstract: “Presidential candidates in the United States do not intentionally advertise in states without rigorous competition for electoral votes. However, in some areas of noncompetitive states, media markets overlap with battleground states, exposing these regions to political ads. These spillover advertisements allow us to examine the relationship between advertisements and individual campaign contributions, with data from the Wisconsin Advertising Project and the Federal Elections Commission. Using propensity-score matching within uncontested states, we find that 2008 aggregate giving in ZIP codes exposed to political ads was approximately $6,100 (28.1% of mean contributions) more than in similar ZIP codes without advertisements.”


Keywords: 2012 U.S. election, Tea Party, Republican Party, factionalism, party activists, media and politics, political branding, political brands, political marketing, political communication, advertising, negative advertising, motivated information processing, partisan bias, political knowledge, voter turnout, candidate perceptions

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