Expert Commentary

Polls or pols? The real driving force behind presidential nominations

2003 paper for the Brookings Review about the importance of party insider endorsements during the presidential nominating contests.

Early money raised, momentum and high poll numbers are often seen by political observers as key factors in predicting how candidates will fare in the presidential primaries. However, the role of endorsements — particularly from a core group of influential party backers — is a factor that, according to some political scientists, has not received enough attention.

A 2003 paper from UCLA and Princeton University published in Brookings Review, “Polls or Pols? The Real Driving Force Behind Presidential Nominations,” tallied up all “publicly reported endorsements” among a range of news publications for contested races between 1980 and 2000. (The endorsements are weighted by category, and are divided among such groups as celebrities and party officials.) The paper’s authors note that it appears that the “final Gallup poll before the Iowa caucus explains around 90% of what happens in the state-by-state voting”; however, the authors seek to show that poll numbers alone do not fully account for electoral reality.

The paper’s findings include:

  • The number of delegates won and the share of endorsements are correlated at a level nearly equal to that of the pre-Iowa Gallup poll numbers.
  • The paper’s authors consider the possibility that polls may drive the endorsements, undercutting the notion that endorsements themselves matter significantly. However, statistical analysis shows that “changes in either polls or endorsements at an early time lead to changes in the other at later times. But the influence is strikingly asymmetrical: endorsements influence polls about three times more than polls influence endorsements.”
  • Overall, the data suggest that “party insiders mainly drive the dynamics of presidential nominations.” They seem to make “estimates of each candidate’s character, skill, positions on key party issues, and electability.”

The paper’s authors conclude that, though some may be relieved that money and polls do not necessarily determine election outcomes, there are still reasons to “worry.” They note, “The party establishments that we believe largely control presidential nominations tend to be more ideologically polarized than the American electorate, and their partisan interests may further lead them to oppose policies, like campaign finance reform, that most Americans favor.”

Tags: Iowa, New Hampshire, polling, presidency