Expert Commentary

Seven big questions about the 2012 presidential election: Research roundup

2012 research review of overarching questions yet to be answered in campaign 2012.

With the final stretch of the 2012 presidential election now here, some central research-oriented questions that are traditionally asked about campaigns are coming to the fore. These areas include: the state of the economy and its effects on electoral outcomes; the role of money and the power of ads; the impact of the candidate debates; the effectiveness of the campaigns’ “ground games”;  and the potential for “coattail” effects down the ballot.

The following are seven outstanding questions, each accompanied by a reading list of research-oriented articles or resources that can help inform coverage (click on the questions below to navigate to the relevant section):




“The Objective and Subjective Economy and the Presidential Vote”
Erikson, Robert S; Wlezien, Christopher. American Political Science Association, 2012.

Excerpt: “The importance of the economy in U.S. presidential elections is well established. Voters reward or punish incumbent party candidates based on the state of the economy. The electorate focuses particularly on economic change, not the level of the economy per se, and pays more attention to late-arriving change more than earlier change. On these points there is a good amount of scholarly agreement…. There is less agreement, however, on what specific indicators matter to voters… [I]n 2012, we see substantial divergence between perceived business conditions and leading economic indicators, on the one hand, and income growth, on the other. In 2008, the first two variables neared historical lows while income growth was middling. In 2012, the pattern is flipped, as income growth is at a historical low and business conditions and leading economic indicators are middling. What does this suggest about President Obama’s electoral fate?”

“Underemphasized Points about the Economy and Elections”
Sides, John. “The Monkey Cage” blog, November 2011.

Excerpt: “[T]he economy is bound up with campaigns and elections in may complex ways.  You cannot simply predict election outcomes with change in gross domestic product, conclude that the economy explains, say, 30% of variation in election outcomes, and then declare that the majority of variation is explained by campaign spending and strategies.  There is no simple way to separate the total effects of structural forces like the economy and the total effect of the campaign itself.”

“Measuring the Effect of the Economy on Elections”
Silver, Nate. “FiveThirtyEight” blog at The New York Times, July 2012.

Excerpt: “The historical evidence is robust enough to say that economic performance almost certainly matters at least somewhat, and that poorer economic performance tends to hurt the incumbent party’s presidential candidate. Likewise, it seems clear that the trend in performance matters more than the absolute level — otherwise, Franklin D. Roosevelt would not have been re-elected easily with an unemployment rate well into the double digits (although rapidly declining) in 1936.”

The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns
Vavreck, Lynn. Princeton University Press, 2009.

Excerpt: “While objective measures of national economic conditions do a very good job of predicting winning parties long before candidates have even been named, if voters do not understand what the objective conditions actually are, the forecasts will fail. It is possible that campaign learning is necessary in order to generate the regularity of success the forecasting models enjoy. And it is also possible that the candidates have something to do with this learning.”

“National Economic Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections”
Lewis-Beck, Michael S.; Nadeau, Richard. The Journal of Politics, 2001, Vol. 61, No. 1.

Excerpt: “While national economic assessments generally move presidential voters, strength of impact sometimes varies with the institutional context of the contest. Divided government itself apparently makes no difference. The presidential office is viewed as the command post of the economy, irrespective of whether the president actually has sufficient control of Congress to implement his or her economic plan. The president is simply regarded as the CEO of the public economy…. Voters find it easy to praise (or blame) a candidate who is currently president and now completing the economic mandate of his or her first term. They look at the record.”

“Unemployment and the Democratic Electoral Advantage”
Wright, John R. American Political Science Review, 2012, 1-18.

Excerpt: “This article calls into question the conventional wisdom that incumbent parties are rewarded when unemployment is low and punished when it is high…. Other things being equal, higher unemployment increases the vote shares of Democratic candidates. The effect is greatest when Republicans are the incumbent party, but Democrats benefit from unemployment even when they are in control. The explanation for these findings is that unemployment is a partisan issue for voters, not a valence issue, and that the Democratic Party ‘owns’ unemployment. When unemployment is high or rising, Democratic candidates can successfully convince voters that they are the party best able to solve the problem.”

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“Presidential debates and their effects: Research roundup”
Journalist’s Resource, 2012.

Excerpt: “[P]olitical scientists caution against overestimating the influence and even democratic utility of debates in general; and they put caveats on the ability of social science to measure their true effects. Experimental studies confirm that citizens have a great deal of difficulty making meaningful judgments about two competing messages and assertions of fact, as in a debate setting…. As the Pew Research Center has consistently found through the years, nearly two-thirds of voters often say the debates were ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ helpful in decision-making, while voters say the candidates’ commercials were not helpful. However, some scholars think that, when asked about the influence of debates, citizens are predisposed to assign them outsized significance — they conform to ideas of rational deliberation — and to downplay the power of negative ads and other such opinion-shaping communications.”

“Do Presidential Debates Really Matter?”
Sides, John. Washington Monthly, September 2012.

Excerpt: “That presidential debates can be ‘game changers’ is a belief almost universally held by political pundits and strategists. Political scientists, however, aren’t so sure. Indeed, scholars who have looked most carefully at the data have found that, when it comes to shifting enough votes to decide the outcome of the election, presidential debates have rarely, if ever, mattered.”

“Slugfest: Sizing Up the Obama-Romney Debates”
Fallows, James. The Atlantic, Augugst 2012.

Excerpt: “The past two cycles of general-election debates have been anticlimactic. Everyone expected the college-debate whiz John Kerry to outperform the aphasic-seeming George W. Bush. He did, but it didn’t matter. For John McCain, the world financial crisis, plus his selection of Sarah Palin, was bringing his campaign down around him before he even stepped on a stage with Barack Obama…. This year’s exchanges have the potential to be different, and more dramatic.”

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“2012 Presidential Race,” from
Database at Center for Responsive Politics, 2012.

“Third-Party Dollars Spent on Deceptive Ads: Update Through 9/13/2012”, Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, September 2012.

Findings: “From 12/1/11 to 9/13/12, an estimated $63,589,170 has been spent on ads containing at least one claim considered deceptive by fact-checking organizations.”

“The New Price of American Politics”
Bennett, James. The Atlantic, September 2012.

Excerpt: “The ways we pay for politics are defined by a series of interlocking mazes — of congressional statutes and federal regulations, court cases and state laws. But those mazes are built on top of some of the most basic ideas about the nature of the republic, about the right of free speech, the sources of power and corruption, and the relationships of citizens to the state and to one another. That foundation is shifting now, to a degree not seen since Watergate, and perhaps not in more than a century, with effects that even the most-experienced politicians are just coming to appreciate. In the wake of Citizens United (though not only because of Citizens United), the combination of permissive judges, paralyzed regulators, and a deadlocked Congress has emboldened political operatives — quite sensibly — to raise and spend money in ways they wouldn’t have dared before.”

“Does Money Affect Election Outcomes in U.S. Politics? A Quick Review of the Literature”
Tucker, Joshua. “The Monkey Cage” blog, November 2011.

Excerpt: “[H]ow much does campaign spending actually affect election outcomes in U.S. politics? I put this question to Andrew Therriault, a post-doctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University and an expert on campaign effects….”

“State of Campaign Finance Policy: Recent Developments and Issues for Congress,”
Garrett, R. Sam. Congressional Research Service, July 2011.

Excerpt: “As a consequence of Citizens United, corporations and unions are now free to use their treasury funds to air political advertisements explicitly calling for election or defeat of federal or state candidates (independent expenditures) or advertisements that refer to those candidates during pre-election periods, but do not necessarily explicitly call for their election or defeat (electioneering communications). Previously, such advertising would generally have had to be financed through voluntary contributions raised by PACs affiliated with unions or corporations.”

“With Campaign Trail Flooded by Cash, Political Fundraising Post-Citizens United”
PBS NewsHour, September 2012.

“Campaign Spending from Outside Groups: Americans Unfamiliar with Outside Campaign Spending”
Survey by Pew Research Center/Washington Post, July 2012.

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“Negative political ads and effects on voters: Research roundup”
Journalist’s Resource, 2012.

Excerpt: “Scholars have complicated the simplistic view — often repeated in the news media — that negative ads ‘work’ as a general rule. For example, the Washington Post wrote about five commonly held ‘myths’ about campaign ads, while the New York Times has analyzed the specific circumstances when ads matter and their design and effects. At a deeper level, such ads may work to both ‘shrink and polarize the electorate,’ as the political scientists Shanto Iyengar of Stanford and Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard have long pointed out.”

“Separation by Television Program: Understanding the Targeting of Political Advertising in Presidential Elections”
Ridout, Travis N., et al. Political Communication, 2012, Vol. 29, Issue 1.

Abstract: “Although conventional wisdom suggests that imbalanced message flows are relatively rare in presidential campaigns, this view relies on the assumption that competing campaigns allocate their advertising similarly. In this research, we show that this assumption is false. We combine ad tracking data from the Wisconsin Advertising Project with a unique collection of survey data on the audience for various program genres. Examining advertising in the 2000, 2004, and 2008 U.S. presidential races, we find that the Republican and Democratic candidates distributed their advertising differently across different program genres, reaching different types of voters. A form of microtargeting has increasingly entered into the realm of political advertising buys. We find that who sees certain political ads is more nonrandom than scholars had previously thought, and we find that unbalanced message flows (a precondition for ad persuasion) are more prevalent than conventional wisdom has suggested.”

“Obama’s ‘Convention Bounce’ May Actually Be an Ad Bounce”
Fowler, Erika. Wesleyan Media Project, September 2012.

Findings: “Although the Romney campaign has (until recently) dominated the money race, the Obama campaign dominated the broadcast airwaves in the two weeks during the presidential conventions…. [D]uring the August 26 to September 8 period, Obama and his allies aired 40,000 ads on broadcast and national cable television, the vast majority of which were paid for by the Obama campaign. By comparison, Romney and his allies aired roughly 18,000 ads on broadcast and national cable television during that same time period.”

“Messages that Mobilize? Issue Publics and the Content of Campaign Advertising”
Sides, John; Karch, Andrew. The Journal of Politics, April 2008, Vol. 70, Issue 2, 466-476.

Excerpt: “The conventional wisdom often portrays the electorate in terms of discrete groups that are defined in terms of generation, gender, ethnicity, occupation, or a quasi-sociological mash-up (e.g., ‘security moms’). These groups are presumed to have distinct sets of interests and to respond to messages centered on those interests, but our results provide a cautionary tale…. [The] scholarly literature on campaign effects has produced clear evidence that campaigns can matter … but this does not suggest that campaigns always matter — a point that even campaign effects scholars are careful to note.”

“Identifying the Persuasive Effects of Presidential Advertising”
Huber, Gregory A; Arceneaux, Kevin. American Journal of Political Science, October 2007, Vol. 51, Issue 4.

Abstract: “….In contrast to previous research, we find little evidence that citizens are mobilized by or learn from presidential advertisements, but strong evidence that they are persuaded by them. We also consider the causal mechanisms that facilitate persuasion and investigate whether some individuals are more susceptible to persuasion than others.”

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“The Anatomy of 2012 Low General Election Turnout”
Ganz, Curtis. Huffington Post, February2012.

Excerpt: “During the decade from 2000-2010, voter turnout increased in each election. In mid-term elections 2002 turnout was higher than 1998, 2006 turnout was higher than 2002 and 2010 turnout was higher than 2006. In presidential elections, 2000 turnout was higher than 1996, 2004 turnout was higher than 2000 and 2008 turnout was higher than 2004. It is a trend than almost certainly will not continue in the election of 2012. Why? Let us count the ways: 1. Because the increases in the 2000-2010 decade were election specific and aberrational. 2. Because youth won’t turn out in anywhere near the numbers they did in 2004 and 2008….”

“Turning Out the Base or Appealing to the Periphery? An Analysis of County-Level Candidate Appearances in the 2008 Presidential Campaign”
Chen, Lanhee J.; Reeves, Andrew. American Politics Research, 2011, Vol. 39.

Abstract: “We examine county-level campaign appearances by the Republican and Democratic tickets during the 2008 general election. Our analysis reveals that the McCain-Palin ticket campaigned in a way that was quite different from the Obama-Biden ticket. McCain-Palin pursued a ‘base’ strategy that was focused on counties where Bush-Cheney performed well in 2004. They also stayed away from counties that showed vote swings from 2000 to 2004 or population growth. On the other hand, the performance of the Kerry-Edwards ticket in 2004 was a very weak predictor of where Obama-Biden campaigned in 2008. They pursued a ‘peripheral’ strategy that targeted counties that had experienced significant population growth. Their efforts to target peripheral, rather than base constituencies, have significant implications for our understanding of presidential campaign strategy.”

“Did Obama’s Ground Game Matter? The Influence of Local Field Offices During the 2008 Presidential Election”
Masket, Seth E. Public Opinion Quarterly, 2010, Vol. 73, Issue 5.

Abstract: “Imbued with unprecedented financial resources, the Obama 2008 presidential campaign established more than 700 field offices across the country, mostly in battleground states. To what extend did this form of campaigning actually affect the presidential vote? This article examines the county-level presidential vote in 2008 in eleven battleground states. The findings show that those counties in which the Obama campaign had established field offices during the general election saw a disproportionate increase in the Democratic vote share. Furthermore, this field office-induced vote increase was large enough to flip three battleground states from Republican to Democratic.”

“Do Campaigns Drive Partisan Turnout?”
Sides, John; McGhee, Eric. Political Behavior, 2011, Vol. 33, 313-333.

Excerpt: “Does the partisan composition of the electorate respond to campaigns? Our findings suggest that it does. The more one party dominated the campaign, the greater the proportion of its supporters who went to the polls. Our findings thus confirm previous research that emphasizes the mobilizing effects of campaigning on partisans…. An important implication is that things parties and candidates can control — the time, energy, and money they invest in speaking to voters and encouraging them to participate — matter to mobilization…. Our results also suggest that campaign resources can both mobilize fellow partisans and ‘‘de-mobilize’’ enemy partisans…. [T]he overall results suggest that campaign activities do alter the partisan complexion of voters. Simply put, if you want more of ‘your people’ at the polls, you need to spend and do more than your opponent.”

“Estimating the Electoral Effects of Voter Turnout”
Hansford, Thomas G.; Gomez, Brad T. American Political Science Review, May 2010, Vol. 104, No. 2.

Excerpt: “Low turnout elections tend to benefit Republican candidates on average, a by-product of the GOP’s relative advantage with core voters, who tend to be of a higher socioeconomic status than peripheral voters. Our results also indicate that low turnout tends to validate the status quo because elections of this type significantly advantage the party of the incumbent president. Combined, these results suggest that the voters in low turnout elections are likely to exert little “change” when they go to the polls…. [A]lthough higher turnout benefits Democrats on average, the magnitude of those benefits is conditioned by the composition of the electorate being brought to the polls. Indeed, in highly Democratic electorates, high turnout may actually help the Republicans, who benefit from weak partisans defecting from their Democratic attachments. In addition to these partisan effects, we find that high turnout also has a significant anti-incumbency effect.”

“Facebook Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization”
Fowler, James H. Nature, Sept. 2012, Volume 489, 295-298.

Findings: The data “suggest that the Facebook social message increased turnout directly by about 60,000 voters and indirectly through social contagion by another 280,000 voters, for a total of 340,000 additional votes.”

“Voting rights and election 2012 issues: Research roundup”
Journalist’s Resource, 2012.

Excerpt: “How exactly voter ID requirements will impact voting in 2012 remains to be seen; but rigorous academic studies and reports (see below) and research-based media analysis — such as this post at the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog or this research review at The Monkey Cage political science blog — can anchor coverage and keep partisan claims in perspective. Studies generally conclude that such requirements do curb turnout, but context is everything: the types of voting requirements, including specific types of ID; their varying implementation; the percentage of traditionally vulnerable voting groups, such as African-Americans, in a given state or county; and whether claims over voter ID effects are estimated for registered voters or eligible voters.”

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“The Master Character Narratives in Campaign 2012”
Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, Aug. 2012.

Excerpt: “More of what the public hears about candidates also now comes from the campaigns themselves and less from journalists acting as independent reporters or interpreters of who the candidates are. An examination of the dominant or master narratives in the press about the character and record of presidential contenders finds that 72% of this coverage has been negative for Barack Obama and 71% has been negative for Mitt Romney.”

“Character and the Primaries of 2008”
Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and Harvard’sShorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, May 2008.

Excerpt: “This year’s study identified the most prominent narratives for each of the five main candidates: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side and John McCain, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee among the Republicans. For each candidate, we identified the most prominent themes in the coverage leading up to the Iowa primary. We found between four and seven narratives, depending on the candidate. We then measured how often that narrative was asserted or refuted in news stories during the primary season itself.”

“Character and the Campaign: What Are the Master Narratives about the Candidates in 2004 and How Is the Public Reacting to Them?”
Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, July 2004.

Excerpt: “There is evidence that the press is having an impact: the more people pay attention to press coverage, the more likely they are to match the character traits with the candidates the same way the press has…. The impact of the press coverage may be greater in battleground states, where the survey data shows people are paying closer attention to candidate news…. Advertising, on the other hand, has had only a limited impact on the public’s thinking.”

“Al Gore and the ‘Embellishment’ Issue: Press Coverage of the Gore Campaign”
Scott, Esther. Case study, Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, 2003.

Excerpt: “Whether Gore and Bush received equally harsh treatment at the hands of the press continued to be a matter of debate in the final weeks of the campaign, and beyond…. What effect, if any, these meta-narratives ultimately had on public opinion remained difficult to determine.”

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“Schizophrenic Electorates or Short Obama Coattails? D/R Split Ticket Voting in 2012”
Ostermeier, Eric. “Smart Politics” blog, Sept. 2012, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

Excerpt: “[S]plit-ticket voting has been more the exception than the rule since the introduction of popular vote U.S. Senate contests nearly 100 years ago with statewide electorates voting for different political parties in presidential and U.S. Senate races just 244 out of 829 instances, or 29.4 percent of the time. Due in part to a lingering Democratic stronghold in state politics in the South, it has been nearly twice as likely for a Republican presidential nominee to win a state alongside a Democratic senate candidate (152 instances, 18.3 percent) than vice-versa (79, 9.5 percent).  However, this November could see as many as six states vote a Republican into the U.S. Senate with Barack Obama still victorious at the top of the ticket. A Smart Politics analysis finds five of these states could thus tally a D/R split-ticket vote in presidential and senate races for the first time since the introduction of direct vote senate contests nearly 100 years ago: Connecticut, Michigan, Nevada, Virginia, and Wisconsin.”

“Turnout and Presidential Coattails in Congressional Elections”
Godbout, Jean-Francois. Public Choice, 2012.

Excerpt: “In most cases, the results show that the support for the incumbent House candidate increases when there is a strong presidential coattail in the district. We found that this effect is even larger when turnout surges in presidential elections. One the other hand, the analysis shows that this electoral bonus declines when turnout is reduced in the following midterm election. Furthermore, the results demonstrate that incumbent support is somewhat lower when candidates trail a weak presidential coattail.”

“Presidential Coattails, Incumbency advantage, and Open seats: A District-level Analysis of the 1976-2000 U.S. House Elections”
Mattei, Franco; Glasgow, Joshua. Electoral Studies, 2005, Vol. 24, Issue 4, 619-641.

Abstract: “[T]he analysis attempts to estimate, controlling for incumbency, the strength of presidential coattails (the proportion of the vote received by a congressional candidate that is due to the presence of the presidential nominee on the ballot) and the effectiveness of a president’s coattails (the number of districts gained or retained by a party because of the net influence of presidential candidates). The results show that, contrary to earlier findings and trends, the unique impact of presidential coattails in open seat races did not decline.”

“Do Congressional Candidates Have Reverse Coattails? Evidence from a Regression Discontinuity Design”
Brockman, David E. Political Analysis, 2009.

Abstract: “Although the presidential coattail effect has been an object of frequent study, the question of whether popular congressional candidates boost vote shares in return for their parties’ presidential candidates remains unexplored. This article investigates whether so-called ‘reverse coattails’ exist using a regression discontinuity design with congressional district level data from presidential elections between 1952 and 2004…. I find that the numerous substantial advantages of congressional incumbency have no effect on presidential returns for these incumbents’ parties. This null finding underscores my claim that the existing coattail literature deserves greater scrutiny.”

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