Political science scholarship has focused extensively on how voters make choices as the presidential primary campaign formally unfolds. But there has been relatively little study of which factors shape voter preferences in the informal period before the primaries.
A 2009 study from scholars at the University of Arkansas, University of Nebraska, and DePaul University published in Political Research Quarterly, “The Viability Primary: Modeling Candidate Support before the Primaries,” looks at Gallup polls and other data prior to each open presidential nominating contest between 1976 and 2004 to evaluate how voters make decisions.
The study’s findings include:
- The chief variables that predict candidate popularity are a candidate’s level of support in the previous election quarter, the level of network news coverage, and, under certain conditions, endorsements from the party elite. Generally speaking, this suggests that campaign-related factors, not candidate-related factors, control popularity levels.
- Elite endorsements proved significant in the Republican contests. However, “Party elites do not appear to play a significant part in the four open Democratic nomination races in which the early favorite did not run.”
- “Overall, mass partisan support for presidential candidates is remarkably stable across quarters of the preprimary presidential nomination campaign. Candidates who are well known and popular among their party’s membership tend to attract and retain support throughout the entire pre-primary campaign.”
- Personal characteristics and candidate resumes and backgrounds do not seem to drive voter responses: “Distinguishing factors, such as leadership positions in Congress, do not seem to produce a significant advantage over other officeholders.” The exception is the size of the home state constituency, “indicating that elected officials from large states do have an initial advantage in the earliest phase of the presidential nomination campaign.”
The study’s author concludes, “Heavily endorsed candidates are more likely to get on television, raise more funds, and solidify their support in national opinion polls prior to the primaries. When party elites coalesce early and strongly around the early favorite, that candidate has remained the front-runner during the pre-primary campaign and has gone on to win the nomination.”