Presidential campaigns: not the ticket to voters

Peter Enns

As Hillary Clinton looms over the run-up to the next presidential election, new research looks at how much vast sums of money spent over lengthy campaigns for president of the United States influence voters. Not so much, reports Peter Enns, assistant professor of government.

Voters are much more concerned with “fundamentals” – economic conditions, approval of the incumbent president, partisanship and demographic interests – than campaign propaganda, except very early in campaigns, Enns reported in the July issue of The Journal of Politics (5:3). Enns studied how voters weigh campaign information against these fundamentals as the siege for votes drags on.

In particular, he tested the prediction that mostvoters do not need the campaign to connect these fundamentals to their vote choice. However, in early polling, the fundamentals don’t apply as much because Election Day “feels distant,” Enns wrote in a London School of Economics blog post discussing his research, written with Brian Richman ’11.

“When talking on the phone to a pollster, many respondents don’t think about their vote the same way they would if they walked into a voting booth,” Enns wrote. “Instead of reflecting on the fundamentals, such as the state of the economy, these respondents rely on the most accessible information – perhaps supporting (or opposing) a candidate based on a recent headline, advertisement or scandal.”

He continued, “Critically, most respondents could connect the fundamentals to their voting intentions; they just don’t have an incentive to do so. Thus, we propose that the motivation to engage with the survey question, not information from the campaign, is the primary reason reliance on the fundamentals increases as the election nears.”

How much voters cared about the election outcome better predicted whether vote intention corresponded with voters’ fundamentals than campaign polling. “Caring about the election appears to have a lot more to do with relying on the fundamentals than knowledge about the candidates or attention paid to the campaign,” Enns wrote.

“Our results suggest that the campaign plays a much smaller role with these fundamentals than previously thought. This conclusion does not, however,mean that campaigns don’t matter. … Looking ahead to 2016, we don’t need to wonder if the campaign will get voters to rely on the fundamentals – most can (and will) do this on their own. The real question is whether the campaign (or other events) will get voters to deviate from the fundamentals.”

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