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Politics of presidential nomination and selection

- January 14, 2009

p. Our piece on “The Nomination and the Election: Clearing Away Underbrush,” from Byron Shafer and Amber Wichowsky in the latest issue of The Forum, highlighted the perverse relationship between nominating contests and general election outcomes in 2008: for both Democrats and Republicans, the ultimate nominee tended to win states at the nominating stage that he would lose in the general election, while he tended to lose states at the nominating stage that he would ultimately win. This perversity was mitigated somewhat by the fact that nominating wins and losses did appear to foster improved (or damaged) prospects at the general election—it was just that these increments (or decrements) were rarely decisive.

p. In responding to the piece, John Sides at The Monkey Cage asked whether a further linkage might have occurred by way of voter mobilization, with a win at the nominating stage improving turnout at the general election, and a loss vice versa. Such a result could be a direct reflection of enthusiasm among those who voted for the winner and disappointment among those who went with the loser. It might also be augmented by campaign dynamics, whereby winning campaigns contributed to subsequent turnout while losing campaigns did not. With the same caveats about the resulting analysis—small Ns, conflated influences, a single year as our focus—we can turn easily enough to a preliminary answer.

p. And this time, unlike relationships with wins and losses in the spring, or with simple increases or decreases in subsequent party prospects, there is a very different relationship associated with the Democratic as opposed to the Republican nominating contest when the focus is voter turnout. Table A considers the whole nominating campaign for the Democrats, since this campaign remained competitive through the last state contest; it truncates the Republican analysis after Super Tuesday, since there was nothing but a short ‘mopping up’ operation thereafter. “Turnout”:http://elections.gmu.edu/voter_turnout.htm is dichotomized as an increase or decrease in 2008 over 2004. Specifically, we rank every state from lowest to highest turnout, then gather those that moved either up or down more than one place in the rankings. Results are weighted by Electoral College vote, as they were in practice. Consistent with the need to consider primary elections and party caucuses very differently in all the preceding, Table A gathers primary results only.


p. For the Democrats, the hypothesized relationship is very much in evidence. Barack Obama had the presumed satisfaction of seeing his primary wins go on to be associated with increased voter turnout. He did have to see the primary wins for Hillary Clinton go on to be associated with decreased turnout as well. Yet overall, this was certainly not a perverse relationship, and it had a healthy gamma of +.49. For the Republicans, on the other hand, the hypothesized relationship was reversed. In a year of increased voter turnout overall, John McCain achieved only a rough balance between increases and decreases from those states that he carried on the way to a nomination. Instead, it was states carried by his opponents in the primaries that were associated with increased turnout at the general election. In short, in what was an unhappy campaign in many regards, McCain saw his primary wins produce only indifferent voter mobilization at the general election, while his primary losses were strongly associated–a gamma of -.65–with increased voter turnout.

p. Previous relationships between nominating outcomes and the November result were strikingly different for caucuses as opposed to primaries, but the essential analytic point did not really inhere in these ‘relationships’. Instead, for these party caucuses, the dominant point was just that Barack Obama won them all among Democrats, while John McCain lost them all among Republicans, at least until Super Tuesday had annihilated his opposition. This allows for a turnout relationship in the general election that is parallel between the parties in one regard, opposite in the other. For both, turnout in the caucus states was down at the general election, regardless of the outcome in the spring. Yet this time, the result bit Barack Obama more sharply than John McCain. For it was Obama who had carried these states in the nominating contest, while it was the candidates who were defeated by McCain that carried them in the spring.