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The 2012 Election Was Good for Political Science

- November 19, 2012

In late September, I was involved in an email exchange in which a historian stated that “Someone should do a piece cataloging down all the poli sci consensi being undone this season.”  Now I can write with some confidence that the findings of the political science canon were largely confirmed by the 2012 election. And those findings deserve some plaudits alongside the polls, the forecasters, and the “nerds” at the heart of the winning presidential campaign.

In our book, The Gamble, Lynn Vavreck and I are attempting to show how those lessons can inform our understanding of the 2012 election.  Here is a list of findings that I think hold up reasonably well, with citations to representative studies and findings from our book where possible.

1. In presidential primaries, party leaders work to coordinate on a candidate even before the first caucuses and primaries are held. The candidate backed by the most party leaders is likely to win the presidential primary (Martin Cohen et al., The Party Decides).

In 2012, like in 2008, consensus was harder to achieve than in some previous years.  Many Republican party leaders did not publicly endorse any candidate, as Lynn and I show in our chapter “Random, or Romney?”   At the same time, among those who did endorse, the vast majority endorsed Romney.  Here is our graph of endorsements by Republican governors and members of Congress before the Iowa caucus.


Some party leaders also worked to oppose certain candidates — most publicly, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.  Consider this headline for example: “Governors look to Santorum with dread.”  The behavior of party leaders was one reason why I was confident that Romney would win.

2. Views of presidential primary candidates can changed sharply in the wake of events judged to be dramatic or unexpected, and covered as such by the news media (Larry Bartels, Presidential Primaries).

Just because Romney was favored to win didn’t mean that he would always lead in the polls.  Lynn and I also track the sharply changing fortunes of the Republican candidates and show how a burst of favorable news coverage could give them a boost in the polls, but less favorable news coverage tended to have the opposite impact.  A good example is Herman Cain.  Here’s our graph from the “Random, or Romney?” chapter, drawing on data on media coverage and tone from General Sentiment.


3. In the general election, incumbent presidents running amidst even modest economic growth are  likely to be reelected.

I summarized this here.

4. The vast majority of people identify with one of the major political  parties and vote loyally for that party in presidential elections (Campbell et al., The American Voter). 

In a post-election YouGov poll, conducted Nov. 10-12,  89% of self-reported voters identified with or leaned toward the Democratic or Republican party.  Rates of party loyalty were extremely high — 93% of Democrats voted for Obama and 94% of Republicans voted for Romney.  The same was true in the exit poll, which does not ask whether independents lean toward a party. Polls since at least April had suggested that party loyalty would be strong, despite discussion of the “divided” Republican party, Obama’s “rebellion on the left,” etc.  Party identification has become more strongly associated with voting behavior since the 1970s, and this shows no sign of weakening.

5. Voters tend to have stable preferences about the two major-party presidential candidates (Lazarsfeld et al., The People’s Choice).

The cite above is to perhaps the earliest quantitative study of a presidential election. In this study of the 1940 election, Paul Lazarsfeld and co-authors found that the campaign “served the important purposes of preserving prior decisions instead of initiating new decisions.”  The power of party identification is likely one important reason for this stability.  For example, consider YouGov respondents who were interviewed first in December 2011 and then again the weekend before the Election Day — almost 11 months later.  Of those who said in December that they would vote for Obama in an Obama-Romney race, 95% still preferred Obama on the election’s eve.  Of those who preferred Romney in December, 94% did so again in November.

6. Campaign events can move the polls. 

Nothing about #3-5 means that presidential general election campaigns have no impact whatsoever — though it sometimes seems hard for commentators to grasp this nuance. During the 2012 campaign, campaign events had effects largely in line with previous research.  For example, there was predictable movement after the party conventions, mainly the Democratic National Convention.  I wrote about the research on convention bumps here.  Similarly, candidate debates during the general election can affect preferences, but tend not to propel the underdog to victory.  Romney’s gains after the first debate were real, but ultimately not enough.  Here was my post-mortem on the 2012 debates, in light of my earlier piece.

7. The outcome late in the election tends to reflect the polls.

I wrote about this here, drawing on Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien’s Timeline of Presidential Elections.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about 2012 is that the polls tended to under-estimate the frontrunner’s margin of victory (that is, Obama’s), whereas usually they over-estimate it.  This may be because the Obama campaign was particularly good at minimizing the “no-shows” — people who prefer the frontrunner but ultimately fail to show up and vote.

Finally, let me cite two other findings that I suspect will hold up, but for which we do not yet have definitive evidence from the 2012 campaign.

8. Presidential television advertising can matter at the margins, but it typically does so only when one candidate can outspend the other significantly. However, the effects of ads appear to dissipate quickly, within a week.  I cited some of this literature here.  From my analyses of the ad data at Wonkblog — here was the last one before the election — it seems as though neither Obama nor Romney ever got enough of an edge in advertising volume for it to make a difference.  But more thorough analysis is needed.

9. A variety of get-out-the-vote tactics do in fact increase turnout — especially person-to-person contact (Green and Gerber, Get Out the Vote).  The social science research on GOTV was central to the Obama campaign. Hopefully there will be ways to measure the effect of the “ground game” on the outcome.

Of course, I’m happy to acknowledge that political science findings aren’t ironclad. But little about this season strikes me as undoing its central findings about presidential elections.

For much more on this topic, stay tuned for more from The Gamble.