Lost in the Crowd: The Effect of Volatile Fields on Presidential Primaries

Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(2) 221 –232
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20959618
“Imagine a sport where you spend 1 year [hopping] on one leg
and not using the other, then suddenly having to run a marathon.1
– Zach Weinersmith, cartoonist
Presidential primaries are radically different from the gen-
eral elections that follow. They are long, sequential contests
in which candidates often jump in the race nearly a year
before the first in a concatenation of caucuses and primaries.
They are multicandidate, leading to volatility in the field as
candidates hop in and out of the race. They are intraparty,
removing the party moniker cue and often featuring candi-
dates with similar issue positions. And the electorate is radi-
cally different in size and political interest.
But there is one important consistency between presiden-
tial primaries and general elections. They are both oriented
primarily through the media (Azari, 2016; Polsby, 1983).
From the candidates’ perspective, media-centric primaries
are essential in the post-reform era as they are the most cost-
and time-efficient means of contacting a large base of poten-
tial supporters across the country. Voters are also advantaged
by the media-centric primary system as it helps organize a
regularly chaotic process that would otherwise be time-
consuming to comprehend. The media serves as a conduit
between the candidates’ desire to cheaply reach a broad
audience and voters’ preference to learn about politics in as
efficient a manner as possible.
And yet the media does not operate to maximize the util-
ity of candidates or voters. The media has its own incentive
structures and preferences that affect coverage (Zaller, 1999).
While we know how those preferences shape coverage in
concert with the electoral structure of general elections (e.g.,
Hayes, 2010; Vavreck, 2009), we don’t yet know how the
structure of American presidential primary races affects how
the media covers primaries. Obtaining such knowledge is
important because the agenda-setting literature (McCombs
& Shaw, 1972) suggests that what the media covers affects
public opinion, because candidates actively seek to convey
agendas through the media, and because parties should want
to ensure that the candidate who emerges from this process is
well positioned for the general election.
This paper seeks to explain the relationship between the
structure of primaries and media coverage, specifically in
terms of what issues the media talks about, via a theory of
journalism norms. Journalists are socialized via their profes-
sion into prioritizing certain traits in potential news stories.
These traits include timeliness and simplicity.
I argue that the structure of the primary system should lead
to variation in the timeliness and simplicity journalists per-
ceive in the race. Given how long primaries are, reporters
closely following each campaign should gradually find candi-
dates’ messages less timely as their talking points and stump
speeches become old news. The multicandidate attribute of
959618APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20959618American Politics ResearchScott
1Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Zachary Scott, Bryn Mawr College, 101 North Merion Ave, Bryn Mawr,
PA 19010-2859, USA.
Email: zscott@brynmawr.edu
Lost in the Crowd: The Effect of Volatile
Fields on Presidential Primaries
Zachary Scott1
All candidates attempt to convey agendas through the media, but presidential primary contenders face distinctive conditions.
Do these conditions affect candidates’ ability to transmit their agendas through the media? Drawing on theories of journalism
norms, I argue that media responsiveness to a candidate’s agenda will, on average, decrease as the primary campaign goes on
and candidates’ messages become less timely. Expansions in the size of the field should create more complicated electoral
races, leading to declining contextual simplicity and less overlap between candidate and media agendas. I test these hypotheses
using a novel dataset of primary candidates’ speeches and news articles about those candidates. I show that the entrance of
new candidates is correlated with a decline in convergence. Contrary to expectations, there is no decline in convergence
over time. The results have implications for how nomination contests should be structured in the era of media-oriented
primaries, campaigns and elections, mass media, agenda building, journalism norms

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