Momentum and media in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Author:Palazzolo, Daniel J.
Position:Report
 
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Mitt Romney's ascent to the Republican nomination could be described as either an inevitable or a dubious run to a short finish line. By the end of the preprimary period, he led national polls, and he had raised more money and earned more endorsements than the other Republican candidates. Romney appeared to fit the typical model of GOP nomination; the well-known, experienced politician, successful businessman, and only returner from the field of 2008, seemed to be the "next in line" (Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney 2013). Yet, throughout the preprimary period and for a time after the primaries began, the race had an "anybody but Romney" dimension. Several candidates emerged at different points during the preprimary phase to pull ahead of Romney in national polls, causing former President Bill Clinton to describe Romney's path to the nomination as a game of "Whac-A-Mole" (Norrander 2013): If it was not enough for Romney to beat down opponents who popped up from time to time, many Republicans expressed hopes that some other heavy weight-Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush, or Chris Christie--would enter the race and spare the party from settling for the well-groomed patrician from Massachusetts.

Romney's troubles stemmed partly from the diverse issue preferences and expectations of Republican primary voters: Christian conservatives, main street conservatives, libertarians, Tea Party activists, and neoconservatives (Norrander 2013; see also Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney 2013). Yet doubts about Romney also related to perceptions of the man: he was not conservative enough, not exciting or inspiring enough, and not reliable enough, having flip-flopped on a range of issues from abortion to individual mandates for health insurance. As Romney weaved through the early primary and caucus states, it was unclear whether or when he would close the deal. Stories circulated that a fractured field of candidates--each with appeal to separate parts of the Republican base--would prevent any candidate from garnering a majority of delegates through the primaries and caucuses. In late-February 2012, pundits mused about how the GOP would wind up with a brokered convention, where the party could choose a stronger contender to challenge the Democrat incumbent president, Barack Obama (see, e.g., Frum 2012).

Of course, Romney persisted and prevailed, perhaps because no viable alternative ever emerged to defeat him (Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney 2013). The race was all but over by the first week of April. Nevertheless, since the 2012 GOP nomination was an open contest (Adkins and Dowdle 2000, 2001, 2005; Steger 2008) and doubts about the front-runner swirled in the early stages, the case is ripe for analyzing the dynamics of momentum and its effects on the role of the news media during the nomination campaign (Aldrich 1980). Thus, this article seeks to advance two objectives. First, using Aldrich's (2009) formula for momentum, we devise momentum scores for individual candidates that compare expectations from polls with primary election results throughout the primary season. Unlike most measures of momentum that rely on the outcome of the New Hampshire primary, the scores derived from Aldrich's formula enable us to track momentum throughout the primary season and to test the hypothesis that momentum is cumulative. Second, we consider how momentum affects the amount and tone of media coverage given to the leading candidates.

The analysis shows that momentum built slowly for Romney but surged later in the primary season. Aggregate comparisons of news content and election results reveal that candidates who enjoyed momentum received more mentions and more positive coverage than candidates who failed to meet expectations. Yet, the degree of congruence between candidate momentum and media coverage depends on the status of the candidate; the media was less responsive to the momentum of the front-runner--Romney--than to the momentum of his challengers.

Momentum Theory and the Media

The prospect of momentum and the enhanced role of media in presidential nominations arose from reforms instituted after the 1968 election that promoted democratic procedures for delegate selection and weakened the control of party organizations over candidate selection (Polsby 1983). The news media would provide voters with information about candidates; issues; and, most of all, the state of the race (Patterson 1980). By concentrating on the horse race--reporting on which candidates were ahead and which were behind--the media could constantly monitor the preferences of primary voters (Arterton 1984; Marshall 1983). In the wake of the 1976 Democratic nomination contest, Aldrich (1980) developed a momentum model to explain the process by which candidates emerged from a field of contestants. The model assumes that a candidate's prospects, including ability to raise money, gain media coverage, and win voters and delegates, depended on performance and expectations.

Scholars found evidence of how momentum affected resources (Bartels 1987), candidate strategy (Gurian 1986), candidate position in the field of contestants (Cohen et al. 2003; Norrander 1993), and media coverage (Bartels 1987; Gurian 1986). Candidates who won the early contests of Iowa and New Hampshire, added to their delegate counts, and exceeded expectations would attract more media attention (Arterton 1984; Haynes and Murray 1998; Patterson 1980), including more positive media attention (Haynes et al. 2004). In turn, media coverage affected candidate competitiveness. Long-shot candidates were more likely to exit the race early in the process if they received limited press coverage, compared with competitive candidates (Haynes et al. 2004). Moreover, as candidate information increased during the campaign, voter preferences shifted to candidates who beat expectations in the earlier caucuses and primaries (Bartels 1987, 1988; Mutz 1997; Popkin 1991; Shaw 1999). Thus, several studies showed how the media complemented reforms designed to shift the balance of decision-making power from party elites to rank-and-file voters.

Yet, some studies challenged a central tenet of momentum theory (i.e., that the effects of early momentum accumulate over the course of the primary period)-candidates with momentum sustain it and those without suffer a gradual, or even sudden, decline. Sigelman (1989) found that early momentum for Democrat Dick Gephardt and Republican Jack Kemp did not last, whereas slow starts for Democrat Michael Dukakis and Republican George Bush in the 1988 nomination contests did not prevent them from winning the nomination.

Meanwhile, studies that stressed the importance of the "invisible primary" (Hadley 1976), or the preprimary phase of campaigns, downplayed the role of momentum. Outcomes of nomination processes depended on candidate standing in the last national Gallup poll of the party's registered voters before the Iowa caucuses (Mayer 1996, 2003), money raised before the primaries began (Adkins and Dowdle 2000, 2001, 2005), and endorsements by elected officials (Cohen et al. 2003, 2008; Steger 2007), or some combination of all three. Some of the preprimary effects vary by party; Steger (2000, 2008) found that money had a greater effect on Democrats than position in preprimary national polls, and Adkins and Dowdle (2005) found that a front-runner normally emerges in the Republican field during the preprimary stage and goes on to win the nomination.

Changes in rules and procedures shifted the balance of influence from the voters who participated in primaries, back to elites who supported candidates before the primary season began. The parties invented super delegates, party officials or elected office holders, who were free agents unbounded to any candidate before the nominating convention. Front-loading of primaries and caucuses, which accelerated in 1988, pushed the delegate selection process closer to the beginning of the year. This trend forced candidates to raise money; attract media attention; build campaign organizations; and begin their campaigns many months, in some cases almost a year, before the process officially began (Mayer and Busch 2004). Evidence of preprimary effects on nomination outcomes potentially weakened the momentum dynamic, with its capacity to enable candidates to leverage wins in the early states. Aldrich (2009) argues that reforms pulled the nomination process from voters and elevated the influence of a "nomination elite" (donors, officeholders, party activists, media analysts, and campaign operatives).

Yet, Steger (2008, 2013) argues that the effects of preprimary factors and momentum on nomination outcomes are not mutually exclusive (see also Adkins and Dowdle 2001, 2005). The ability to forecast the outcome of a nomination contest using preprimary variables depends on the degree of competitiveness in the preprimary phase of the campaign. When one candidate has an advantage in national polls, endorsements, and money, the voters and elites are in sync, and momentum from early state primary and caucus results is less important to the nomination contest. However, when the preprimary results of polling, endorsements, and fundraising are divided among candidates, momentum from the early contests is more important to the race and the outcome.

Especially in open nomination contests, momentum matters regardless of the level of competition from the preprimary phase. The winners of New Hampshire and Iowa can significantly increase their share of the total primary vote accumulated from the remaining states where primaries are contested (Adkins and Dowdle 2001, 2005; Steger 2007). When the preprimary conditions favor one candidate, the results of Iowa and New Hampshire test the expectations of the front-runner from the preprimary phase, and when the preprimary advantages are distributed among candidates, the results of early contests winnow the field and may determine the outcome. Thus, Steger...

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