Polls and elections conventional wisdom: political learning during presidential nominating conventions.

Author:Weinschenk, Aaron C.


The quadrennial presidential nominating conventions typically capture a great deal of attention from the news media, scholars, campaign professionals, and ordinary citizens. Many aspects of these events generate interest, although the bumps in candidate support that can occur after the conventions are usually a hot topic. Scholarly analyses of presidential conventions, of which there have been a relatively small number, have focused heavily on measuring and explaining convention bumps (Campbell, Cherry, and Wink 1992; Holbrook 1996; Panagopoulos 2007; Stimson 2004). Many polling organizations also calculate the size of convention bumps after the dust settles. Interestingly, despite media and scholarly interest in convention bumps, each presidential election seems to generate a discussion about the usefulness of the convention as a political institution. A 2012 article in The Boston Globe was titled "Time to shelve the political conventions" and went on to note that "... nominating conventions in decades past had something today's vast high-tech pageants lack: an authentic and indispensable role in the nation's democratic process" (Jacoby 2012). A 2012 article in the Los Angeles Times called the convention a "substanceless media event" (Conventions: Not the taxpayers' party 2012). Perhaps voters gain little, if anything, from presidential conventions. There are certainly alternative viewpoints about conventions, though. An article in The Charlotte Observer published during the 2012 election argued that, "[dfespite what many think, national political conventions craft a message and can have significant impact on elections and policy" (Weiner and Ravenet 2012). A number of political scientists, too, have argued for the importance of these campaign events (Panagopoulos 2008; Stimson 2004; Holbrook 1996; Erikson and Wlezien 2012; Cera and Weinschenk 2012; 2013; Panagopoulos and Endres Forthcoming). Evidence that, at least in some contexts, conventions affect the dynamics of candidate preferences certainly seems to lend support to the argument that these campaign events are not inconsequential to voters. Indeed, a number of studies have found that conventions can have fairly large and enduring effects on candidate performance (Stimson 2004; Erikson and Wlezien 2012; Holbrook 1996; Panagopoulos 2012).

Another argument about the importance of conventions revolves around the idea that they help stimulate voter learning--that they have a civic value. Although Stimson (2004) focuses on assessing the impact of conventions on aggregate level shifts in candidate support, he notes that conventions might also impact voter knowledge about candidates and policies. According to Stimson, "A public nearly always tuned out tunes in for a few days [during the conventions] and those are opportunities to learn about people and programs, times to change views. The more there is to learn, when candidates are unknown, or suffer from inaccurate images as with vice presidents, the more important the occasion. Nothing else in campaigning compares" (2004, 137--38). Interestingly, while many people seem to think that debates are the most important opportunities for voter learning during presidential elections, the conventions should actually provide a better chance for voters to learn about candidates and policies. As Holbrook (1996) has noted, the timing of conventions--early in the general election cycle, when information about candidates and policies is relatively scarce--allows this flow of political information to exercise a large impact on voters. Presidential debates usually occur very late in the campaign process, when most voters have already learned a great deal about the candidates and have made up their minds about which candidate they will vote for (Holbrook 1996). In addition, conventions are unlike other campaign events in that they allow candidates to speak directly to voters (via convention speeches), without having their message filtered through the media. According to Stimson, presidential nominating conventions are "times of intense political learning" (2004, 137). The question of whether voters learn during presidential conventions remains an open one, despite Stimson's statement, which was made over 10 years ago. (1) Although it seems plausible that voters learn during conventions, hypotheses about political learning during presidential conventions have not been empirically tested.

In this article, I take up the question of whether voters learn during presidential nominating conventions. This is an important question given the abovementioned debate about the utility of modern conventions. It is also important from the standpoint of democratic theory. During elections, campaigns and campaign events are supposed to help voters acquire information so that they can make informed choices. Voters need to know what candidates stand for so that they can choose the person who best represents their preferences and interests. It would be quite worrisome if voters were not gaining information about candidates and policies during campaigns. Such a situation might represent a breakdown in the democratic process.

The rest of this article unfolds in a straightforward manner. First, I provide an overview of the literature on political learning. Second, I discuss a number of hypotheses about political learning during presidential nominating conventions. Third, I describe the data and measures I use to examine the effects of presidential conventions on political learning. The availability of panel data collected immediately before and after presidential conventions makes it possible to provide an empirical test of Stimson's suggestion that voters learn a great deal during presidential conventions. Fourth, I use descriptive statistics and multivariate models to gauge the extent to which political learning occurs during conventions. In the statistical models, I focus on assessing the impact of convention speeches, the most important elements of the conventions, on voter learning. Finally, I conclude by discussing the implications of my results and by commenting on the value of the presidential nominating convention as an institution in American politics.

Political Learning from Campaigns

In this article, I am interested in understanding whether and how voters learn during campaign events. Political learning has been conceptualized in a number of different ways in the literature on campaign effects. One potential way of thinking about political learning is in terms of the strengthened connection between voters' underlying attitudes and assessments and their vote choice that occurs as voters are exposed campaign information. A number of scholars have taken this approach. For example, Arceneaux (2006) uses cross-national survey data to show that, as Election Day approaches, voters place more weight on fundamental variables, such as economic assessments and ideology, when making their vote choices. Stevenson and Vavreck (2000) find a similar effect from campaigns. Using data from 113 elections, they find that in longer campaigns, economic conditions have a more pronounced effect on electoral performance than in shorter campaigns. The implication is that longer campaigns provide voters with a better chance to hear competing campaign messages and to learn about the true state of the economy than shorter ones. More recently, Holbrook and McClurg (2009) look at the structure of vote choices for individuals living in battleground versus individuals not living in battleground states. Their research indicates that people living in battleground states cast votes that are better predicted by fundamental considerations than those in nonbattlegrounds. In short, the previous studies provide evidence that campaigns help voters make "enlightened decisions" on Election Day, primarily through the provision of information.

It is also possible to think about political learning in terms of the persuasive effects of campaign activities and communications. A vast amount of work has been done to determine whether campaigns are capable of changing voter assessments and preferences (Shaw 1999; Hillygus and Jackman 2003; Ridout and Franz 2011). A number of studies stand out as being particularly relevant to this article, given their focus on conventions. Cera and Weinschenk (2012; 2013) examine how candidate trait evaluations are shaped by...

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