Why it's Not Worth Following Presidential Campaign Visits
A look into the surprisingly crude reasons why presidential candidates go where they go.
This piece is different from the ones that I usually write, so I thought I’d add a brief introduction. Along with writing this newsletter, I also do political science research, and this is one of my projects. It’s a lot more formal than how I usually write, but I think the subject is timely enough for it to be interesting for you guys. Let me know what you guys think and feel free to ask any questions.
On October 26, 2020, with less than two weeks remaining before the end of that year’s election, Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, announced that he would be visiting the state of Iowa for a drive-in rally in Des Moines as part of his final stretch of stops during the campaign. In the grand scheme of things, this visit was just one of many decisions made or events occurring at the closing stage of the fall campaign. At the same time, volunteers were canvassing the country, tens of millions of dollars in ads were being played in swing states, and a record number of early voters were outright casting ballots. The actual rally itself would be just one of three visits made that day by the former Vice President, who would make stops in neighboring Minnesota and Wisconsin afterwards.
But this visit would also see close media attention. Pieces analyzing it and what it meant for the campaign popped up almost immediately after Biden announced his visit. The New York Times provided it with an entire story’s worth of coverage, entitled “Biden, in Sign of Confidence, Will Visit Iowa in Race’s Final Days”. Iowa, after all, voted heavily for Donald Trump in 2016, and was not expected to be anywhere near a decisive state in that year’s election. So, while the newspaper did make caveats that these sorts of visits are sometimes done to serve as distractions or help candidates down ballot, Biden’s decision to go there was presented as a sign of his strong position overall in the upcoming election. When he visited the state, similar coverage would ensue. The U.S. News and World Report, for example, would describe it as “Joe Biden’s Triumphant Return to Iowa”, and that his decision to go there represented an important indicator that “the campaign is expanding the map and feels it has a genuine chance there.”
That one visit received so much attention might have been a result of the unique nature of the race in 2020, when the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing precautions taken by the Biden campaign meant that any visit taken by the candidate would have been seen as relatively newsworthy. But it also illustrates a central fact of presidential campaigns. The public, including the media, has little truly reliable information as to the state of the race at any given time. This is a problem that has only become greater with a decline in both the quality and quantity of publicly available polling data (Skelly 2022). Throughout America’s increasingly long presidential election cycles, there is a large gap between the high stakes of presidential election results and how little can be said ahead of time as to what those results will be.
As a result, campaign coverage has turned to analyzing the campaigns themselves to reveal the “true” standing of the election. Presidential campaigns, in theory, have the strongest incentive of all political actors to have the most accurate understanding of the state of the presidential race. They also have ample resources to make efforts to come to such an understanding. As a result, their resource allocation decisions are regarded as highly important indicators. Campaign metrics like internal polling are given a premium in coverage (Friess 2015). Ad buys, even relatively small ones, can receive extensive coverage as a sign that the race has shifted one way or another (Cobbler 2020). Decisions on when and where to hold campaign rallies are treated similarly (Ember and Thrush 2020).
Undergirding all of this is a central assumption: that, in the information-poor environment of the presidential election cycle, it is the campaigns themselves who hold the most knowledge, and their actions alone can be indicative of the results ahead of time. But while this idea has solid theoretical grounding, it lacks scrutiny. What is the actual basis for decisions made by campaigns—specifically, campaign visits? Do they show a pattern that indicates that they have a clear view of the actual state of the electoral map before the election occurs? If not, what information serves as the basis for their decisions? The aim of this paper is to answer these questions for the 2016 and 2020 elections.
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