The Department of Government
The Department of Government
The Timeline of Presidential Elections

The Timeline of Presidential Elections: How Campaigns Do (And Do Not) Matter

Christopher Wlezien arrives in Austin in Fall 2013 as holder of the Hogg Professorship in Government. His latest book, coauthored with Robert S. Erikson, a professor of political science at Columbia University, and released during the heart of the 2012 presidential election campaign, had political journalists buzzing over the findings and consulting it widely in an attempt to make sense of campaign events as they unfolded.

Do voters cast their ballots based on candidates’ policy positions and current government performance? Or does the race come down largely to who runs the most effective campaign? It’s a question those who study elections have been considering for years with no clear resolution. In The Timeline of Presidential Elections, Robert S. Erikson and Christopher Wlezien reveal for the first time how both factors come into play.

Erikson and Wlezien have amassed data from close to two thousand national polls covering every presidential election from 1952 to 2008, allowing them to see how outcomes take shape over the course of an election year. Polls from the beginning of the year, they show, have virtually no predictive power. By mid-April, when the candidates have been identified and matched in pollsters’ trial heats, preferences have come into focus—and predicted the winner in eleven of the fifteen elections. But a similar process of forming favorites takes place in the last six months, during which voters’ intentions change only gradually, with particular events—including presidential debates—rarely resulting in dramatic change.

Ultimately, Erikson and Wlezien show that it is through campaigns that voters are made aware of—or not made aware of—fundamental factors like candidates’ policy positions that determine which ticket will get their votes. In other words, fundamentals matter, but only because of campaigns. Timely and compelling, this book will force us to rethink our assumptions about presidential elections.

“Americans have long been fascinated with presidential election campaigns and the polls that accompany them. Each time a new poll is released, we interpret it as indicating something real about the rising or falling fortunes of candidates—and assume these changes have implications for what happens on election day. With ambitious and insightful scholarship, Robert S. Erikson and Christopher Wlezien offer a striking critique of these assumptions, issuing a startling wake-up call that suggests much of the tremendous effort—and money—spent during campaigns may in fact be a waste. Any candidate interested in winning an election should read this book, as should anyone interested in truly understanding voters.” - Jon Krosnick, Stanford University

“This is an important, original book by accomplished political scientists at the top of their game. Robert S. Erikson and Christopher Wlezien have addressed a central question in the study of presidential elections—to what extent do the actual campaigns matter?—and provided an account of election dynamics that anyone with a passing knowledge of presidential elections can understand, but whose technical sophistication will be appreciated by political scientists. The Timeline of Presidential Election Campaigns will be regarded as a landmark by the presidential research community.” - Gary C. Jacobson, University of California, San Diego

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