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«By Marie-Catherine Wavreille PhD Candidate Centre d’étude de la vie politique (Cevipol) ULB, Brussels Avenue Jeanne 44, CP124 1050 Brussels ...»

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Front-Loading versus Back-Loading: The Impact of FrontLoading on Presidential Primary Turnout in Michigan and



Marie-Catherine Wavreille

PhD Candidate

Centre d’étude de la vie politique (Cevipol)

ULB, Brussels

Avenue Jeanne 44, CP124

1050 Brussels

E-mail: Marie-Catherine.Wavreille@ulb.ac.be

Phone: +32 (0)2/650 46 56 (office)

* Paper prepared for the 7th ECPR General Conference, 4-7 September, 2013. Hosted by

Sciences Po Bordeaux.

Front-Loading versus Back-Loading: The Impact of Front-Loading on Presidential Primary Turnout in Michigan and Indiana


Scientific debates about front-loading tend to focus on a variety of consequences of the sequential nomination calendar on presidential nomination campaigns such as compressing voters’ effective decision-making period, influencing the types of presidential hopefuls who are ultimately nominated, giving advantage to the front-runner, making the nomination phase of the campaign more media centered, and settling the nomination races in the early spring (Mayer and Busch, 2004; Atkeson and Maestas, 2008). Because studies of presidential primary elections have not focused profoundly on the impact of the front-loaded calendar on turnout, the purpose of this paper is to add one more layer to the understanding of participation in presidential primaries by investigating whether, and to what extent, the timing and scheduling of delegate-selection events affect electoral participation.

Employing data from presidential primary elections in Michigan and Indiana from 1992 to 2012, we find evidence of a partial, yet effective, impact of front-loading in shaping primary turnout. The research shows that only Republican partisans in Michigan and Democrats in Indiana seem to have been positively affected by the increasingly front-loaded calendar. In addition to the influence exerted by the nomination calendar, voters in Michigan were mobilized to cast ballots in the primaries by aspects of the campaign (competition, campaign spending, number of candidates, candidates activities, and the presence of additional races on the ballot) and by legal structures (open primaries). What our comparison reveals is that frontloading did not have a depressive impact on voting rates in Indiana late-scheduled contests.

Instead participation in Hoosier primaries was influenced by both contextual (the organization of state-level races, candidate spending and candidates activities) and legal factors (open primary).

In the end, this paper strives to provide the reader with a comprehensive understanding of how the amount ofelectoral participation varies as the scheduling of primary contests in Michigan and Indiana changes.

I. Introduction Repeatedly identified as highly compressed, the American nominating process has substantially been altered notably with the emergence of front-loading. That is, more and more states schedule their primary and caucus elections near the beginning of the delegateselection season (Mayer and Busch, 2004). Recent research suggests that primary participation rarely average more than a third of the entire electorate (Cook 2004).

Electoral scholars have found the fast-paced calendar of primaries to transform presidential nomination politics in various ways. As it happened, in the 2000 campaign, the contest for the nomination on both sides was declared for all practical purposes five weeks after the primary campaign began (see Table 1). The short time frame of the nomination season was not a coincidence. Rather it was the result of concerted efforts by some states to front-load the primary calendar in order to exert influence over the outcome (Smith and Springer, 2009).

Indeed, as the primary calendar has become more front-loaded with more and more states jockeying for earlier and earlier spots on the primary schedule, it has become routine for contenders to clinch their party’s nomination in the early spring (Mayer and Busch, 2004). In addition, only voters in the first few states are guaranteed a meaningful voice in selecting the major party nominees (Cook, 2004). Lastly, the fact that nominations are wrapped up early has a depressive effect on participation with contests near the back of the calendar drawing a lower number of participants (Atkeson and Maestas, 2008; Patterson, 2002). As the primary electoral calendar has become more compressed in recent elections, it becomes increasingly important to understand turnout in these primary contests.

Despite the importance of primary front-loading, little is known about its effect in shaping primary turnout. This paper, therefore, addresses the following question: To what extent does the timing of a state’s nomination event (i.e. how front-loaded it is) have an impact on participation? Put differently, does moving a primary closer to New Hampshire’s first-in-thenation primary influence the number of votes cast in? Taking the literature on political participation in presidential primaries as a point of departure, two main hypotheses are the focus of this article. The first hypothesis combines the literature on timing and participation and explores the impact of the electoral calendar on turnout patterns among primary voters.

According to the electoral calendar hypothesis a positive relationship exists between casting ballot in early contests and participation in politics. The conclusion of the nomination battle early in the campaign may explain low turnout levels among back-loaded voters. The second hypothesis, on the other hand, focuses on patterns in partisan elections. Recent research suggests that voting patterns differ dramatically between Democratic and Republican primaries (Buell 2004). The partisan hypothesis suggests that front-loading has a different impact on the Democratic and Republican levels of participation. Turnout, throughout this article, is defined as the percentage of the partisan voting-age population who votes in primary contests.

The article is structured as follows. After reviewing the current literature on the rational choice model of voting, we provide a detailed outlook of the relationship between participation and sequential nomination processes in the next section. Next, we introduce our dataset in the following section before presenting and discussing our empirical analysis. The analysis consists of two parts: first, participation in front-loaded contests is examined. Second, we zoom in primary elections scheduled at the end of the campaign. Both parts of the respective analyses emphasize the partial, yet effective importance of the electoral calendar.

The conclusion summarizes our findings.

II. Theoretical Framework: Rational Choice and Turnout in Primary Elections

A vast body of literature offers a wide range of theories on the determinants of political participation (e.g., Lane 1959; Milbrath 1965; Verba and Nie 1972; Barnes and Kaase 1979;

Conway 1985; Parry, Moyser and Day 1992; Norris 2002). These models can be grouped in three categories, corresponding to three levels of analysis: micro, meso, and macro (Norris 2002, Teorell 2006). Given that our paper is a comparative analysis with only two cases, this section will mostly develop explanatory models at the micro level. More specifically, we look at voter participation from one particular perspective, that of rational choice. The rational choice model emphasizes that citizens decide to cast ballots if, in their own view, the benefits stemming directly from their own involvement are greater than the costs (Downs, 1957). The rational choice model has been often used in past studies to explain primary turnout (Morris and Davis, 1975; Aldrich, 1980; Moran and Fenster, 1982; Schier, 1982). The following pages have two objectives that I hope begin to develop answers to whether sequence matters for the level of primary participation. The first objective is to provide a body of systematic information about voter turnout in elections and as well as, more specifically, in primaries.

The second objective is to develop the link between the sequential nature of the presidential nominating system and participation.

2.1. Rational Choice and Electoral Participation

The choice to turn on to vote or to stay home on election day is an individual decision (Jewell and Morehouse 2001:121). With chances of casting a decisive ballot being quite small, most voting participants would be expected to abstain rather than vote. Yet the reality is different with citizens expressing their preferences in large numbers. This leads many observers to contend that the rational choice model should be rejected (Blais, 2000). Rather than discarding the model, Blais argues that it offers a partial and incomplete explanation of electoral participation (2000:11). In an earlier analysis, Rothenberg and Brody (1988) claim that: “even the most broadly conceptualized expected utility models have been inadequate for explaining turnout. The electorate appears susceptible to influences beyond the costs and benefits of voting” (1988:255). Noting that rational choice theories face a particular difficulty with voting, Aldrich’s study aims at solving such puzzle by presenting a richer rational choice theoretical accounting of why people vote or abstain (1993:246). In addition, analyzing the famous “paradox of voting” and the fact that a relatively large share of the electorate votes even though the probability that one person’s one lonely act decides the election is vanishingly small, Blais argues that the cost-benefit calculus only and truly affects the decision to vote or to abstain of those whose sense of duty is weaker (2000:113). Rosenstone and Hansen argue that citizen involvement in politics cannot be exclusively explained with individual motives (2003:22). Instead, they reason, “the explanation of participation, to make any sense, must move beyond the worlds of individuals to include family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers, plus politicians, parties, activists, and interest groups” (2003:23). Through their mobilization efforts, the costs of political participation are reduced and it hence helps to overcome the “paradox of voting”.

2.2. Rational Choice and Primary Turnout

Explaining primary voting levels has been widely studied in the scientific literature (e.g.

Kenney and Rice, 1985; Norrander and Smith, 1985; Norrander 1986b). Yet, primary turnout is not truly understood. Plus, most studies were conducted preceding the advent of frontloading in the late 1980s (Ranney, 1977; Moran and Fenster, 1982; Norrander and Smith, 1985; Norrander, 1986c, 1992). Unlike general elections, primaries are staggered over a sixmonth period. And the primary season draws a far smaller percentage of voters than the November general election. Voter turnout in contested delegate-selection events constitutes less than 30 percent of the voting-age population (Davis 1980:134). Figure 1 presents turnout in presidential primaries starting in 1968 when reforms introduced, although inadvertently, a largely primary-based presidential nomination system. With the chief exception of 2008, the figure reveals an almost linear descent since 30.9 percent voted in the 1972 presidential primaries.

Figure 1: Presidential Primary Turnout, 1968-2012

Source: GANS Curtis, “2008 Primary Turnout Falls Just Short of Record Nationally, Breaks Record in Most States”, Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, May 19, 2008. Updated by the author.

Note: Here the number of citizens eligible to vote is used as denominator to calculate turnout rates.

* 1968 turnout was based only seven states which held primaries in both parties that year.

** 2012 turnout was based on 22 states which held primaries in both parties.

2.3. Rational Choice and Sequential Nominating Campaign

Rational choice voting models do not traditionally consider the sequential character of the presidential nominating process. In this context, however, the expected utility of a citizen’s vote at the time when the voter casts his or her ballot determines the decision to participate or to stay at home on election day (Atkeson and Maestas 2008:4). This value of a vote depends greatly on whether the ballot cast is likely to be decisive, that is, whether the chances of an election being determined by one single vote are large. Casting a pivotal ballot, in a sequential race, varies according to the position of voting participants in the electoral calendar. Hence outcomes early in the sequential nomination season determine the value of votes cast later in the campaign. Battaglini, Morton, and Palfrey (2005) claim that “more voters will turn out early in the presidential process than late because the utility a voter receives from going early is higher relative to the costs than a voter who goes late in the process” (Battaglini et al in Atkeson, 2010:51). Earlier voting participants have also increased incentives to cast ballots because of their capacity to message citizens in late-scheduled contests about both the viability and electability of presidential hopefuls. Accordingly, recent research finds voter participation rates to differ significantly over the extended nomination season. Norrander notes that primary events scheduled in the early stages of the nomination campaign experience higher voting rates as residents of states holding these early contests are exposed to vigorous campaign and have an opportunity to select the nominees (2010:44). Once media and the press have declared the eventual nominees incentives for participation fall greatly. In the 2000 campaign, turnout for primary contests held on or before March 7 averaged 23 percent compared with 14 percent for later contests (Curtis in Buell and Mayer, 2004).

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