THE "STRATEGIC" PRIMARY VOTER: Understanding Vote Choice in U.S. Presidential Nominating Contests

Culbert, Gar Robert, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Freedman, Paul, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

Arguments made by political elites and academics alike supporting various proposals to reform the presidential nominating process in the United States depend on certain normative claims and assumptions pertaining to how voters think about the decisions they make in these contests. Such recommendations need to be rooted in a better understanding of how voters make up their minds about whom to vote for: Are voters sincere (voting with their “true” preferences), are they sophisticated (giving more weight to a candidate’s chances of winning the nomination) or are they strategic (placing greater value on a candidate’s chances of winning a general election)? By analyzing survey data from the 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004 presidential nominating contests, this dissertation examines the extent to which sincere preferences are weighed against sophisticated and, more likely, strategic considerations.

This investigation has implications for both campaigners and reformers, and also comments on popular theories of voter rationality and individual choice. Presidential primaries in this country provide particularly fertile ground for inquiring into voter rationality because knowledge about the choices tends to be low, the stakes fairly high, and the number of choices more ample than in general elections. Moreover, nominating contests put voters in a unique position, as strategic considerations are thought to be more significant as choices made in nominating contests set the stage for the general elections that follow. This dissertation takes seriously this implications associated with this unique choice situation which has not been done adequately in the past. This assessment is made possible by employing advanced statistical models that facilitate analysis of variables that are “choice-specific.” The goal, then, is to determine the extent and conditions under which the often-maligned American primary voter attempts to minimize their regret when things do not go their way in both primary and general elections. This analysis suggests that the American primary voter, though less sophisticated, is generally more strategic than previously understood.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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