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Presidential Candidates, You Can Skip the Red Arrow

Rallies, town hall meetings, and diner visits have “only a small and evanescent effect on voting attentions.”

By Nathan Collins


Then-candidate John Kasich serves coffee to patrons at the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

For as long as political junkies can remember, presidential candidates have gone for lunch at the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, New Hampshire, a place ABC News described as an essential stop on the campaign trail. It’s said that Bill Clinton’s visit contributed to his come-from-behind victory in the 1992 Granite State primary. But maybe that’s more myth than reality: According to a new study, stops like Clinton’s ultimately have little to no effect on how people vote.

“A visit’s hokey theatrics are irresistible to both the campaigns and the national press,” Ohio State University Assistant Professor Thomas Wood writes today in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. While theatrics have a small impact on the media, “[v]isits’ effects on voters themselves, however, are much more modest than consultants often claim,” Wood writes.

To political consultants, folksy campaign stops are indispensable. Supposedly, they force the national press to spend time traveling with the candidate, which might soften coverage, and they present an opportunity to highlight politicians’ positions on important local issues, which could, in turn, sway voters’ support. “According to this account, long after the candidate has left, the echoes of their visit remain — in the willingness of locals to write checks or to volunteer.”

Any effect one candidate has on a crowd is likely to be offset by his or her opponents.

Political scientists are skeptical, to say the least, and historically there’s been little evidence that campaign events have any effect on voters. For one thing, politicians of all stripes are pretty good at rallies and such—meaning that any effect one candidate has on a crowd is likely to be offset by his or her opponents. In addition, campaigns in general are thought to have little direct impact on voters, and if national advertising has little effect, it’s not especially likely that stops in small towns across the country will matter much either.

To see if campaign visits have an effect—and why, or, more to the point, why not—Wood first looked at whether such stops led to an increase in news reports about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign in four major media markets: Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Denver, and Columbus, Ohio. After controlling for the overall level of campaign coverage and other factors, Wood found only modest effects—at most around three extra news stories about a candidate’s visit, and mostly in newspapers, rather than television.

The effects on voters are even more minimal. Wood surveyed 64,312 likely voters on the day before, the day of, and the three days after one of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates visited each of the cities. Around half of those surveyed were not even aware of the visit, and, of those were aware, the visits changed voters’ support for Obama and Romney by at most 5 or 6 percent. Even that effect didn’t last long: Three days after the event, it no longer had any statistically discernible effect on voters’ preferences.

Although it’s possible campaign visits have some effect that Wood missed—a sense of goodwill that might have delayed effects on voters’ choices, for example—it’s likely that they just don’t have much impact. So why would politicians keep making those stops? Probably, Wood writes, because of tradition, inertia, and “campaigns’ aversion to change and innovation.”