Primary Election Strategy

I find primary elections endlessly fascinating. Partly because the decision is so tricky. We rarely have enough information to make an ideal choice but people still develop very strong opinions. In the 2008 Democratic primary it was hard to see significant policy difference between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama but that didn’t stop intense arguments.

In a primary the voters should not only be choosing who they like but weighting this against the likelihood of that candidate winning the later general election. Thus a Republican primary voter might prefer Rick Santorum to Mitt Romney in 2012 but might beleieve Romney probably had a better chance of beating President Obama (i.e. Romney was more electable). Balancing personal preference and electability is nearly impossible so it shouldn’t be too surprising that voters find it challenging.

Similarly political marketers have a massive challenge. The theory of political marketing is to serve the voters. The problem is in primaries we have at least two sets of people to serve. 1) the primary voters, and 2) the general election voters. These groups may have quite different preferences, presenting a challenging strategic task. A politician seeking to win needs to align sufficiently with primary voters but not align so much that general election voters see the politician as unwilling to take on his or her own party.

I worked with Alina Nastasoui to examine the candidates’ strategic problems. For example, we give the general advice to candidates that they “don’t stop thinking about tomorrow”. In a primary candidates who want to win the general election should be very careful about the compromises they make to win the primary.

We illustrate our advice with examples. In the 2000 Republican primary between George W. Bush and John McCain we analyzed the candidates advertising uncovering how McCain shifted to more Republican core issues, such as taxes, as he saw the election slipping away. Bush did the reverse shifting to discuss education, a less notable “Republican” topic, as his confidence increased that he would beat McCain. “Bush tackled taxes early in his campaign, building conservative support. Once secured, Bush strengthened his elecability. The number of ads focused on education increased” (Bendle and Nastasoiu 2014,page 103).

Primary elections have a lot to tell us abour decision-making and strategy.

Read: Neil Bendle and Mihaela-Alina Nastasoiu (2014) Primary Elections and US Political Marketing in Political Marketing in the United States, Edited by Jennifer Lees-Marshment, Brian Conley and Kenneth Cosgrove. Routledge, New York, NY