By Cathy Collette
Emphasizing campaign issues is the secret to a successful election, according to a recent study performed by BYU political science professors.
“Some political science research contends that campaigns do not influence voters,” said Jay Goodliffe, one of the study”s investigators and a BYU political science professor. “A subset of this research argues that issues do not matter in campaigns. Our research shows that issues do matter.”
BYU political science professors Kelly Patterson and Paul S. Herrnson worked with Goodliffe to produce the study, “Agenda Setting in Congressional Elections: The Impact of Issues and Campaigns on Voting Behavior,” which was published in Political Research Quarterly in 2003. The study used data from a previous study at BYU and the University of Maryland.
Patterson said the study shows campaigns matter when candidates select issues on which they have some advantage. He said it is also important for candidates to clearly communicate the issues to voters.
Most candidates running for office steal the opposing party”s issues instead of using their own, which actually deters voters from voting for them, Goodliffe said.
“The conventional wisdom is that a candidate should try to steal the other party”s issue,” he said. “Our research shows that, at least for house races, this is not as good a strategy as emphasizing your own party”s issues.”
Goodliffe said the Republicans made a tragic mistake in 1998 by failing to emphasize their own issues. The study”s investigators estimate Republicans would have gained 15 Congressional seats in 2002, instead of losing five, if they had supported their own issues.
The team of BYU researchers, along with Owen Abbe of the University of Maryland”s Center for American Politics and Citizenship, came to their conclusion by combining information from candidates and voters.
Patterson said they surveyed candidates to find out what issues they used most in their campaigns. They combined those results with survey data from voters.
Voters were asked to identify the most important issues in the campaign, Patterson said. When voters and candidates agreed on the most important issues, it increased the likelihood of the voter voting for the candidate.
This effect was strongest for independent voters.
“It helps to reinforce the belief that campaigns matter,” Patterson said. “It means that candidates from a particular party do have certain strengths and weaknesses when it comes to speaking about a particular issue.”
Patterson said the study indicates candidates should emphasize strengths and avoid weaknesses.
“An opponent will be trying to do the same, so you will get an interesting dynamic,” he said.