Early Primaries, Viability and Changing Preferences for Presidential Candidates


  • AUTHORS' NOTE: Partial funding for this project was provided by the Western Washington University Office of Research and Sponsored Programs as well as the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Sexuality. We received helpful feedback on an earlier version of this article from Caroline Tolbert, Christopher Parker, and Francisco Pedraza, from which we benefited greatly.

Loren Collingwood is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Washington. His interests include campaigns and elections, race and ethnic politics, and quantitative methods.

Matt A. Barreto is an associate professor in political science at the University of Washington. His research examines the political participation of racial and ethnic minorities in the United States, and he is the author of Ethnic Cues.

Todd Donovan is a professor of political science at Western Washington University. His latest books include Why Iowa? Sequential Elections, Reform and United States Presidential Nominations and Democracy in the States.


Given the fluid context of primaries and observed swings in national polls, many Democratic voters likely switched candidate support over the course of the 2008 primary campaign. We examine how perceptions of early caucus and primary outcomes subsequently affected voter choice and candidate momentum. Although the 2008 calendar left many voters with a brief window to assess candidates, it nonetheless allowed a non–front-runner to benefit from momentum and win the Democratic nomination. This article employs a panel study of voters surveyed at two time points during the nomination contest to assess individual-level change in candidate support. Results from the earlier states sent signals about candidate viability to people who had not yet voted. We find that voters deciding after results were in from early states changed their perceptions of candidate viability and that this changed whom they intended to support. We conclude that momentum remains an important factor in presidential nominations.