Campaigning for the Agenda: Agenda-setting in the 2004 and 2008 Presidential Campaigns

Open Access
Moody, Jonathan William
Graduate Program:
Political Science
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 14, 2013
Committee Members:
  • Christopher Jon Zorn, Dissertation Advisor
  • Christopher Jon Zorn, Committee Chair
  • Eric Plutzer, Committee Member
  • Luke John Keele, Committee Member
  • John W Gastil, Committee Member
  • Frank Baumgartner, Special Member
  • agenda-setting
  • presidential campaign
  • elections
  • campaigns
Previous scholarly explorations of agenda-setting in presidential campaigns have resulted in two competing theories regarding how candidate select which issues receive their attention. Issue Avoidance theory posits that candidates emphasize their own strengths, even going so far as to avoid their opponents' favored issues entirely. Issue Convergence theory argues the opposite; suggesting candidates will direct attention to their opponents' key issues in an effort to erode their support. Both theories, however, neglect that issue attention is a finite commodity for both the candidates and the public, a reality that holds serious implications both for how candidates divvy their attention across issues over the course of the campaign and the susceptibility of candidates to agenda-setting efforts from their opponents, the media, and other outside forces. In my dissertation I propose a Double-Bottleneck theory of candidate attention under which candidates choose to stress a small subset of "key" issues that emphasize their strengths while sending a campaign message in a way the public can follow. As a result, candidates are protective of their primary issues and are largely insulated from outside influence; however, the remaining lower importance issues are largely unaddressed and are open to agenda-setting actions or other outside influence. I test this theory through the use of several unique datasets from the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns, and offer an in-depth picture of which issues are chosen to serve as the "key" issues of the campaigns and the dynamics of how candidate attention to those issues change over the course of the race. My theory suggests candidates will be largely unaffected by shifts in attention from other actors for their most important issues, with the largest exception coming from the debate they engage in with their opponents over those policy areas. Further, as the salience of an issue declines candidates will be more likely to be influenced by outside sources as the candidates both possess less expertise in these areas and also do not wish to complicate the message they send to the voters. Empirical results offer support for my Double-Bottleneck theory, indicating candidates' patterns of attention to the top issues in 2004 and 2008 are largely unaffected by outside forces, with the exception of major external events like the financial crisis of 2008 that define the entire campaign. Lower importance issues are open to influence by the media and other actors; yet, these effects do not appear in a pattern consistent enough to suggest any overt acts of agenda-setting. To this end, despite the characterizations of campaigns as battlegrounds where the candidates and media fight to set the agenda, for the most part, significant acts of agenda-setting in presidential campaigns is much less frequent than we might believe.