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- “Electioneering” redirects here. For the Radiohead song, see OK Computer.
Presidential campaign button for Abraham Lincoln, 1860. The reverse side of the button shows a portrait of his running mate Hannibal Hamlin.
Lincoln Button 1860
A political campaign is an organized effort which seeks to influence the decision making process within a specific group. In democracies, political campaigns often refer to electoral campaigns, wherein representatives are chosen or referendums are decided.
The message of the campaign contains the ideas that the candidate wants to share with the voters. The message often consists of several talking points about policy issues. The points summarize the main ideas of the campaign and are repeated frequently in order to create a lasting impression with the voters. In many elections, the opposition party will try to get the candidate “off message” by bringing up policy or personal questions that are not related to the talking points. Most campaigns prefer to keep the message broad in order to attract the most potential voters. A message that is too narrow can alienate voters or slow the candidate down with explaining details. For example, in the election of 2008 John McCain originally used a message that focused on his patriotism and political experience: “Country First”; later the message was changed to shift attention to his role as “The Original Maverick” within the political establishment. Barack Obama ran on a consistent, simple message of “change” throughout his campaign. If the message is crafted carefully, it will assure the candidate a victory at the polls. For a winning candidate, the message is refined and then becomes his or her political agenda in office.
The habit of modern Western media outlets (especially radio and television) of taking short excerpts from speeches has resulted in the creation of the term “soundbite“. Examples might include:
- “John Doe is a businessman, not a politician. His background in finance means he can bring fiscal discipline to state government.”
- “As our society faces a rapid upswing in violent crime, poor economy, and an ever worsening education system, we need leaders who will keep our streets safe and restore accountability to our schools. John Doe is that leader.”
- “Over the past four years, John Doe has missed over fifty City Council meetings. How can you lead if you don’t show up? Jane Doe won’t turn a blind eye to the government.”
Fundraising techniques include having the candidate call or meet with large donors, sending direct mail pleas to small donors, and courting interest groups who could end up spending millions on the race if it is significant to their interests.
In a modern political campaign, the campaign organization (or ‘machine’) will have a coherent structure of personnel in the same manner as any business of similar size.
Successful campaigns usually require a campaign manager to coordinate the campaign’s operations. Apart from a candidate, they are often a campaign’s most visible leader. Modern campaign managers may be concerned with executing strategy rather than setting it – particularly if the senior strategists are typically outside political consultants such as primarily pollsters and media consultants.
Political consultants advise campaigns on virtually all of their activities, from research to field strategy. Consultants conduct candidate research, voter research, and opposition research for their clients.
Activists are the ‘foot soldiers’ loyal to the cause, the true believers who will carry the run by volunteer activists. Such volunteers and interns may take part in activities such as canvassing door-to-door and making phone calls on behalf of the campaign.
Campaign Ethics and Campaign Time
Modern political campaigns have set new standards for how successful campaigns are conducted day-to-day. The campaign is conducted in what would seem to the public like pseudo-military style, with a strict chain of command, zero tolerance for certain prohibited actions, and an extended daily schedule that starts early and ends much later than most “day jobs.”
Prohibited actions may include, but are not limited to: lying about numbers generated (e.g. phone calls made, doors knocked, volunteers recruited, etc.) – this is increasingly an issue in offices that are wirelessly connected, without direct oversight; going outside the chain of command (e.g. talking to a superior’s superior who happens to be a friend in order to get special favors or report information); non-press-shop members talking to the press; blogging (considered another form of “talking to the press,” which can interfere with message discipline); and being arrested (or otherwise becoming a potential easy target for opponent smear campaigns).
The daily schedule of a political campaign is hyperextended, and often has no definite beginning or end, only a series of tasks to be completed by certain benchmark times, or, most often, “COB” (“close of business“). COB for political campaigns is generally defined as “the time at night at which your supervisor is required to report his/her numbers” (or shortly beforehand), so that your numbers reporting (generally the last action a political campaigner takes before COB) can be factored into theirs. For example, a Field Organizer may have collected 9 new committed volunteers for an event during the day; he will be required to report this at 8:45pm to his Regional Field Director, so that the Regional can report that all Field Organizers in the region recruited 52 total volunteers for said event; which needs to be reported to the Deputy State Field Director by 9:00, so that THEY can speak to the State Field Director at 9:15 and report that 827 volunteers have been recruited for events around the state; and so on, up the chain of command.
Once each of these reporting sequences is finished, organizers at all levels may do paperwork, send emails, call friends, and do other things which are not effective to do during business hours or “voter contact time.” Political campaigns are generally about contacting voters and volunteers at the nuts-and-bolts level; and so dependent on state law, local peculiarities and the preferences of campaign organizers and volunteers, a certain block of time (usually ending at 8pm or 9pm) is set aside each night for “voter/volunteer contact.” (Violation of this block of time to conduct other activities often cannot happen or needs a strong justification, such as attending an important meeting.) Only a very small fraction of campaign workers (such as people who deal with vendors) do the bulk of their work during traditional business hours.
A campaign team (which may be as small as one inspired individual, or a heavily-resourced group of professionals) must consider how to communicate the message of the campaign, recruit volunteers, and raise money. Campaign advertising draws on techniques from commercial advertising and propaganda. The avenues available to political campaigns when distributing their messages is limited by the law, available resources, and the imagination of the campaigns’ participants. These techniques are often combined into a formal strategy known as the campaign plan. The plan takes account of a campaign’s goal, message, target audience, and resources available. The campaign will typically seek to identify supporters at the same time as getting its message across.
Campaign advertising is the use of paid media (newspapers, radio, television, etc.) to influence the decisions made for and by groups. These ads are designed by political consultants and the campaign’s staff.
The public media (in US parlance ‘free media’ or ‘earned media‘) may run the story that someone is trying to get elected or to do something about such and such.
Mass meetings, rallies and protests
Holding protests, rallies and other similar public events (if enough people can be persuaded to come) may be a very effective campaign tool. Holding mass meetings with speakers is powerful as it shows visually, through the number of people in attendance, the support that the campaign has.
Modern technology and the internet
The internet is now a core element of modern political campaigns. Communication technologies such as e-mail, web sites, and podcasts for various forms of activism to enable faster communications by citizen movements and deliver a message to a large audience. These Internet technologies are used for cause-related fundraising, lobbying, volunteering, community building, and organizing. Individual political candidates are also using the internet to promote their election campaign.
Signifying the importance of internet political campaigning, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign relied heavily on social media, and new media channels to engage voters, recruit campaign volunteers, and raise campaign funds. The campaign brought the spotlight on the importance of using internet in new-age political campaigning by utilizing various forms of social media and new media (including Facebook, YouTube and a custom generated social engine) to reach new target populations. The campaign’s social website, my.BarackObama.com, utilized a low cost and efficient method of mobilizing voters and increasing participation among various voter populations. This new media was incredibly successful at reaching the younger population while helping all populations organize and promote action.
A husting, or the hustings, was originally a physical platform from which representatives presented their views or cast votes before a parliamentary or other election body. By metonymy, the term may now refer to any event, such as debates or speeches, during an election campaign where one or more of the representative candidates are present.
- Writing directly to members of the public (either via a professional marketing firm or, particularly on a small scale, by volunteers)
- By distributing leaflets or selling newspapers
- Through websites, online communities, and solicited or unsolicited bulk email
- Through a new technique known as Microtargeting that helps identify and target small demographic slices of voters
- Through a whistlestop tour – a series of brief appearances in several small towns
- Hampering the ability of political competitors to campaign, by such techniques as counter-rallies, picketing of rival parties’ meetings, or overwhelming rival candidates’ offices with mischievous phone calls (most political parties in representative democracies publicly distance themselves from such disruptive and morale-affecting tactics, with the exception of those parties self-identifying as activist
- Organizing political house parties
- Using endorsements of other celebrated party members to boost support (see coattail effect)
- Remaining close to or at home to make speeches to supporters who come to visit as part of a front porch campaign
- Vote-by-mail, previously known as ‘absentee ballots’ have grown significantly in importance as an election tool. Today, campaigns in most states must have a strategy in place to impact early voting
- Sale of official campaign merchandise (colloquially known as chum, in reference to the baiting technique) as a way of commuting a competitor’s popularity into campaign donations, volunteer recruitment, and free advertising
An informational campaign is a political campaign designed to raise public awareness and support for the positions of a candidate (or his party). It is more intense than a paper campaign, which consists of little more than filing the necessary papers to get on the ballot, but is less intense than a competitive campaign, which aims to actually win election to the office. An informational campaign typically focuses on low-cost outreach such as news releases, getting interviewed in the paper, making a brochure for door to door distribution, organizing poll workers, etc.
Modern election campaigns in the United States
Types of elections
The United States is unusual in that dozens of different offices are filled by election, from drain commissioner to the President of the United States. Elections happen every year on many different dates in many different areas of the country.
All federal elections (that is, elections for President and Vice President as well as elections to the House of Representatives and Senate, are partisan. Elections to most (but not all) statewide offices are partisan as well, and all state legislatures except for Nebraska are partisan.
Some state and local offices are non-partisan – these often include judicial elections, special district elections (the most common of which are elections to the school board, and elections to municipal (town council, city commission, mayor) and county (county commission, district attorney, sheriff) office. In some cases, candidates of the same political party challenging each other and in many cases without any campaign references to political parties, while in other cases, even non-partisan races may take on partisan overtones.
Process of campaigning
Major campaigns in the United States are often much longer than those in other democracies.
Campaigns start anywhere from several months to several years before election day. The first part of any campaign for a candidate is deciding to run. Prospective candidates will often speak with family, friends, professional associates, elected officials, community leaders, and the leaders of political parties before deciding to run. Candidates are often recruited by political parties andlobby groups interested in electing like-minded politicians. During this period, people considering running for office will consider their ability to put together the money, organization, and public image needed to get elected. Many campaigns for major office do not progress past this point as people often do not feel confident in their ability to win. However, some candidates lacking the resources needed for a competitive campaign proceed with an inexpensive paper campaign or informational campaign designed to raise public awareness and support for their positions.
Once a person decides to run, they will make a public announcement. This announcement could consist of anything from a simple press release to concerned media outlets to a major media event followed by a speaking tour. It is often well-known to many people that a candidate will run prior to an announcement being made. Campaigns will often be announced and then only officially “kicked off” months after active campaigning has begun. Being coy about whether a candidacy is planned is often a deliberate strategy by a prospective candidate, either to “test the waters” or to keep the media’s attention.
One of the most important aspects of the major American political campaign is the ability to raise large sums of money, especially early on in the race. Political insiders and donors often judge candidates based on their ability to raise money. Not raising enough money early on can lead to problems later as donors are not willing to give funds to candidates they perceive to be losing, a perception based on their poor fundraising performance.
Also during this period, candidates travel around the area they are running in and meet with voters; speaking to them in large crowds, small groups, or even one-on-one. This allows voters to get a better picture of who a candidate is than that which they read about in the paper or see on television. Campaigns sometimes launch expensive media campaigns during this time to introduce the candidate to voters, although most wait until closer to election day.
Campaigns often dispatch volunteers into local communities to meet with voters and persuade people to support the candidate. The volunteers are also responsible for identifying supporters, recruiting them as volunteers or registering them to vote if they are not already registered. The identification of supporters will be useful later as campaigns remind voters to cast their votes.
Late in the campaign, campaigns will launch expensive television, radio, and direct mail campaigns aimed at persuading voters to support the candidate. Campaigns will also intensify their grassroots campaigns, coordinating their volunteers in a full court effort to win votes.
Voting in the United States often starts weeks before election day as mail-in ballots are a commonly used voting method. Campaigns will often run two persuasion programs, one aimed at mail-in voters and one aimed at the more traditional poll voters.
Campaigns for minor office may be relatively simple and inexpensive – talking to local newspapers, giving out campaign signs, and greeting people in the local square.
Political campaigns in the United States are not merely a civic ritual and occasion for political debate, but a multi-billion dollar industry, dominated by professional political consultants using sophisticated campaign management tools, to an extent far greater than elsewhere in the world. Though the quadrennial presidential election attracts the most attention, the United States has a huge number of elected offices and there is wide variation between different states, counties, and municipalities on which offices are elected and under what procedures. Moreover, unlike democratic politics in much of the rest of the world, the US has relatively weak parties. While parties play a significant role in fundraising and occasionally in drafting people to run, campaigns are ultimately controlled by the individual candidates themselves.
Other issues and criticisms
Cost of campaign advertising
American political campaigns have become heavily reliant on broadcast media and direct mail advertising (typically designed and purchased through specialized consultants). Though virtually all campaign media are sometimes used at all levels (even candidates for local office have been known to purchase cable TV ads), smaller, lower-budget campaigns are typically more focused on direct mail, low-cost advertising (such aslawn signs), and direct voter contact. This reliance on expensive advertising is a leading factor behind the rise in the cost of running for office in the United States. This rising cost is considered by some to discourage those without well-monied connections, or money themselves, from running for office.
Money is raised and spent not only by candidate’s campaign, but also by party committees, political action committees, and other groups (in the 2004 election cycle, much controversy has focused on a new category of organization, 527 groups). This is sometimes done through independent expenditures made in support or opposition of specific candidates but without any candidate’s cooperation or approval. The lack of an overt connection between a candidate and third party groups allows one side of a campaign to attack the other side while avoiding criticism for going negative. A memorable example are the Swift Boat Veterans who criticized John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential campaign.
Many political players and commentators agree that American political campaigns are currently undergoing a period of change, due to increased use of the internet (which has become a valuable fundraising tool) and the apparently declining effectiveness of television advertising.
However, as modern technology continues to adapt to changes in society, Internet campaigning will never be able to serve as a complete replacement for traditional political campaigning without reducing the significant barriers to entry. Internet political campaigning leaves out entire portions of each population because it only is accessible to a certain portion of the population, leaving those without this access disconnected.
For example, during Obama’s recent presidential campaign, Internet political campaigning was effective at reaching the younger population, as they remain engaged with social websites and new media. Because of the limits of technology, Obama’s Internet campaign failed to reach older generations who didn’t use this new media, as well as significant amounts of the population who didn’t have access.
Political campaigns have existed as long as there have been informed citizens to campaign amongst. Often mass campaigns are started by the less privileged or anti-establishment viewpoints (as against more powerful interests whose first resort is lobbying). The phenomenon of political campaigns are tightly tied to lobby groups andpolitical parties. The first ‘modern’ campaign is thought to be William Ewart Gladstone‘s Midlothian campaign in the 1880s, although there may be earlier recognizably modern examples from the 19th century.
Democratic societies have regular election campaigns, but political campaigning can occur on particular issues even in non-democracies so long as freedom of expression is allowed.
American election campaigns in the 19th century created the first mass-base political parties and invented many of the techniques of mass campaigning. In the 1790-1820s, the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party battled it out in the so-called “First Party System“.
Alternatives to campaigning
Not all democratic elections involve political campaigning. Indeed, some democratic elections specifically rule out campaigning on the grounds that campaigning may compromise the democratic character of the elections (Abizadeh 2005), perhaps because of campaigns’ susceptibility to the influence of money, or to the influence of special interest groups.
- Techniques and traditions
- General topics
- Abizadeh, Arash. “Democratic Elections without Campaigns? Normative Foundations of National Baha’i Elections.” World Order 37.1 (2005): 7-49.
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- Blewett, Neal. The Peers, the Parties and the People: The General Elections of 1910. London: Macmillan, 1972.
- Hix, S. The Political System of the European Union. St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
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- Katz, Richard S., and Peter Mair, “Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy: The Emergence of the Cartel Party,” Party Politics, Vol. 1, No. 1, 5-28 (1995) DOI: 10.1177/1354068895001001001 online abstract
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- Robert J. Dinkin. Campaigning in America: A History of Election Practice. Westport: Greenwood, 1989.
- John Gerring, Party Ideologies in America, 1828-1996. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
- Lewis L. Gould, Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans. NY: Random House, 2003.
- Gary C. Jacobson. The Politics of Congressional Elections (5th Edition) NY: Longman, 2000.
- Richard Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888-1896. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.
- L. Sandy Meisel, ed. Political Parties and Elections in the United States: An Encyclopedia New York: Garland, 1991.
- Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed. History of American Presidential Elections. 4 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1971.
- James A. Thurber, Campaigns and Elections American Style. NY Westview Press; 2nd edition, 2004.
- Kirsten A. Foot and Steven M. Schneider, Web Campaigning. The MIT Press, 2006.
- Bruce A. Bimber and Richard Davis, Campaigning Online: the Internet in U.S. Elections. Oxford UP, 2003.