The General Election Campaign

Today’s general election contest is an elaborate production, with the candidates and their supporters crisscrossing the country and blanketing the airwaves with poll-tested political commercials.

With the primaries and the conventions behind them, the goal of the presidential candidates during the fall is to appeal to as many different kinds of people in as many different ways as possible. To accomplish this in a country where more than 200 million individuals are eligible to vote is a staggering task. It requires an effective national organization, enormous discipline on the part of the candidates and their campaigns, and large numbers of staff and volunteers, not to mention a great deal of money.

Campaign Strategy: A Shift to the Center

The fall brings with it a number of strategic decisions for the candidates and their campaign organizations. But perhaps the most important decision facing the candidates as they approach the general election season is how to refine their message so it resonates with a majority of the American electorate.

Why tinker with a message that worked fine in the primaries? Because in the primaries the candidates were appealing to voters of their own parties, but now they are trying to connect with a much larger audience. This means they need to adopt a more mainstream message, a message with broad appeal, beyond the party faithful.

“Shifting to the center,” as it is called, is often a tightrope walk for the candidates, because they don’t want to offend their primary supporters or make it appear as though they are abandoning their earlier commitments.

Campaign Strategy: Targeting a Candidate’s Appeal

At the same time that the candidates have to reach out to a broad cross section of the American electorate, they must also decide how to target their campaigning for maximum effect. Because of the limited amounts of time and money available to candidates, it simply isn’t possible for them to wage a full-fledged campaign in every state or among all voters. This means that the candidates have to focus on specific states and regions that they feel will be decisive in determining the winner of the election.

For a well-run campaign, that means keeping your eye on the Electoral College votes required to win the election. It also means that the candidates have to target their appearances and their advertising to specific groups of voters. To help cover the many places they can’t visit, candidates rely on state and local party organizations to generate interest in the campaign and turn out the vote.

Targeting Key States…

Under the Electoral College system, almost all of the states award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, so that the candidate who receives the most popular votes in a state receives all of that state’s electoral votes.

Candidates devote their energies to the largest states that they feel they have a chance of winning. At the same time, they tend to make only token appearances in states where they are assured of victory, while conceding those states where their chances are slim. The candidates generally focus their campaigning on “swing states” that could go either way in the presidential election.

…And Swing Voters…

Just as there are swing states, there are also swing voters—individuals who don’t necessarily vote along party lines or whose votes are still up for grabs. With the number of independent voters a sizeable 10 to 12 percent of the American electorate in recent years, presidential campaigns have focused on attracting the support of this all-important group.

…Without Ignoring Your Base

The importance of swing states and swing voters doesn’t mean the candidates can ignore their most loyal supporters; in fact, they do so at their peril. For the candidates, the parties, and independent organizations, a major focus as Election Day approaches is to organize comprehensive get-out-the-vote (GOTV) campaigns that bring loyal voters to the polls.

Campaign Tactics: The Candidates in Control

The Federal Election Campaign Act, which establishes the rules for presidential campaign financing, requires candidates to create national organizations to handle campaign contributions and expenditures. As campaigns have grown more complex, these campaign organizations have become more professional, relying on political consultants, media experts, and pollsters to plot strategy and provide information and advice. The campaign generally has a close relationship with the national party, with the presidential campaign playing the dominant role.

A finely tuned and cohesive campaign organization can make the difference in steering a candidate to victory.

Campaign Tactics: A Little Help from My Friends

The candidates and their organizations aren’t alone in waging their campaigns, however. The political parties and other groups play very important roles in promoting their candidates of choice. After the campaign organizations themselves, the parties are the most important players.

Campaign Tactics: Four Campaigns at Once

Today’s presidential candidates essentially wage four campaigns at the same time. The first is the grassroots campaign. While the candidates themselves have little direct involvement in it, national campaign staff help to give it direction. It includes hundreds of local campaign headquarters and party organizations, from which volunteers and a few paid staff reach out into local communities. They register voters, make phone calls, send out mail, help friendly voters apply for absentee ballots, put up signs, do door-to-door canvassing, and get-out-the-vote on Election Day. While each of these activities is small in scale, when multiplied by thousands, their combined impact can carry a state.

The second level of campaigning is “on the ground,” and includes all of the candidate’s appearances and speeches, as well as the appearances throughout the country of key supporters, from the candidate’s spouse and children to the vice presidential nominee, Hollywood celebrities, and prominent party leaders. The on-the-ground campaign is tightly controlled by the candidate’s campaign organization, with advance teams scoping out locations, rounding up enthusiastic, cheering crowds, and creating compelling visuals for television by placing the candidate before a dramatic backdrop and distributing truckloads of banners, signs, and American flags among the crowd.

The third campaign in which the candidates are engaged is an on-the-air battle of radio and television commercials. This advertising is the most expensive line item in the campaign budget—an estimated one-third of the more than $2.6 billion spent on the 2012 presidential campaign. The advertising gives the candidates massive nationwide exposure that they couldn’t possibly achieve on the ground. It takes the campaign directly into voters’ living rooms and allows the candidates to project a fine-tuned, poll-tested image.

The fourth and newest arena consists of the fast-evolving online world of the Internet. This includes candidate websites and their presence on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, as digital advertising strategies, as well as campaign blogs (which also means monitoring the flow of messages in the blogosphere and responding quickly to them).