Candidates & Campaigns

Every political campaign consists of three essential ingredients: a candidate, an organization and money. To be successful, a campaign must generally have a good candidate, an adequate organization and sufficient resources to make the campaign go. If a campaign is seriously lacking in any one of these three areas, it is in trouble (unless, of course, the opposing campaign is even worse off). Given the choice of a first-rate organization, ample monetary resources or a superb candidate, almost every campaign professional would take the superb candidate. Skilled, effective, attractive candidates can usually raise all the money they need and organizations can be built around them. Making a good candidate out of an ordinary one, however, is difficult to do even with unlimited resources.

Aside from these broad generalizations, it is difficult to say with any precision what works in a political campaign and what does not. Professional campaign consultants and veteran politicians have a pretty good idea of what kinds of things will help a candidate win and what kinds of things might make them lose, but this is experiential, intuitive knowledge which is not easily converted into a generalizable model of campaign success or failure. Indeed, because every candidate, campaign and election is so unique, it has proven difficult for researchers to provide a general account of the characteristics and activities of political campaigns that effect election outcomes. (PHOTO at left: Richard Nixon at a Campaign Rally )

Perhaps the greatest difficulty in assessing the effectiveness of political campaigns is that it is impossible to compare alternative strategies. A campaign must choose a strategy and then implement it. It is impossible to turn back the clock and try a different strategy under precisely the same conditions in which the other strategy was applied. Consequently, claims that a particular campaign strategy was the "best" one available can be neither substantiated nor disproved.

Defining Campaign Success

When an individual decides to run for political office, designing the perfect campaign and putting together the ideal campaign organization are secondary concerns, at best. What candidates really care about is winning. The formula for winning is simple--a candidate must win more votes on election day than the other candidates who are running for the same office. In most cases, the general election, the one that determines the final winner, is contested between two candidates, a Republican and a Democratic nominee for the position. In a two-person race, winning requires the support of exactly half of the voters plus one. Securing at least that much support on election day is the only real reason campaigns exist.

Campaign strategy

While it seems obvious that the primary goal of a political campaign is to win 50% of the votes plus one, many candidates and their campaigns are sidetracked by secondary concerns. Again, the way a campaign is organized is an important concern, but should be worried about only to the extent that doing so forwards the underlying, fundamental goal of the campaign: winning.

Repetitive, persuasive communication with likely voters

If winning is the ultimate goal of a political campaign, the most important instrumental goal is repetitive, persuasive communication with likely voters. A political campaign is like a commercial advertising campaign in many ways. The candidate is the product being "sold," voters are the customers, but instead of their money, a campaign tries to secure their vote. To secure a voter's support, a campaign must communicate a favorable message about its candidate to voters clearly and often enough that the voter becomes committed to the candidate and compelled to vote for him or her on election day.

Unlike product advertising campaigns, however, political campaigns are geared toward a single "purchasing" day. All of the potential "customers" must turn out and "buy" on the same day. Because time is limited, campaigns must use their resources wisely, focusing on those voters who are most likely to support the campaign's candidate and who are likely to turn out to vote. In fact, there are some voters that are so likely to support a candidate that he or she is wise to spend as little time with them as possible. For example, a Republican can generally count on 70 to 80% of Republicans to vote for him or her. These people comprise the candidate's "base." Every candidate's opponent also has a base that he or she can count on. The voters in the middle, those who are independent or undecided, are the "opportunity" group that a campaign, after solidifying its base, generally spends most of its time trying to reach.

Message Content

While every campaign will necessarily emphasize different issues or candidate traits in its campaign communications, every campaign has (or should have) five distinct communications objectives.

  1. The campaign must establish voter familiarity with the candidate's name. Voters are unlikely to vote for someone they have never heard of, so a candidate must take the time to introduce him or herself to the people.
  2. Once a reasonable level of visibility has been achieved, the next objective for the campaign is to get the people thinking about the candidate in connection with the office for which he or she is running.
  3. Perhaps even at the same time, the campaign should also be conveying information about selected candidate attributes, such as leadership ability or trustworthiness, as well as the candidate's positions on important issues.
  4. Along the way the campaign should seek to distinguish the candidate from his or her opponent. All of this comes together in the most important communication objective of all. When a voter thinks about the candidate, a question should come to his or her mind and the answer to that question should strongly motivate them to vote for the candidate on election day.
  5. Indeed, one of the most important components of a campaign is not conversion, but mobilization--getting a candidate's supporters out the door and to the ballot box on election day.

For example, when Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter in 1980, the most important question raised by Reagan's campaign was: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" At the time, the nation was in a recession and America was facing serious crises in the international arena. The Reagan campaign rightly assumed that most Americans would answer the question "no." The obvious implication of such an answer was that Carter should not be reelected--voters should instead make Ronald Reagan the next President. The campaign strategy was overwhelmingly successful and Reagan won by a landslide.

The Medium for the Message

With modern technological advances such as cable and satellite television, the personal computer and the Internet, candidates and their campaigns have more communication options available to them than ever before. Through survey research and careful analysis, a campaign can identify the issues and ideas that matter most to the people in a candidate's base and opportunity group. It can then choose the best delivery vehicle for carefully targeted campaign messages.

While money spent on television advertisements account for the bulk of campaign spending in congressional and presidential elections, creative campaigns can communicate with voters in a wide variety of less-expensive ways. For example, most well-designed campaigns include plans to "earn" media coverage for the campaign by staging newsworthy campaign events. Candidates engage in a variety of activities that are primarily aimed at getting them on the local television news. Examples of such activities include a candidate "working" a different job a day among his or her prospective constituents or a candidate walking or riding around the entire constituency.

While technology has changed the way candidates use their campaigns to communicate with voters, campaigns are, in many ways, basically unchanged. As the photos (right) of Franklin Roosevelt and George Bush campaigning from trains illustrate, the primary business of a political campaign is communicating with the people to win their support. That invariably requires a candidate to go where the people are. Candidates can and must use every effective means available to them to do so if they hope to win the trust, confidence and votes of the people.