Campaigning in America Today: The Role of Campaigns in U.S. Presidential Elections

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2000 24 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of Contents


1. The Development of Politics and Campaigning in the U.S
1.1 The Reasons of Change – What led to the Political Upheaval in the U.S.?
1.2 The Results of Change

2. Planning the Campaign: Recruitment, Organization, and Strategy
2.1 Recruitment of the Candidate
2.2 Getting the Campaign Started: Setting up an Organization
2.3 First Steps Towards Success: Developing a Strategy

3. How to Win the Election I: Presenting the Candidate
3.1 The Information Cycle in Campaigning
3.2 Perception and Marketing of the Candidate
3.3 Entertainment, Negative Campaigning, and Dirty Tricks
3.4 The Role of the Media
3.5 The Effects of the Debates

4. How to Win the Election II: Issues, Influences, and Rules
4.1 Position Issues and Valence Issues
4.2 Issues that are Important
4.3 Three Types of Issue Appeals
4.4 External Influences and Rules of Campaigning

5. Campaigning for the Presidential Election in 1992
5.1 Before the Nominating Convention
5.2 The Final Stage: The General Election Campaign
5.3 The Reasons for Bill Clinton’s Success

6. The Effects of Campaigns: Do the Make a Difference?
6.1 Arguments for Campaign Effects
6.2 Arguments against Campaign Effects
6.3 Conclusion

7. Bibliography


There is no aspect of contemporary American politics more criticized than the modern political campaign: it provides too little information for the voter, the amount of money spent is too high, there is no thoughtful discussion of issues, and campaign organizers will reach to the very edge of acceptable practices to find some way of appealing to the voters.

These are some of the elements that are responsible for the growing disgust for election campaigns and the decline in political interest. However the question is if campaigns really do have consequences for the election outcome or if their effect is rather limited. This paper will focus on the development of political campaigns, their strategy and planning, as well as on issues and the presentation of the candidate. The composition will further have a look on the campaign and election in 1992, on the actual effects the campaign has on the voter and consequently on the election outcome.

1. The Development of Politics and Campaigning in the U.S.

In the last two decades scholars perceived a change from old to new politics, including a significant modification in the nature of campaigns. In the last years the traditional party-oriented personal campaign has been largely replaced by the so-called candidate-centered, media-oriented campaign. The basic elements of campaigns changed dramatically because of increased nonvoting, the growth in the power of interest groups, and the power of the media. In national elections the expansion of the mass media campaign has led to a decline in the importance of party affiliation, while at the same time the party organizations themselves became more powerful.

1.1.The Reasons of Change -What led to the Political Upheaval in the U.S.?

For most of America’s history, campaigning was a party activity and campaigns were traditionally party-oriented. However since the 1960s the two major American parties have declined “and could no longer perform their essential functions: control nominations, frame the issues, control campaign money and personnel, and deliver the votes on election day.”[1] Democrats had fallen because of extensive reforms in their presidential nominating process and factional fighting while the Republicans had to oppose the Watergate scandal. With no respectable and reliable party organization existing, election campaigns focused primarily on candidates, their personalities, and their issues.

The Republicans, however, trying to improve their negative party organization image launched a multimillion-dollar national advertising campaign in the late 70s with the topic “Vote Republican. For a Change.” “These ads, the first national party-oriented advertising since Watergate, were placed in newspapers and magazines as well as on television and nationwide.”[2] In addition to this the party headquarters worked with the state parties to increase Republican registration and voting, supported by the development of computer records and models, which analyzed voter registration and turnout across the country.

During the 1980s the national party organizations could register an upturn: voter partisanship slowed while the parties played an increasing role in financing elections and campaigns. Finally in 1996 political parties had recovered:

Their organizations now recruited candidates, contributed money and steered contributions to campaigns, offered an array of professional services to candidates and campaigns, assisted sympathetic consultants and campaign managers, and helped develop campaign themes and strategies.[3]

1.2. The Results of Change

The purpose of the modern political campaign in the United States (and probably in any other state) is to get the citizens to make their ballot in support of or in opposition to a particular candidate. Menefee-Libey (2000) defines the term campaign as a “development of organizations and processes that mediate between citizens and those who would represent them in government”.[4] Accordingly the parties adapted to the modern technology and applied the major tools of the new-style campaign: Gallup polls, consultants, direct mail, radio, television and other details that will be explained later to get their message across to the public.

In today’s election campaigns the focus is rather on personal than political attributes of the candidates. Since neither television nor newspapers contribute much to the voters’ understanding of the different policy positions it is extremely unlikely that they will learn anything about the candidates governing capabilities. Resulting from that electoral success thus comes to depend more than ever on the personal attributes of the candidates and their ability to raise funds and exploit modern technologies. This means that today the importance of the message is not the message itself but rather on how this message is delivered and by whom it is brought to the people. However this does not imply that political viewpoints don’t

matter because they still do. But fact is that in these days the policy positions of Democrats and Republicans are closer than years before. Hence to some people casting the vote becomes an issue of sympathy and not of politics.

What has not changed and furthermore is essential for a successful campaign is the need to develop an explicit strategy, theme, and message that will appeal to the populace.

2. Planning the Campaign: Recruitment, Organization, and Strategies

As stated earlier the main purpose of a campaign is to convince the public to vote and to persuade the voter that a particular candidate will do a better job than the other. Consequently the party first of all has to find a qualified representative before organizing the campaign. Since campaigns evolved in the last thirty years into complex organizations with a team of professionals often outside the party organization, the candidate has to build up a net of experienced staff personnel that will undertake the planning of his campaign.

2.1. Recruitment of the Candidate

The recruitment of able leaders is a major function of a political party and crucial to its existence, therefore the final choice is the result of much testing and consultation. The party persuades good candidates to run as well as it screens out bad applicants. Aid is targeted only to those who are believed to be the most competitive: however one only obtains money from the party if able to convince them that one has a reasonable chance of winning. Conversely one would only have such a possibility with adequate funding available.

Altschuler (1996) sees recruitment as a five stage process:

“from the available pool of possibilities the party

(1) identifies those it may support (discovery)
(2) tests candidate support both within and outside the party organization (negotiation)
(3) makes a formal endorsement (sponsorship)
(4) mobilizes support for its candidate (campaign)
(5) lets the voter decide (election)[5]

2.2. Getting the Campaign Started: Setting up an Organization

At the beginning of each campaign a candidate faces three major tasks: the first is the development of an organization which involves the recruitment of a campaign manager and other staff as well as setting up a division of co-worker among them. Because the planning and execution of a presidential election campaign today implies such a complexity, every sector has its own crew and department chief. The whole team consists of a campaign manager who establishes the organization, campaign finance specialists, survey researchers, get-out-the-vote specialists, grassroots experts and in addition to that media buyers, television producers, schedulers, and so forth. Altogether these people evaluate the web of political circumstances surrounding their campaign taking objective economic and political facts, and the nature of voters into account. Beyond that they have to consider what financial and political resources are available and how to use them best. They have to arrange fund-raisers, distribute literature, send mailings, organize phone campaigns, canvassing, and polls. The second task is gathering information about the strengths and weaknesses of the potential opponent - these data is essential since a campaign is dynamic and in constant change, always acting and reacting to events and challengers. Thirdly it has to be decided how to present the candidate: which qualification will most appeal to the voters and should therefore be stressed? This is a very important decision since winning a campaign presupposes that the party representative activates latent support among sympathetic voters who are convinced by the appearance of the candidate and the values he stands for.

2.3. First Step Towards Success: Developing a Strategy

After that the organizers face the next difficulty, the development of a strategy and a plan within the political environment. Again Altschuler is subdividing the campaign strategy into four dimensions:

(1) dividing the electorate into three groups: supporters, opponents and the majority of voters generally uninterested in the campaign
(2) using political research to determine the voters that fall into each of the three groups
(3) targeting campaign resources to get the votes necessary to win the election; and
(4) identifying how to win the necessary numbers of voters by directing campaign resources (money, time, effort, message) to those key voters.[6]

The campaign consultants meanwhile also have the job to fabricate a message for their candidate, request and use campaign money, buy advertising and attempt to use free media, schedule candidates, organize and use field organization, use opposition research, and conduct survey research. Moreover they have to consider that the modern political campaign does attempt to add to the citizens civic education because many people use simple methods for deciding whom to vote for:

(1) partisanship
(2) localism and sectionalism
(3) friendship or business association
(4) single issues (e.g.: capital punishment)
(5) physicalappearance prejudice and bigotry

Accordingly the campaign staff has to provide little information, enough to appeal to the voters’ civic responsibility (it is my duty to vote) but not too much to bore them. From the standpoint of the campaign failure to provide this information is a mistake, yet issues and substance are only helpful or valuable if they somehow enhance the image and political of the candidate.

Having organized the campaign the candidate must now go out in search of votes.

3. How to Win the Election I: Presenting the Candidate

The American presidential campaign comprises almost two years, from the pre-announcement visits to the final election day. It means a lot of work for the campaign organization and long way to go for the candidates, who are always observed by the public, the media and their opponent. When starting a presidential election campaign the organizer have to plan everything in detail, from the distribution to the perception of the candidate.

3.1. The Information Cycle in Campaigning

In the early part of summer relatively little campaign information is generated but it rises in time of the party nomination. Then, between the Democratic and the Republican convention the level of data subsides, it follows a brief period of decline after the second convention but generally increases during the fall campaign. The nominating conventions are party conventions held during the presidential election year: the party members gather to draft a platform and nominate presidential as well as the vice presidential candidate. Today the conventions are criticized as being “nonevents” by some people because most of the substantial decisions have already been made. Additional criticism results from the modification of the platforms: while they were once built for the parties who then choose a representative, the platforms of today are adjusted to the candidate. Nevertheless conventions are held during a period when they are most likely to have an effect on the public view towards the candidate. Usually they receive great coverage from the media, which offers the party the opportunity to present the candidate and its image to the population. In general the press coverage is favorable during this period of campaigning, consequently the Republicans as well as the Democrats can expect a bounce in public support. The general election cam-paign, however, does traditionally not heat up until late summer when getting closer to the election.


[1] David Menefee-Libey, The Triumph of Campaign-Centered Politics (New York: Seven Bridges Press, LLC, 2000), 2.

[2] Ibid., 95.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Ibid., 4

[5] Bruce E. Altschuler, Running in Place: A Campaign Journal (Chicago: Capital City Press Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1996) 4.

[6] Altschuler: Running in Place: A Campaign Journal, 5f.

[7] Holbrook, Do Campaigns Matter?, 57.


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Campaigning America Today Role Campaigns Presidential Elections Making President



Title: Campaigning in America Today: The Role of Campaigns in U.S. Presidential Elections