Political Campaign

Political Campaign

Political Campaign


Political Campaign, organized effort by a political party or candidate for public office to attract the support of voters in an election. Political campaigns play an important role in the education and mobilization of citizens in most democracies.

Political Campaign

In the United States, campaigns precede every election and often begin many months or even years before the election. To launch and operate a successful campaign, candidates first organize a network of committed campaign workers, both volunteer and professional. They also establish a fund-raising apparatus to finance organizational, travel, polling, and advertising expenses. Hired consultants amass voting and polling data that enable candidates to assess in specific terms the electorate’s needs, hopes, fears, and past behavior. Finally, campaigns develop media and advertising strategies for communicating the image and message of the candidate.

Until the mid-20th century, political campaigns depended heavily on armies of campaign workers assembled by political parties. This style of campaigning fostered intense levels of loyalty to party organizations. Voters typically supported entire slates of candidates backed by a political party. During the second half of the 20th century, the strength of political parties in the United States declined. As a result, voter loyalty to parties diminished and campaigns began to center more upon the candidates themselves. Organizational strategies changed as well. Campaigns now rely more on communications technologies than the efforts of party foot soldiers.


Modern political campaigning includes five basic elements: (1) professional public relations, (2) polling, (3) the broadcast media, (4) direct mail, and (5) the Internet. These elements all make use of techniques drawn from the worlds of marketing and advertising to mobilize voter support.

A Professional Public Relations

Hired campaign consultants typically direct modern political campaigns. These individuals have taken the place of the political bosses and party chiefs who masterminded campaigns during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most campaign consultants now specialize in politics, although some also come from the ranks of corporate advertising and public relations. Campaign consultants conduct public opinion polls, produce television commercials, organize direct-mail campaigns, and develop the issues and advertising messages the candidate will use to mobilize support. Some consultants have become powerful political figures in their own right. For example, President George W. Bush’s political consultant, Karl Rove, became a major force in the Bush administration, helping shape the president’s political agenda as well as his campaign.

B Polling

Surveys of voter opinion provide the raw material of modern political campaigns. Political consultants use this information to run campaigns that closely resemble the efforts of businesses to market products. Polling data help candidates and their staff’s select issues, assess their own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of the opposition and measure the responsiveness of constituent groups to campaign appeals. Bill Clinton made extensive use of polling in his presidential campaigns and employed a number of pollsters to measure public responses to his policy initiatives during his tenure as president.

C The Broadcast Media

As in any well-formulated advertising campaign, political candidates use the media to increase their exposure to the public. In the modern campaign, extensive use of radio and television has supplanted direct appearances on the campaign trail. The most commonly used broadcast technique is the television spot advertisement. Spot ads, which may last from 15 to 60 seconds, emphasize issues and personal qualities that appear important in the poll data. These ads attempt to establish candidate name identification, create a favorable image of the candidate and a negative image of the opponent, link the candidate with desirable groups in the community, and communicate the candidate’s stands on selected issues. Spot ads often make use of “sound bites,” short, punchy statements from the candidate designed for voters to remember. Spot ads also may have a negative slant, seeking mainly to criticize the opponent. Well-known examples of successful negative ads include the 1988 “Willie Horton” ad of George H. W. Bush, accusing Bush’s opponent, Michael Dukakis, of coddling criminals, and the 1964 ad of Lyndon Johnson that suggested his opponent, Barry Goldwater, would lead the United States into nuclear war.

Presidential campaigns in the 1990s introduced four new media venues for candidates: the talk show interview, the “electronic town hall meeting,” the “infomercial,” and World Wide Web sites. Television and radio talk shows enable candidates to address a vast audience without the presence of journalists or commentators who might criticize or question their assertions. Maverick presidential candidates Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan favored this setting in their campaigns. In 1992, for example, Perot announced his candidacy for the presidency to the nation on the cable television talk show “Larry King Live.” Similarly, the televised town meeting format allows candidates to appear in a hall and interact directly with ordinary citizens, thus underscoring their concern for the views and needs of voters, while simultaneously reaching viewers across the nation. In the 1992 presidential campaign, the ability of Bill Clinton to connect empathetically with citizens enabled him to make effective use of the nationally televised town meeting.

The infomercial is a lengthy televised broadcast, often lasting 30 minutes. Although designed to have the appearance of a news program, it is actually a presentation of the candidate’s views. Ross Perot and Steve Forbes, both wealthy businessmen, purchased airtime for infomercials in their election campaigns.

Perhaps the most dramatic use of the broadcast media in contemporary politics remains the televised debate. Televised presidential debates began with the 1960 clash between Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy and Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Kennedy’s strong performance in the debate contributed directly to his victory over Nixon, who had been a clear favorite to win the election. In a similar vein, critical comments by pundits, coupled with a widespread public perception that Democratic Vice President Al Gore was rude to his opponent during the 2000 presidential debates, contributed to Gore’s defeat by Republican presidential candidate, George W. Bush. Today, presidential and vice-presidential candidates hold debates, as do candidates for statewide and even local office. Televised debates, which sometimes command the attention of millions of viewers, can increase the visibility of lesser-known candidates and allow candidates to reach voters who have not fully made up their minds about the election.

D Direct Mail

Candidates also make extensive use of direct-mail campaigns as a way both to raise funds and to communicate with voters. Campaigns use advanced database technologies to target mailings at voters who seem likely to support a candidate because of their party ties, interests, or ideology. Candidates purchase or rent computerized mailing lists of voters and send pamphlets, letters, and brochures to people on the list, describing their views and appealing for funds. National, state, and local candidates raise tens of millions of dollars each year through direct-mail solicitations. Individual donations in these campaigns typically average from $25 to $50. Republican Party candidates have been especially effective in their use of direct mail both to mobilize support and to raise funds from voters.

E The Internet

Since the late 1990s, parties and candidates have begun to make extensive use of the Internet as a campaign medium. Most major candidates maintain Web sites that provide biographical data, the candidates’ positions on major issues, endorsements from prominent supporters, and other campaign materials. Citizens visiting a candidate’s Web site can also learn how to become involved with the campaign and make financial contributions. Often, candidates’ supporters also sponsor Weblogs, or Blogs, touting the candidate’s virtues, and they participate in the Internet “chats” on behalf of their candidate. In 2000 U.S. Senator John McCain used his Web site to mobilize volunteers and raise funds for his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination. In the 2004 presidential race, former Vermont governor Howard Dean made the Internet a major campaign vehicle, raising about $40 million in campaign funds through online appeals in 2003.

Many observers believed that passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 would increase the use of the Internet for fundraising. The law restricted contributions that could be made to political parties, making it necessary to raise money from individuals who could donate no more than $2,000 to each candidate per election. The Internet platform enabled candidates to reach large numbers of people and to solicit funds at relatively low cost. Some observers estimated that candidates could recover 98 percent of a donation made through Web sites because of low overhead. See also Electoral Reform.


Historically, political parties representing the aspirations of working-class constituencies gained an edge in campaigns through their ability to mobilize and organize large masses of people. For this reason, the weakening of party organizations and the move toward capital- and technology-intensive modes of campaigning have shifted the balance of power from working-class voters to those with more money.

Small, professional staffs employing expensive and sophisticated communications techniques now perform the tasks of raising funds and mobilizing voters, activities once performed by thousands of party workers. In a national race, candidates often spend millions of dollars on media time, polls, and consultants. In the 2000 presidential campaign, costs totaled more than $2 billion.

Capital- and technology-intensive campaigns emphasize the impact of money in politics and help those politicians who speak for wealthier, generally more conservative constituents. The Republican Party has consistently raised more money to finance its campaigns than the Democratic Party. Conservative activists in the Republican Party, most notably Richard Viguerie, also pioneered many of the political techniques now employed by candidates of both parties, especially the use of direct mail.

One exception to this rule is the Internet, which provides candidates with an inexpensive way to raise large amounts of money in small contributions. In 2003 and 2004, for example, Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean used the Internet to raise millions of dollars in small contributions from supporters across the nation. Dean, however, went down in defeat in the Democratic primaries. Thus far, at least, the Internet has not offset the conservative bias inherent in the other elements of technological politics.

Many European politicians who represent conservative constituencies have copied the capital- and technology-intensive methods of American campaigns. A number of American political consultants have shown European conservative politicians how to make use of polling, direct mail, and the broadcast media. In Europe, this phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the “Americanization” of politics.

Political Campaign

Contributed By:
Benjamin Ginsberg