Kris Seago
Government/Political Science
Material Type:
Full Course
Academic Lower Division
Austin Community College
  • ACC Liberal Arts
    Creative Commons Attribution
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    Learning Objective

    By the end of this section, you should be able to:

    • Explain the key elements and phases of political campaigns and elections

    Primary Versus General Campaigns

    Although candidates have the same goal for primary and general elections, which is to win, these elections are very different from each other and require a very different set of strategies. Primary elections are more difficult for the voter. There are more candidates vying to become their party’s nominee, and party identification is not a useful cue because each party has many candidates rather than just one. In the 2016 presidential election, Republican voters in the early primaries were presented with a number of options, including Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, and more. (Huckabee, Christie, and Fiorina dropped out relatively early.) Democrats had to decide between Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley (who soon dropped out). Voters must find more information about each candidate to decide which is closest to their preferred issue positions. Due to time limitations, voters may not research all the candidates. Nor will all the candidates get enough media or debate time to reach the voters. These issues make campaigning in a primary election difficult, so campaign managers tailor their strategy.

    First, name recognition is extremely important. Voters are unlikely to cast a vote for an unknown. Some candidates, like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, have held or are related to someone who held national office, but most candidates will be governors, senators, or local politicians who are less well-known nationally. Barack Obama was a junior senator from Illinois and Bill Clinton was a governor from Arkansas prior to running for president. Voters across the country had little information about them, and both candidates needed media time to become known. While well-known candidates have longer records that can be attacked by the opposition, they also have an easier time raising campaign funds because their odds of winning are better. Newer candidates face the challenge of proving themselves during the short primary season and are more likely to lose. In 2016, both eventual party nominees had massive name recognition. Hillary Clinton enjoyed notoriety from having been First Lady, a U.S. senator from New York, and Secretary of State. Donald Trump had name recognition from being an iconic real estate tycoon with Trump buildings all over the world plus a reality TV star via shows like The Apprentice. With Arnold Schwarzenegger having successfully campaigned for California governor, perhaps it should not have surprised the country when Trump was elected president.

    Second, visibility is crucial when a candidate is one in a long parade of faces. Given that voters will want to find quick, useful information about each, candidates will try to get the media’s attention and pick up momentum. Media attention is especially important for newer candidates. Most voters assume a candidate’s website and other campaign material will be skewed, showing only the most positive information. The media, on the other hand, are generally considered more reliable and unbiased than a candidate’s campaign materials, so voters turn to news networks and journalists to pick up information about the candidates’ histories and issue positions. Candidates are aware of voters’ preference for quick information and news and try to get interviews or news coverage for themselves. Candidates also benefit from news coverage that is longer and cheaper than campaign ads.

    Getting out the vote

     Campaign managers know that to win an election, they must do two things: reach voters with their candidate’s information and get voters to show up at the polls.

    To accomplish these goals, candidates and their campaigns will often try to target those most likely to vote. Unfortunately, these voters change from election to election and sometimes from year to year. Primary and caucus voters are different from voters who vote only during presidential general elections. Some years see an increase in younger voters turning out to vote. Elections are unpredictable, and campaigns must adapt to be effective.

    This new reality has dramatically increased the number of politically inexperienced candidates running for national office. In 2012, for example, eleven candidates ran multistate campaigns for the Republican nomination. Dozens more had their names on one or two-state ballots.

    With a long list of challengers, candidates must find more ways to stand out, leading them to espouse extreme positions or display high levels of charisma. Add to this that primary and caucus voters are often more extreme in their political beliefs, and it is easy to see why fewer moderates become party nominees. The 2016 primary campaign by President Donald Trump shows that grabbing the media’s attention with fiery partisan rhetoric can get a campaign started strong. This does not guarantee a candidate will make it through the primaries, however.

    Because candidates want to achieve name recognition and visibility, campaign ads in primary elections rarely mention political parties and instead focus on issue positions or name recognition. Many of the best primary ads help the voters identify issue positions they have in common with the candidate. In 2008, for example, Hillary Clinton ran a holiday ad in which she was seen wrapping presents. Each present had a card with an issue position listed, such as “bring back the troops” or “universal pre-kindergarten.”

    In a similar, more humorous vein, Mike Huckabee gained name recognition and issue placement with his 2008 primary ad. The “HuckChuck” spot had Chuck Norris repeat Huckabee’s name several times while listing the candidate’s issue positions. Norris’s line, “Mike Huckabee wants to put the IRS out of business,” was one of many statements that repeatedly used Huckabee’s name, increasing voters’ recognition of it. While neither of these candidates won the nomination, the ads were viewed by millions and were successful as primary ads.

    Chuck Norris speaks at a rally for Mike Huckabee in College Station, Texas
    Figure 8.5 In February 2008, Chuck Norris speaks at a rally for Mike Huckabee in College Station, Texas. (Image credit: modification of work by “ensign_beedrill”/Flickr)

    General campaigns also try to get voters to the polls in closely contested states. In 2004, realizing that it would be difficult to convince Ohio Democrats to vote Republican, George W. Bush’s campaign focused on getting the state’s Republican voters to the polls. The volunteers walked through precincts and knocked on Republican doors to raise interest in Bush and the election.

    Volunteers also called Republican and former Republican households to remind them when and where to vote. The strategy worked, and it reminded future campaigns that an organized effort to get out the vote is still a viable way to win an election.

    Convention Season

    Once it is clear who the parties’ nominees will be, presidential and gubernatorial campaigns enter a quiet period. Candidates run fewer ads and concentrate on raising funds for the fall. This is a crucial time because lack of money can harm their chances. The media spends much of the summer keeping track of the fundraising totals while the political parties plan their conventions. State parties host state-level conventions during gubernatorial elections, while national  parties host national conventions during presidential election years.

    Party conventions are typically held between June and September, with state-level conventions earlier in the summer and national conventions later.

    Conventions normally last four to five days, with days devoted to platform discussion and planning and nights reserved for speeches. Local media covers the speeches given at state-level conventions, showing speeches given by the party nominees for governor and lieutenant governor, and perhaps important guests or the state’s U.S. senators. The national media covers the Democratic and Republican conventions during presidential election years, mainly showing the speeches. Some cable networks broadcast delegate voting and voting on party platforms. Members of the candidate’s family and important party  members generally speak during the first few days of a national convention, with the vice-presidential nominee speaking on the next-to-last night and the presidential candidate on the final night. The two chosen candidates then hit the campaign trail for the general election. The party with the incumbent president holds the later convention, so in 2016, the Democrats held their convention after the Republicans.

    Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, opens the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, on August 28, 2012
    Figure 8.6 Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, opens the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, on August 28, 2012 (a). Pageantry and symbolism, such as the flag motifs and political buttons shown on this Wisconsin attendee’s hat (b), reign supreme during national conventions. (credit a, b: modification of work by Mallory Benedict/PBS NewsHour)

    here are rarely surprises at the modern convention. Thanks to party rules, the nominee for each party is generally already clear. In 2008, John McCain had locked up the Republican nomination in March by having enough delegates, while in 2012, President Obama was an unchallenged incumbent and hence people knew he would be the nominee. In 2016, both apparent nominees (Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump) faced primary opponents who stayed in the race even when the nominations were effectively sewn up—Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Ted Cruz—though no “convention surprise” took place. The naming of the vice president is generally not a surprise either. Even if a presidential nominee tries to keep it a secret, the news often leaks out before the party convention or official announcement. In 2004, the media announced John Edwards was John Kerry’s running mate. The Kerry campaign had not made a formal announcement, but an amateur photographer had taken a picture of Edwards’ name being added to the candidate’s plane and posted it to an aviation message board.

    Despite the lack of surprises, there are several reasons to host traditional conventions. First, the parties require that the delegates officially cast their ballots. Delegates from each state come to the national party convention to publicly state who their state’s voters selected as the nominee.

    Second, delegates will bring state-level concerns and issues to the national convention for discussion, while local-level delegates bring concerns and issues to state-level conventions. This list of issues that concern local party members, like limiting abortions in a state or removing restrictions on gun ownership, are called planks, and they will be discussed and voted upon by the delegates and party leadership at the convention. Just as wood planks make a platform, issues important to the party and party delegates make up the party platform. The parties take the cohesive list of issues and concerns and frame the election around the platform. Candidates will try to keep to the platform when campaigning, and outside groups that support them, such as super PACs, may also try to keep to these issues.

    Third, conventions are covered by most news networks and cable programs. This helps the party nominee get positive attention while surrounded by loyal delegates, family members, friends, and colleagues. For presidential candidates, this positivity often leads to a bump in popularity, so the candidate gets a small increase in favorability. If a candidate does not get the bump, however, the campaign manager has to evaluate whether the candidate is connecting well  with the voters or is out of step with the party faithful. In 2004, John Kerry spent the Democratic convention talking about getting U.S. troops out of the war in  Iraq and increasing spending at home. Yet after his patriotic and positive convention, Gallup recorded no convention bump and the voters did not appear more likely to vote for him

    Techniques and Strategies

    Campaigns have always been expensive. Also, they have sometimes been negative and nasty. The 1828 “Coffin Handbill” that John Quincy Adams ran, for instance, listed the names and circumstances of the executions his opponent Andrew Jackson had ordered (Figure 8.7). This was in addition to gossip and verbal attacks against Jackson’s wife, who had accidentally committed bigamy when she married him without a proper divorce. Campaigns and candidates have not become more amicable in the years since then.

    A negative ad featuring a coffin from the 1828 Presidential election
    Figure 8.7 The infamous “Coffin Handbill” used by John Quincy Adams against Andrew Jackson in the 1828 presidential election.


    Once television became a fixture in homes, campaign advertising moved to the airwaves. Television allowed candidates to connect with the voters through video, allowing them to appeal directly to and connect emotionally with voters. While Adlai Stevenson and Dwight D. Eisenhower were the first to use television in their 1952 and 1956 campaigns, the ads were more like jingles with images. Stevenson’s “Let’s Not Forget the Farmer” ad had a catchy tune, but its animated images were not serious and contributed little to the message. The “Eisenhower Answers America” spots allowed Eisenhower to answer policy questions, but his answers were glib rather than helpful.

    John Kennedy’s campaign was the first to use images to show voters that the candidate was the choice for everyone. His ad, “Kennedy,” combined the jingle “Kennedy for me” and photographs of a diverse population dealing with life in the United States.

    Link to Learning

    The Museum of the Moving Image has collected presidential campaign ads from 1952 through today, including the “Kennedy for Me” spot mentioned  above. Take a look and see how candidates have created ads to get the voters’ attention and votes over time.

    Over time, however, ads became more negative and manipulative. In reaction, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, or McCain–Feingold, included a requirement that candidates stand by their ad and include a recorded statement within the ad stating that they approved the message. Although ads, especially those run by super PACs, continue to be negative, candidates can no longer dodge responsibility for them.

    Candidates are also frequently using interviews on late night television to get messages out. Soft news, or infotainment, is a new type of news that combines entertainment and information. Shows like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight make the news humorous or satirical while helping viewers become more educated about the events around the nation and the world. In 2008, Huckabee, Obama, and McCain visited popular programs like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien to target informed voters in the under-45 age bracket. The candidates were able to show their funny sides and appear like average Americans, while talking a bit about their policy preferences. By fall of 2015, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert had already interviewed most of the potential presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump.

    The Internet

    The Internet has given candidates a new platform and a new way to target voters. In the 2000 election, campaigns moved online and created websites to distribute information. They also began using search engine results to target voters with ads. In 2004, Democratic candidate Howard Dean used the Internet  to reach out to potential donors. Rather than host expensive dinners to raise funds, his campaign posted footage on his website of the candidate eating a turkey sandwich. The gimmick brought over $200,000 in campaign donations  and reiterated Dean’s commitment to be a down-to-earth candidate. Candidates also use social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to interact with supporters and get the attention of younger voters.

    You Might Be Wondering...

    How can I stop getting inundated with texts, emails, and other political spam from political campaigns? 

    Find out from Texplainer at the Texas Tribune!

    A collection of campaign mail
    Figure 8.8 Image Credit: Judith E Bell License: CC BY
    Political Campaigns: Crash Course Government and Politics


    General Elections and Election Day

    The general election campaign period occurs between mid-August and early November. These elections are simpler than primaries and conventions, because there are only two major party candidates and a few minor party candidates.

    About 50 percent of voters will make their decisions based on party membership, so the candidates will focus on winning over independent voters and visiting states where the election is close. In 2016, both candidates sensed shifts in the electorate that led them to visit states that were not recently battleground states. Clinton visited Republican stronghold Arizona as Latino voter interest surged. Defying conventional campaign movements, Trump spent many hours over the last days of the campaign in the Democratic Rust Belt states, namely Michigan and Wisconsin. President Trump  ended up winning  both states and industrial Pennsylvania by narrow margins, allowing him to achieve a comfortable majority in the Electoral College.

    Debates are an important element of the general election season, allowing  voters to see candidates answer questions on policy and prior decisions. While most voters think only of presidential debates, the general election season sees many debates. In a number of states, candidates for governor are expected to participate in televised debates, as are candidates running for the U.S. Senate. Debates not only give voters a chance to hear answers, but also to see how candidates hold up under stress. Because television and the Internet make it possible to stream footage to a wide audience, modern campaign managers understand the importance of a debate.

    Sailors on the USS McCampbell, based out of Yokosuka, Japan, watch the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney on October 4, 2012
    Figure 8.9 Sailors on the USS McCampbell, based out of Yokosuka, Japan, watch the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney on October 4, 2012.

    In 1960, the first televised presidential debate showed that answering questions well is not the only way to impress voters. Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, prepared in slightly different ways for their first of four debates.

    Although both studied answers to possible questions, Kennedy also worked on the delivery of his answers, including accent, tone, facial displays, and body movements, as well as overall appearance. Nixon, however, was ill in the days before the debate and appeared sweaty and gaunt. He also chose not to wear makeup, a decision that left his pale, unshaven face vulnerable. Interestingly, while people who watched the debate thought Kennedy won, those listening on radio saw the debate as more of a draw.

    Insider Perspective: Inside the Debate

    Debating an opponent in front of sixty million television voters is intimidating. Most presidential candidates spend days, if not weeks, preparing. Newspapers and cable news programs proclaim winners and losers, and debates can change the tide of a campaign. Yet, Paul Begala, a strategist with Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, saw debates differently.

    In one of his columns for CNN, Begala recommends that candidates relax and have a little fun. Debates are relatively easy, he says, more like a scripted program than an interview that puts candidates on the spot. They can memorize answers and deliver them convincingly, making sure they hit their mark. Second, a candidate needs a clear message explaining why the voters should pick him or her. Is he or she a needed change? Or the only experienced candidate? If the candidate’s debate answers reinforce this message, the voters will remember. Third, candidates should be humorous, witty, and comfortable with their knowledge. Trying to be too formal or cramming information at the last minute will cause the candidate to be awkward or get overwhelmed. Finally, a candidate is always on camera. Making faces, sighing at an opponent, or simply making a mistake gives the media something to discuss and can cause a loss. In essence, Begala argues that if candidates wish to do well, preparation and confidence are key factors.

    Is Begala’s advice good? Why or why not? What positives or negatives would make a candidate’s debate performance stand out for you as a voter?

    While debates are not just about a candidate’s looks, most debate rules contain language that prevents candidates from artificially enhancing their physical qualities. For example, prior rules have prohibited shoes that increase a candidate’s height, banned prosthetic devices that change a candidate’s physical appearance, and limited camera angles to prevent unflattering side and back shots. Candidates and their campaign managers are aware that visuals matter.

    Debates are generally over by the end of October, just in time for Election Day. Beginning with the election of 1792, presidential elections were to be held in the thirty-four days prior to the “first Wednesday in December.” In 1845, Congress passed legislation that moved the presidential Election Day to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and in 1872, elections for the House of Representatives were also moved to that same Tuesday. The United States was then an agricultural country, and because a number of states restricted voting to property-owning males over twenty-one, farmers made up nearly 74 percent of voters. The tradition of Election Day to fall in November allowed time for the lucrative fall harvest to be brought in and the farming season to end. And, while not all members of government were of the same religion, many wanted to ensure that voters were not kept from the polls by a weekend religious observance. Finally, business and mercantile concerns often closed their books on the first of the month. Rather than let accounting get in the way  of voting, the bill’s language forces Election Day to fall between the second and eighth of the month.

    The Electoral College

    Once the voters have cast ballots in November and all the election season madness comes to a close, races for governors and local representatives may be over, but the constitutional process of electing a president has only begun.

    One of the reasons this is important to Texas is that the state carries the second largest share of the number of electors after California. Currently, Texas has 38 electoral votes and has seen the number of electors increase steadily for decades. Also, Texas is considered a red state in that it tends to vote for the Republican candidate. So, in terms of the role of Texas in presidential elections the state adds considerable weight to any candidate who can secure the state's electors. The electors of the Electoral College travel to their respective state capitols and cast their votes in mid-December, often by signing a certificate recording their vote. In most cases, electors cast their ballots for the candidate who won the majority of votes in their state. The states then forward the certificates to the U.S. Senate.

    The number of Electoral College votes granted to each state equals the total number of representatives and senators that state has in the U.S. Congress or, in the case of Washington, DC, as many electors as it would have if it were a state. The number of representatives may fluctuate based on state population, which is determined every ten years by the U.S. Census, mandated by Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution. For the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, there are a total of 538 electors in the Electoral College, and a majority of 270 electoral votes is required to win the presidency.

    Once the electoral votes have been read by the president of the Senate (i.e., the vice president of the United States) during a special joint session of Congress in January, the presidential candidate who received the majority of electoral votes  is officially named president. Should a tie occur, the sitting House of Representatives elects the president, with each state receiving one vote. While this rarely occurs, both the 1800 and the 1824 elections were decided by the House of Representatives. As election night 2016 played out after the polls closed, one such scenario was in play for a tie. However, the states that Hillary Clinton needed to make that tie were lost narrowly to Trump. Had the tie occurred, the Republican House would have likely selected Trump as president anyway.

    As political parties became stronger and the Progressive Era’s influence shaped politics from the 1890s to the 1920s, states began to allow state parties rather than legislators to nominate a slate of electors. Electors cannot be elected officials nor can they work for the federal government. Since the Republican and Democratic parties choose faithful party members who have worked hard for their candidates, the modern system decreases the chance they will vote differently from the state’s voters.

    There is no guarantee of this, however. Occasionally there are examples of faithless electors. In 2000, the majority of the District of Columbia’s voters cast ballots for Al Gore, and all three electoral votes should have been cast for him. Yet one of the electors cast a blank ballot, denying Gore a precious electoral vote, reportedly to contest the unequal representation of the District in the Electoral College. In 2004, one of the Minnesota electors voted for John Edwards, the vice-presidential nominee, to be president and misspelled the candidate’s last name in the process. Some believe this was a result of  confusion rather than a political statement. In the 2016 election, after a campaign to encourage faithless electors in the wake of what some viewed as controversial results, there were seven faithless electors: four in the state of Washington, two in Texas, and one in Hawaii. The electors’ names and votes are publicly available on the electoral certificates, which are scanned and documented by the National Archives and easily available for viewing online.

    In forty-eight states and the District of Columbia, the candidate who wins the most votes in November receives all the state’s electoral votes, and only the electors from that party will vote. This is often called the winner-take-all system. In two states, Nebraska and Maine, the electoral votes are divided. The candidate who wins the state gets two electoral votes, but the winner of each congressional district also receives an electoral vote. In 2008, for example, Republican John McCain won two congressional districts and the majority of the voters across the state of Nebraska, earning him four electoral votes from Nebraska. Obama won in one congressional district and earned one electoral vote from Nebraska. In 2016, Republican Donald Trump won one congressional district in Maine, even though Hillary Clinton won the state overall. This Electoral College voting method is referred to as the district system.

    Midterm Elections

    Presidential elections garner the most attention from the media and political elites. Yet they are not the only important elections. The even-numbered years between presidential years, like 2014 and 2018, are reserved for congressional elections—sometimes referred to as midterm elections because they are in the middle of the president’s term. Midterm elections are held because all members of the House of Representatives and one-third of the senators come up for reelection every two years.

    During a presidential election year, members of Congress often experience the coattail effect, which gives members of a popular presidential candidate’s party an increase in popularity and raises their odds of retaining office. During a midterm election year, however, the president’s party often is blamed for the president’s actions or inaction. Representatives and senators from the sitting president’s party are more likely to lose their seats during a midterm election  year. Many recent congressional realignments, in which the House or Senate changed from Democratic to Republican control, occurred because of this reverse-coattail effect during midterm elections. The most recent example is the 2010 election, in which control of the House returned to the Republican Party after two years of a Democratic presidency.

    References and Further Reading

    Jennifer L. Lawless. 2012. Becoming a Candidate: Political Ambition and the Decision to Run for Office. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox. 2010. It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office. Revised Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Harold Meyerson, "Op-Ed: California’s Jungle Primary: Tried it. Dump It," Los Angeles Times, 21 June 2014.

    Josh Putnam, "Presidential Primaries and Caucuses by Month (1976)," Frontloading HQ (blog), February 3, 2009.

    William G. Mayer and Andrew Busch. 2004. The Front-loading Problem in Presidential Nominations. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution.

    Joanna Klonsky, "The Role of Delegates in the U.S. Presidential Nominating Process," Washington Post, 6 February 2008.

    "Party Affiliation and Election Polls," Pew Research Center, August 3, 2012.

    Shanto Iyengar. 2016. Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide, 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton.

    Paul Begala. 1 October 2008. “Commentary: 10 Rules for Winning a Debate.”

    2nd Congress, Session I, "An Act relative to the Election of a President and Vice President of the United States, and Declaring the Office Who Shall Act as President in Case of Vacancies in the Offices both of President and Vice President,"Chapter 8, section 1, image 239.

    28th Congress, Session II. 23 January 1845. "An Act to Establish a Uniform. Time for Holding Elections for Electors of President and Vice President in all the States of the Union," Statute II, chapter 1, image 721.; 42nd Congress, Session II, "An Act for the Apportionment of Representatives to Congress among the Several Sates According to the Ninth Census." Chapter 11, section 3,

    Donald Ratcliffe. 2013. "The Right to Vote and the Rise of Democracy, 1787–1828," Journal of the Early Republic 33: 219–254; Stanley Lebergott. 1966. "Labor Force and Employment, 1800–1960," In Output, Employment, and Productivity in the United States after 1800, ed. Dorothy S. Brady. Ann Arbor, Michigan:

    National Bureau of Economic Research, "Presidential Popular Vote Summary for All Candidates Listed on at Least One State Ballot. [PDF]." (November 7, 2015).

    Licensing and Attribution


    American Government. Authored by: OpenStax. Provided by: OpenStax; Rice University. Located at: License: CC BY: Attribution. License Terms: Download for free at 8795-c48329947ac2@1.

    Adaption and Remix, and Original Content. Authored by: Deborah Smith Hoag. Provided by: Austin Community College. Located at: Project: Achieving the Dream Grant. License: CC BY: Attribution

    Adaptation and Remix: The Path to Nomination. Authored by: John Osterman. License: CC BY: Attribution