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.

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