In the general election, a number of landmarks lead the way to Election Day: the traditional Labor Day kick-off, the ad campaign, September debate negotiations, the debates themselves, and a grueling last ditch effort as the candidates go all out to win over a few more voters in key states.  Charges and countercharges fly; excitement builds.  While all this is happening, the campaigns are operating with one goal in mind: 270.  Two hundred-and-seventy electoral votes is the number needed to win, and major party presidential campaigns deploy their resources accordingly.

Contrasting Visions or Chasing Dollars and Trivial Pursuit?

Ideally the general election campaign would provide a stage for discussion of the major challenges facing the country and for presentation of competing approaches and ideas for addressing those challenges.  The candidates would set out their priorities and give a sense of how they would govern.  An effective general election campaign not only gets the candidate elected, but sets him or her on a path to governing.

In reality, however, the fall campaign is oftentimes not particularly edifying.  First of all, the candidates do spend quite a bit of time fundraising.  Secondly, it is a lot easier to resort to familiar bromides than to address complicated issues such as the national debt (+), entitlement reform or income stagnation. 

Much attention in the general election is devoted to defining the opponent in unfavorable terms.  Charges and countercharges fly.  Seemingly trivial episodes, incidents and gaffes are elevated by the campaigns and the media, while major issues go unaddressed.  One recalls the hubbub around Mitt Romney's "47-percent" remarks in the 2012 campaign or George H.W. Bush's attacks on Michael Dukakis as a "card-carrying member of the ACLU" in the 1988 campaign.  2016 revolved around a never ending series of Trump controversies.  Clinton and her campaign sought to portray Trump as unfit and dangerous, while Trump and his campaign daily prosecuted the case against "Crooked Hillary."  The Republican campaign also suggested that the Democrat ticket would amount to a third term of the Obama administration, while the Democratic campaign suggested that the Republican ticket was extremist and would take the country backwards. 

Already one can predict the outlines of an extremely unsatisfying 2020 general election campaign.  Barring the unforseen, Trump will be the nominee and he and Republicans will likely highlight the strong economy and portray the Democratic nominee as an out-of-touch socialist who wants to raise taxes and open the borders.  The Democratic nominee, whoever he or she is, will face the challenge of how and how much to engage Trump.  The portrayal of Trump as unfit and a danger to our democracy did not work in 2016.  Was that the fault of the message or the messenger?  Will the experience of the last several years make a difference?

General Election Campaign Gets Underway

One could argue that President Trump has been running for re-election since the day he was inaugurated.  His campaign has the advantage of not having to go through divisive primaries, while the Democratic challenger will have to retool his or her campaign from primary to general election mode.  In a real sense, the general election campaign will begin once it is clear who the major party nominees are, and if there are any third party or independent candidates who could affect the outcome.  Once a candidate has garnered enough delegates to secure the nomination, the presumptive nominee turns his or her attention to the goal of obtaining 270 electoral votes in November.  Trump may do something different, but generally major party nominees move toward the middle, toning down more extreme elements of their messages. The Democratic campaign will start to add staff and advisors, place a few top people at the DNC and build out organizations in key states.  The super PACs—America First Action supporting Trump and Priorities USA Action supporting the Democratwill start to weigh in.  On July 16, 2020 the Democratic Convention in Milwaukee wraps up, while the Republican Convention in Charlotte ends 42 days later on Aug. 27.  The national conventions makes the nominations official and, if all goes well, provide a "bounce" for the respective tickets. 
 

Battleground/Swing States and Other States

A campaign must determine how best to spend the resources it has available; these include staff, advertising, and candidate and surrogate visits.  In some states the campaign will "play hard" or even "play very hard."  These contested states receive frequent visits by the candidate, his or her spouse, the vice presidential candidate, and surrogates, and the campaign makes serious ad buys in them.  At the other extreme, some states are essentially written off as unwinnable; they receive minimal resources.  A battleground state is one in which both campaigns are investing significant resources (staff, candidate and surrogate visits and advertising).  Recent campaigns have revolved around about nine or ten battleground states; the list can vary over time and depending upon to whom one is talking.  One can start with the closest states from 2016.  Trump carried four of the five closest states, all big ones: Michigan (0.3%), Wisconsin (1%), Pennsylvania (1.2%) and Florida (1.2%), while Clinton squeaked out a win in New Hampshire (0.4%).

As the weeks progress, a campaign may upgrade or downgrade a state's importance as it becomes more or less competitive.  A campaign needs to have devised several "paths to 270" in the event that some of its states do not gel as the campaign draws to a close.   

Travel by the Principals in the 2016 General Election Campaign [Final Week]

June  July  Aug.  Sept.  Oct. Nov.
 By State
 Former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton
x x
>>
 Donald Trump
x
x
>>
 Sen. Tim Kaine


 Gov. Mike Pence


 Former Gov. Gary Johnson


x
x x x

 Dr. Jill Stein


x
x x x

also Bill, Chelsea, Obama/Biden








Rationale, Methodology and Limitations







map
                        

Selected states in detal:
AZ | CA
| CO   DC   FL  GA   IL   IA   ME  MA   MI   MN   MO   NV    NH    NY   NC   OH   PA   TX   VA | WI
 
Travel by the Principals in the 2012 General Election Campaign [Final Week]

April May June  July  Aug.  Sept.  Oct. Nov.
By State
 Pres. Barack Obama
x x
x x x

>
 First Lady Michelle Obama
x x
x x x

>
 Vice President Joe Biden x x
x x x

>
 Former Gov. Mitt Romney  x
x x x

 Ann Romney 




x
x x

>
 Rep. Paul Ryan



x
x x x

>
 Gary Johnson


x
x
x
x x x


 Jill Stein


x
x
x
x x


Rationale, Methodology and Limitations








map
                          NOTE: These links will take you to P2012.org; use the "BACK" button to return here.

Selected states in detail:
AZ | CA
| CO | DC | FL | GA | IL | IA | MA | MI | MN | NV | NH | NJ | NY | NC | OH | PA | TX | VA | WI

Travel by the Principals in the 2008 General Election Campaign

June  July  Aug.  Sept.  Oct./Nov.
 By State
 Sen. John McCain
x
x
x
x
x

>
 Gov. Sarah Palin


x
x
x

>
 Cindy McCain x







 Todd Palin x






 Sen. Barack Obama
x
x
x
x
x

>
 Sen. Joe Biden

.
x
x
x

>
 Michelle Obama


x
x
x


 Jill Biden x







Rationale, Methodology and Limitations






Ralph Nader
                         NOTE: These links will take you to P2008.org; use the "BACK" button to return here.

Selected states in detail: CO | FL | IA | IN | MI | MN | MO | MT | NV | NM | NC | OH | PA | VA | WV | WI
More states: CA | NH | NJ | NY | TX | WA

Base Voters, Mobilizable Voters and Undecided Voters

Once a campaign has decided it will contest a particular state, it does not blindly throw resources in.  In presidential elections a significant share who turn out will vote for the Republican candidate no matter what and another significant share will vote for the Democrat no matter what.  However, while some voters reliably turn out election after election, there are also voters who are clearly partisan in their leanings but do not turn out every election; they need extra motivation and attention.  Campaigns have increasingly come to focus on this group, called variously mobilizable, low propensity, low engagement or infrequent voters.  Using data and analytics, modeling and micro-targeting, the campaigns can identify these voters and try to motivate them to turn out.  Finally, there are the undecided or persuadable voters.  The idea is that with the right message the campaign can persuade these voters to support the candidate.  Persuadable voters have assumed somewhat mythic status; in Oct. 2012 Slate asked "Dear Undecided Voter: Do You Exist?"


For a campaign, the electorate can be divided into several groups: (1) the base, who are for the candidate almost automatically; (2) mobilizable, low propensity or low engagement voters who need more attention; (3) undecided voters who can be persuaded by the right message; (4) the opposition, who will turn out against the candidate; and (5) the quiescent opposition, who will turn out against the candidate if sufficienty riled up.  In the fall, much of the campaign's resources are directed to groups 2 and 3.  Then, in the closing weeks, the campaign makes a substantial effort to mobilize its base supporters (group 1).

Campaign stops are scheduled in media markets with high concentrations of mobilizable or persuadable voters.  In addition to the candidates themselves, a wide variety of surrogates trek through, ranging from family members to political figures to minor celebrities.  People in targeted areas and groups can also expect to see a lot of political ads and other campaign communications and may find a campaign office close by.  Campaigns also tailor their messages to specific constituencies through coalition or outreach efforts, seeking to connect to women, Hispanics, youth and so forth.  Further into the fall newspapers start making endorsements, and the campaigns make sure to highlight those.

Campaigns must consider not only where and how but when they will disburse their resources.  Due to increased early and absentee voting, there is not just one "Election Day."  The beginning of early voting in those states that have it and, later, the approach of Election Day prompt the campaigns to redouble their efforts to mobilize supporters.  Phone-banking, precinct-walking, instant messaging and targeted messages on social media are staples of get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts.

Campaign Finance

Although there is a system of federal funding for the presidential general election, recent campaigns have opted to forego federal funds so they can raise and spend more money.  (The general election grant, established by the Federal Election Campaign Act, comes with a spending limit; this started out at $20 million in 1974 and has been adjusted for inflation since.  In 2016 both the Clinton and Trump campaigns declined the general election grant which would have limited spending to $96.14 million). 

The 2020 race will be expensive.  A Campaign Finance Institute summary shows that from July 1-Dec. 30, 2016 the Clinton campaign and joint fundraising committees reported total receipts of $336.3 million compared to $309 million for the Trump campaign and joint fundraising committees. 

In addition to the money raised and spent by the campaigns, the national parties are allowed to spend a fixed amount advocating the election of their nominees (the limit for coordinated party expenditures in 2016 was $23.8 million).  The parties are also free to make independent expenditures supportive of their nominees. 

The campaigns and the parties are not the only players on the field.  Super PACs and other outside groups spend tens of millions of dollars.  Court rulings in Citizens United (Jan. 21, 2010) and SpeechNow.org (March 26, 2010) made super PACs possible, opening up what some termed a "Wild West" of campaign spending.  Super PACs and other groups spend heavily on independent expenditures mostly attacking the opposing candidate.  The Campaign Legal Center charged that  in 2016 "the campaigns of the presidential candidates of both major parties are involved in unprecedented coordination with super PACs in violation of the law (+)"  As noted above, the biggest players are expected to be Priorities USA Action and America First Action.

The Modern Campaign

Presidential campaigns have grown increasingly sophisticated.  Although the Trump campaign in 2016 was not well organized in many aspects, its data and social media effort proved  the key to his success (>).  Building on 2016 one can expect to see relatively more spending social media and less on TV advertising in 2020.  At the same time, the experience of the 2016 Clinton campaign provides a cautionary note on the limitations of data and analytics.  In a Nov. 9 article, The Washington Post's John Wagner provided an overview of Ada, a computer algorithm that "was said to play a role in virtually every strategic decision Clinton aides made" (>).  The Obama re-election campaign in 2011-12 set the standard for a data-driven campaign; campaign manager Jim Messina placed a major emphasis on metrics.  "This campaign has to be metric driven.  We're going to measure every single thing in this campaign," he stated in an April 2011 campaign video.  The campaign was constantly modeling and testing.  Will this message work with low engagement voters?  Is this person likely to donate?  To volunteer?  The reason for this approach was simple.  Data allows the campaign to use its time and money more wisely.  

Field Organization

In the Fall Democratic presidential campaigns have traditionally featured a massive ground game with numerous field offices, field organizers, and volunteer neighborhood team leaders, which significantly outmatches the organization on the Republican side.  Certainly that was true in 2016.  However for 2020 the Trump campaign and the RNC have a head start as they have been building their organization in close cooperation over many months.  Once the Democratic nominee is determined, he or she will have to hope that the DNC has built a strong and resilient foundation on which to run.

[On a technical note, the field organization on the ground in a given state is typically carried out by a coordinated campaign or Victory campaign which is funded by the state party and the national party and seeks to elect party officials up and down the ticket].

Paid Media

Much of the money raised by the campaigns goes into paid media, particularly television advertising.  Traditionally campaigns have put together ad teams which includes both political and Madison Avenue talent.  Based on polling data, the themes the campaign wants to stress will have been identified.  The ad team generates ideas to convey those themes, and produces spots which are then tested in focus groups, and, hopefully, approved by the campaign management.  However, the work does not stop with an ad "in the can" and approved; careful planning is required to ensure that the ads are seen by the target audience.  The demographic watching "60 Minutes" differs markedly from that watching "Judge Judy."  It is left to media planners, juggling GRPs and dayparts, to put together ad buys.   In addition to ads from campaigns, super PACs and interest groups add their voices to the mix.

Radio is an effective way to reach some audiences, for example during drive-time.  Because of its lower profile radio is sometimes used to deliver negative messages.  Persuasion mail and phone calls also convey the campaigns' negative messages.  Magazine and newspaper advertising can be very effective, but are not used much.

The campaigns are also giving more and more attention and resources to advertising on Facebook and other social media and to online advertising.  This can be a very effective way to reach specific demographic groups in  specific areas or states.  As with TV advertising, for online advertising digital ad buyers try to reserve premium spaces such as on popular news sites. 


Free (Earned) Media

While paid media has long drawn attention because of the amount of resources devoted to it and because it can be relatively easy to identify ("Paid for by...), campaigns also strive for earned media and social media buzz.  Earned media means the campaign does an event that makes the national news or the front page of the newspaper or is picked up by a blogger.  Trump through his use of Twitter and the constant controversies surrounding him excels in earned media.

Social media can be more effective than paid media.  If a friend or acquaintance sends you a message saying, "Hey, look at this interesting graphic or video from the X campaign," that is likely to have more impact than a 30-second spot glimpsed on the TV.  The campaigns have staff busy tweeting, posting on Facebook, developing infographics and sending out emails.  In the lead up to the election campaigns also have volunteers sending out text messages to people's cell phones.  Unlike paid media, the scope and effectiveness of these efforts is difficult for outside observers to measure.

Worst Campaign Ever?

The 2016 presidential campaign may not have been the worst in American history, for there were some fairly dirty campaigns in the 19th century, but it was a nasty affair.  Clinton and Trump were two of the most unpopular nominees in decades.  It was "Crooked Hillary" and the dangerous, unfit Donald Trump.  At the close of the campaign the RealClearPolitics poll average put Trump at 58.5 percent unfavorable, 37.5 percent favorable (+21.0) Clinton at 54.4 percent unfavorable, 41.8 favorable (+12.6).  Trump's continual insults and denigrations of individuals and groups set a tone (+).  At the same time Trump appeared disinterested in the nuances of policy, instead repeating the same slogans and catch phrases at rally after rally throughout the campaign.  Too often the discourse focused on the latest Trump controversy rather than the clash of ideas.   More than half of American adults viewed the 2016 presidential election as a significant source of stress (+).  There is little to suggest that 2020 will be better.



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