Presidential election campaigns follow a set of familiar steps, from the early maneuvering and testing-the-waters activities in the pre-campaign period to frenetic last-ditch efforts of the party nominees in the fall.  Each presidential campaign occurs in, and is shaped by, a unique historical context.

Considering the Field of Play

Beyond the temperaments, leadership abilities, and characters of the candidates, one must also consider the context, or playing field on which a campaign is fought, for this sets broad bounds within which the candidates and their organizations must operate.  Events, social and economic conditions, cultural tendencies (+), technology, and rules and laws governing the election process all combine to create a political landscape which may advantage or disadvantage one or another of the candidates.  The historical context in which a campaign is waged impacts its substance, pushing various domestic and foreign issues into greater or lesser prominence.  Further, since our presidential election campaigns are so long, the terrain can change somewhat even during the course of one election cycle.  From the impeachment of President Trump to the coronavirus pandemic to the killing of George Floyd by police, the 2020 campaign is occurring under extraordinary circumstances.


Consider the communications environment.  The technologies a campaign can use to reach voters are constantly developing as are the means by which voters receive information.  In the past, the whistlestop tour may have been the best way to communicate with voters.  More recently the 30-second television spot was the preferred currency.  Now the Internet and social media (+) have assumed an increasingly important role, and more and more people keep in touch with events using their smartphones or other devices.  Campaigns devote increasing resources to data and analytics to determine how to craft and target their messages.  They must also take into account a news ecosystem which has changed dramatically in the past decade.  The rise of the Internet has drained revenue from traditional media, causing outlets to slash newsroom jobs and forcing some newspapers to close altogether.  New news outlets nevertheless continue to pop up, and the blogosphere provides a robust and vibrant source of information and sometimes misinformation.

Laws and Rules

There is clearly room for improvement in American election campaigns, including presidential campaigns.  Our campaigns, while long and expensive, often fall short in producing substantive discussion of issues.  Campaigns seem more geared to scoring points and lining the pockets of consultants than addressing problems facing the country or community.  The major parties' processes for choosing their presidential nominees place a premium on the ability to raise money in the year before the election as much as on ideas, experience and leadership capability.  Individuals who might make excellent presidents may choose to self-select out rather than enduring the grind of a presidential campaign.  One wonders whether an Abraham Lincoln or a Theodore Roosevelt-type candidate would even be electable in the modern era.

The conduct of federal elections is governed by rules set out in Title 11 of the Code of Federal Regulations (>) (Federal Election Commission), by state laws (>), and by rules of the political parties.  These laws and rules have evolved over time.  For example, one area that has drawn considerable attention at the state level in recent years is voter ID laws (>). 

Laws and rules governing campaign finance have undergone significant change in the last decade, leading to a "Wild West" period.  The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United (Jan. 2010) ended the ban on corporations and unions making independent expenditures.  The DC Circuit Court decision in (March 2010) expanded the impact of Citizens United.  Now super PACs "can raise unlimited sums from corporations, unions and other groups, as well as wealthy individuals."  More recently in McCutcheon (April 2014), the Supreme Court struck down aggregrate contribution limits to federal candidates and committees.  The system of partial public financing of presidential campaigns has completely fallen by the wayside.  (The 2020 Democratic primariy campaign nonetheless did show the limits of money as the two self-funding billionaires, Steyer and Bloomberg achieved meager results for their investments).

Party rules are important as well.  Following the contentious 2016 Clinton-Sanders primary campaign, the Democratic National Committee established a Unity Reform Commission, which recommended a number of changes to make the party's nominating process more open and transparent (12)Following the 2020 campaign Democrats will likely engage in another review of their nominating process and rules, in light of questions raised about the appropriateness of the Iowa caucuses first in the nation position in an increasing diverse America.  On the Republican side, movement was toward a more controlled process.  President Trump had firm control of the Republican party and the party apparatus worked, effectively, to discourage potential challengers (+).  

Polarization and Dissatisfaction

In recent years the United States appears to be an increasingly polarized nation, divided into "red" and "blue."  For example, following the 2018 midterms in every state but one, Minnesota, one party controlled both chambers of the state legislature. Partisan bickering and gridlock seem very much the order of the day; dysfunctional government, where ideologues dominate the discourse and moderates are an endangered species, has meant that critical issues ranging from the deficit to infrastructure needs to immigration reform remain unresolved.  President Trump's chaotic leadership style has not helped matters.  Dysfunction was on full display during the 36-day partial government shutdown that took place through late Jan. 2019. 

There are many plausible explanations for the polarization.  An argument can be made that sharp divisions go right back to the early days of the Republic and that gridlock is built into the system.  Another line of reasoning points to the fragmented media universe which now enables citizens to get their news and information primarily or exclusively from ideological or "self-reinforcing" sources, contributing to rigid and narrow viewpoints (1, 2).  Many argue that big money is distorting our system.  The professionalization of politics, from the proliferation of lobbyists to the ubiquitous role of consultants to the attack ads and mailers to the widespread use of polls, may be jamming the works.  Sophisticated redistricting practices have led to fewer competitive districts, reducing the number of moderate voices.  Numerous ideas have been put forth to reform Congress and bring the institution into the 21st century, ranging from biennial budgeting to more interparty communication.  Another diagnosis comes from Philip K. Howard, author of "The Rule of Nobody," who argues, "Rules have replaced leadership in America.  Bureaucracy, regulation, and outmoded law tie our hands and confine policy choices."  Howard calls for sunseting and simplification of laws to restore responsibility.  Roots of divisiveness can also be traced to the battle over Florida following the 2000 presidential campaign, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and even Watergate.  Ultimately, much as our nation's monuments need to be refurbished from time to time, so too our democratic institutions must be updated and modernized. 

Regardless of the cause(s), evidence of dissatisfaction is clear.  In recent decades voters increasingly are chosing to register as independents or non-affiliated rather than align with the two major political parties.  Survey after survey shows the low regard citizens hold for Congress.  Trump's election in 2016 was a result of discontent with the system, and grew out of the Tea Party movement.  Countering Trump is the Resistance, presaged in 2011-12 by the Occupy Wall Street movement. 

The Political Landscape in 2020
President Trump's polarizing performance has set the stage for the 2020 campaign.  Trump's re-election campaign was fully up and running by mid-2019, touting a list of accomplishments including many focused on the growth of the economy (1, 2, 3).  Trump has survived controversy after controversy (1, 2, 3); his base and Republican leaders have provided firm, unwavering support through the Mueller investigation (1, 2, 3) House Democrats' oversight efforts (+), and the impeachment inquiry, trial and acquital (+).  One suspected that at some point the proverbial chickens would come home to roost but that has not happened.  Trump is the presumptive nominee set to be formally anointed at the Republican National Convention in Charlotte and lead the party into the 2020 general election.

For Democrats, the question was how far left the party would go and whether there was any room for candidates with moderate or centrist tendencies.  Big ideas such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal (+) were popular with the Democratic electorate but could allow the GOP to portray Democrats as out of touch, advocates of big government, and socialists, potentially playing right into Republican hands.  For Democrats the broader discussion about whether "a more just form of capitalism" or a "moral capitalism" is possible and what that would look like took a back seat to the imperative of beating Trump. 

A first test came in the 2018 mid-term elections; voters dealt Republicans wide setbacks.

Change in Partisan Balance Following the 2018 Mid-terms



U.S. Senate 51R 47D
U.S. House 235R 193D 7v

Governorships 33R 16D 1I


State Legislatures 30R 15D 4 split + NE
1 split + NE PDF
                         The vacancy in the U.S. House is in NC-9 where Mark Harris (R) was not seated following reports of fraud.

As 2019 began the economy appeared to be doing well in terms a number of basic indicators such as unemployment and inflation, but the fight over a border wall, the ongoing possibility of a trade war (+), and predictions of an upcoming recession raised concerns.  

In "The Keys to the White House," Allan J. Lichtman, professor of history at The American University in Washington, D.C., identifies thirteen factors ("keys") which he argues determine whether the incumbent party will win or lose the White House.  Examples of the keys include the balance of seats in the House of Representatives, whether there is a contest for the incumbent party nomination, real per capita economic growth, and whether there has been a major military or foreign-policy success.  Lichtman argues that it is these factors, not all the speechifying and debates and ads, that determine the outcome.

Campaigning in a Time of Coronavirus  |  Voting in a Time of Coronavirus  |  Shaping the Narrative  |  Economic Relief  |  Reopening the Economy
 At the very end of 2019, a new challenge appeared in the form of an outbreak of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Wuhan, China.  By Jan. 20, 2020 the first case was reported in the United States.  A White House task force was formed on Jan. 27, on Jan. 31 President Trump signed a proclamation suspending entry of aliens, i.e. visitors or immigrants from China, and on Feb. 26 Trump announced Vice President Pence would lead the response.  For most Americans the outbreak was largely background news until the second week of March.  The World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic on Mar. 11.  Trump declared a national emergency on Mar. 13 (+), making billions of dollars available to states and localities.  On March 16 the administration announced "15 Days to Slow the Spread" guidelines.  In just a couple of weeks, the pandemic cast a deep shadow on the economy and society, effects ranging from cancelation of major sporting events such as March Madness and the suspension of the NBA season, to empty shelves in supermarkets, to shelter at home orders and social distancing, to the severe toll on so many small businesses and their employees. 

In the early weeks of March 2020, conventional wisdom was that the outbreak might continue for a few months to June or mid summer.  However, the New York Times reported a March 13 HHS report, U.S. Government COVID-19 Response Plan (>), which assumes, "A pandemic will last 18 months or longer and could include multiple waves of illness."  At one point Trump had suggested the country might return to normal by Easter, but in his March 29 briefing he said the administration would extend its guidelines to April 30th and "by June 1st, we will be well on our way to recovery (+)."  On April 16 the White House issued guidelines for reopening the economy in three phases.  State and local governments have begun to ease restrictions to varying degrees during May.  The death toll in the United States from the pandemic looks set to surpass 100,000 by the end of May. 

The focus here is the impact of the pandemic on the presidential campaign.  President Trump and his administration came under sharp criticism for their early handling of the of the outbreak, particularly for remarks downplaying its seriousness and the slow response on testing (1, 2); one commentator opined "the Trump presidency is over (+)."  Additionally, Trump had been basing his re-election campaign on the economy, which now faces a serious recession.  The crisis also presented an opportunity. Trump's televised briefings, where he and officials provided updates, achieved, as he noted, great ratings.  The images conveyed an impression of leadership, of action being taken, but the misinformation and missteps proved too much and he discontinued them in late April.  In May Trump led the push for reopening or "the great American comeback," but by mid-June the number of daily new coronavirus cases was rising to the highest levels yet seen.  Trump's sagging poll numbers led more and more pundits to downgrade his re-election prospects. 

On the Democratic side, the 2020 presidential primaries proceeded normally through Super Tuesday.  Several candidates presented proposals to address the outbreak as part of the ongoing primary campaign (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), but it was not a major concern.  By the second week in March the coronavirus outbreak had hit the campaign on many levels.  Early signs came when the Biden and Sanders campaigns canceled March 10 rallies in Cleveland and the DNC eliminated the audience for its March 15 debate and moved it from Phoenix to Washington, DC.  Campaign staff were directed to work from home.  Virtual events replace rallies and canvassing.  Coronavirus swept aside discussion of other issues.  For the March 17 contests election officials implemented measures to protect voters and poll workers, and more than ten states postponed their primaries.  Democrats were fortunate that most of the winnowing of their field occurred before the outbreak hit.  Democrats moved the date of their national convention in Milwaukee from July 13-16 to the week of Aug. 17, and are considering a range of scenarios; Republicans are moving ahead with their planning for Charlotte from Aug. 24-27. 

[World Health Organization  | Centers for Disease Control  |  Response and Recovery]

Many Challenges at Home and Abroad

Beyond the pandemic, America faces myriad and difficult challenges at home and abroad.  A couple of issues have pushed to the forefront. The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25 put a stark spotlight on questions of racial justice, set off unrest and protests, and is leading to some changes (1, 2).  Health care costs and the future of the Affordable Care Act remain top concerns (+). The list of issues is long: climate change, the national debt, the future of entitlement programs, middle class income stagnation, income inequality, the best approach to addressing poverty, a tax system still sorely in need of overhaul, immigration reform, and infrastructure in need of upgrading and repair.  Many of these are intractable and divisive and have been worsened by the pandemic, but they should be discussed and debated throughout the election cycle.  Given the polarization and divisiveness in the country, it is not surprising to hear calls for unity, but voters need to look beyond the rhetoric to the proposals of how to achieve that.  After all, Obama famously said, "There are no red states or blue states, just the United States," and George W. Bush pledged to be "a uniter, not a divider." 

The functioning of American democracy itself is an issue.  On top of sclerosis of national politics, the corrosive effects of misinformation and lies and the threat of outside interference (1, 2) pose real challenges.  The Washington Post reports that President Trump made 16,241 false or misleading claims during his first three years in the White House (>).  A report by Freedom House notes that, "Challenges to American democracy are testing the stability of its constitutional system and threatening to undermine political rights and civil liberties worldwide."  Freedom House reports that 2018 marked "the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom."  In the ever more interconnected world, foreign affairs cannot be ignored; tensions with China, Russia, North Korea or in the Middle East could flare up.  

By 2020 the U.S. will have an estimated population of 334.5 million, but, as the Brookings Institution notes, "The U.S. population growth rate of 0.62 percent for 2017-2018 is the lowest registered in 80 years (>)."  The increasingly diverse electorate is expected to favor Democrats (>).

Context in Recent Elections

2016 - Although Hillary Clinton did win the most votes, she was an unlikable candidate and her campaign made some key errors, allowing Donald Trump to slip in.  Gender may have been a factor, as many argue, but authenticity is so important in a presidential candidate and Clinton always came across as scripted and calculating.  Regardless of one's views of Trump, he was authentic.  The question here however is the context in which the election was fought.  First, Tea Party activism paved the way for Trump.  Then there were the Democrats.  The political map of the United States, a sea of red with dots of blue in urban areas, showed all too clearly Democrats' problem attracting support in rural areas.  Democrats were being shut out in the South.  And while they touted diversity, they were not speaking to white working class males who tipped the balance to Trump.  The 2016 election built on the 2014 midterms, which dealt the Democrats setbacks at every level; the party lost control of the Senate, fell short in governors' races, and lost between 300 and 350 state legislative seats, giving Republicans "their highest number of legislators since 1920."  Little wonder that the Democratic National Committee announced its own "top-to-bottom review" following the 2014 midterms (+).  One could also argue that after eight years of Obama, the pendulum swing favored the Republican nominee in 2016.  Excluding Harry Truman and LBJ, who both ascended to the White House following the deaths of the incumbent presidents, the last time a Democrat was elected on his own to succeed another Democrat occurred in 1856 when James Buchanan succeeded Franklin Pierce. 

2012 - The American economy remained sluggish throughout the 2012 cycle; signs of economic improvement proved fleeting, and the fallout from the 2008 economic collapse was significant.  For example, a Federal Reserve report found that from 2007-10 "median net worth fell 38.8 percent, and the mean fell 14.7 percent."  Meanwhile the national debt at the beginning of the election year, Jan. 1, 2012, stood at $15.2 trillion.  Republicans finally settled on former Gov. Mitt Romney as their nominee in large measure because of his business experience and "Mr. Fix It" reputation acquired at the helm of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.  Ultimately, changing demographics trumped economics in the 2012 campaign.  America is becoming an ever more diverse country, with growing Hispanic and Asian populations, and the Romney ticket fared poorly among those groups, in addition to being unable to shake the Democrats' "war on women" narrative.

2008 - The collapse of the housing bubble and the myriad ramifications of that collapse ultimately had the most telling effect on the outcome of the 2008 election.  The housing sector, which had been propelling economic growth, weakened markedly in 2007.  In March 2008 Bear Stearns collapsed and the Federal Reserve intervened.  By Sept. 2008 a full-scale economic crisis had developed, dominating the closing weeks of the election.  On Sept. 7 the federal government placed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into conservatorship.  Such was the seriousness of the situation that, even in the heat of the campaign, Congress managed to pass the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, a $700 billion financial rescue/bailout bill, which President Bush signed into law on Oct. 3.  Major fluctuations roiled financial markets.  For example, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 777.68 points (6.98%) on Sept. 29, 678.91 points (7.33%) on Oct. 9, and 733.08 points (7.87%) on Oct. 15, while gaining 936.42 points (11.08%) on Oct. 13 and 889.35 points (10.88%) on Oct. 28.  President George W. Bush's job approval ratings hovered around 30-percent throughout the election year.

2004 - The 2004 election in essence was about national security.  The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 had burned into the national psyche.  Within a month anthrax letters spread further anxiety to the extent that people were afraid to open their mail.  Increased security led to a new set of realities including long lines at airports and unsightly barricades around some public buildings.  President George W. Bush's popularity soared with the successful prosecution of the war in Afghanistan; his job approval reached 92 percent in October 2001 and was still at 83 percent in late January 2002.  The focus shifted to Iraq, and by the summer months of 2002 there was much speculation in the press and political circles about a possible war to force a "regime change" in Iraq, and about what form such a war would take and when it would come.  On March 19, 2003, having failed to gain the backing of the U.N. Security Council, the United States, backed by a "coalition of the willing," launched a strike on a meeting of key leaders in Baghdad, thereby beginning the war with Iraq.  Democrats selected Sen. John Kerry as their nominee in significant part because he was a Vietnam veteran and was thus seen as someone who could speak with authority on national security.

2000 - The event that most colored the political landscape in the 2000 cycle was the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.  This sordid story dominated the news in the latter part of 1998, culminating in the U.S. Senate sitting as a Court of Impeachment in January 1999.  President Clinton survived, but the scandal set up a strong undercurrent which continued to resonate throughout the election cycle, creating a very awkward situation for Vice President Gore.

1996 - In 1996, the Cold War had receded into people's memories, and the campaign was fought on domestic issues.  The debate over the Clinton administration's health care proposal, Republicans' gain of control of the House in the 1994 mid-term elections, and the unprecedented shutdowns of the federal government all set the stage for the 1996 campaign.

1992 - The context of the 1992 campaign can best be summed up in the slogan, "It's the economy, stupid."