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. 

2020 General Election Campaign

One could argue that President Trump started running for re-election the day he was inaugurated.  His campaign had the advantage of not having gone through divisive primaries, while the Democratic challenger Biden had to retool his campaign from primary to general election mode.  In a real sense, the general election campaign began once it was clear Biden would be the nominee.  Having garnered enough delegates to secure the nomination, Biden, as the presumptive nominee, turned his attention to the goal of obtaining 270 electoral votes in November.  The Democratic campaign added staff and advisors, placed a few top people at the DNC and built out organizations in key states.  Generally major party nominees move toward the middle, toning down more extreme elements of their messages, but Biden did reach out to Sanders.  The pandemic adjusted national conventions in August made the nominations official, but, by most accounts provided minimal "bounce" for the respective tickets.  The third party and independent candidates, mostly not well known, appear unlikely to affect the outcome.  In summer some attention focused on rapper Kanye West, running with backing from Republicans, but he only managed to get on the ballot in 12 states.

COVID-19 complicated matters for the Trump campaign, which was all set to highlight the strong economy; but instead had to tout the "Great American Comeback."  Republicans portrayed Biden as weak and out of it, a puppet of the radical left, who was weak on law and order, wanted to raise taxes and open the borders, and would lead to socialism.  They argued that he had accomplished little in his 47 years of service.  The Trump campaign and its allies also sought to tar Biden with scandal by making a major issue of Hunter Biden (1, 2, 3, 4); the tack seemed ineffective in view of the major issues facing the country. 

The pandemic helped Biden by enabling him to keep a low profile, participate in carefully orchestrated events, and avoid gaffes.  Biden's main theme was the need to "Build Back Better;" he also continued his message that the soul of America was at stake in this election.  Experience and empathy were key parts of Biden's appeal.  Biden and the Democrats focused heavily on arguments that Trump had botched the response to the pandemic, costing thousands of lives.  

Biden consistently led in national polls, and through October poll after poll from battleground states showed Biden ahead, sometimes within the margin of error but consistently ahead.  However, the presidential race is effectively a series of state based campaigns.  Whereas in 2016 late deciding voters tipped the race to Trump, in 2020 the pool of persuadable voters was quite small.  Still there remained the possibility that the polls were missing "shy Trump voters."  The Trump campaign expressed confidence in its internal polling and emphasized that it had many pathways to 270.  Indeed in a Sept. 8 conference call the campaign presented seven different scenarios to achieve 270.  In particular, the Trump campaign hoped to replicate the formula which helped it pull upsets in states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in 2016: win the vast majority of the smallest (population) counties.

Trump campaign kept up a very active schedule of campaign travel by the principals and surrogates, including airport rallies by Trump, Trump family member events, surrogate bus tours, busy field offices and people out knocking on doors.  This approach carried risks and drew criticism (+).

The Biden campaign strategy of sticking to largely virtual events was something of an experiment in real time and could have been very risky.  Rallies, office openings and other events are the batteries that energize a campaign.  Having volunteers go door to door and engage voters in face-to-face interactions is proven to be one of the most effective things a campaign can do.  None of this can be replicated online.  Biden himself led a cloistered existence for the first six months of the pandemic, consisting largely of virtual events and remarks read from teleprompters.  The campaign adhered to the virtual approach through September.  In September Biden started to travel more, but doing only tightly controlled events.  Many of these were strange, artificial, pseudo-events where Biden or the other principals spoke to small numbers of participants socially distanced in circles in parking lots.  The Democrats also did many drive-in rallies.  In early October the Democrats began some canvassing in battleground states (>). 

The debates were consequential.  There were concerns among Democrats about  Biden's functioning and how he would perform in unscripted situations such as the presidential debates.  In fact however, it was Trump who had a costly debate.  His constant interruptions in the first debate may have played well with his base, but did not help him win over other voters.  Then the second debate was cancelled.  Trump came across as much more measured in the final debate, but by then tens of millions of people had already voted.

Trump did have the power of the presidency.  Policy meshed right in with the campaign.  For example in July the administration rescinded the Obama administration's Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, seeking to appeal to suburban voters.  On Sept. 8 Trump traveled to Jupiter, Florida to deliver "remarks on environmental accomplishments for the people of Florida" and he signed a presidential memorandum protecting offshore areas from oil leasing.  On Sept. 13 he signed an executive order "lowering drug prices by putting America first."  On Sept. 15 he presided over the signing of a peace agreement between Israel and the UAE at the White HouseOn Sept. 18 announced billions in aid to Puerto Rico, which he had earlier opposed.  Trump held regular press conferences during which he could further drive home his message.  At many of his airport rallies, Air Force One, a symbol of the presidency, was prominent in the background.

There were, inevitably, Trump controversies; it was almost as if the "chickens were coming home to roost."  For example, September opened with the rumor that Trump's unannounced visit to Walter Reed Medical Center in November was due to "mini-strokes."  A few days later the Sept. 3 story in The Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg "Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are 'Losers' and 'Suckers'" generated a lot of controversy.  The next tempest came when excerpts from Bob Woodward's book Rage indicated that Trump had downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic.  Closing out the month the New York Times obtained Trump's long-withheld tax returns and on Sept. 27 reported he paid no federal taxes in 11 of 18 years and just $750 in 2016, while claiming huge losses.  Trump routinely dismissed these reports as "fake news."

Around Labor Day there were reports that the Trump campaign was running low on money, and that Trump might even put a significant sum of his own money into the campaign.  The Biden campaign raised a record amounts and was vastly outspending the Trump campaign on TV advertising.  In a Sept. conference call, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said the campaign's spending on advertising was "nimble and agile" and also pointed to the campaign's early investments in the states, something that could not be duplicated in just eight weeks leading up to Election Day.

Outside groups worked to influence the outcome.  Some of Trump's allies were critical that the pro-Trump super PACs did not do enough.  On Aug. 31, Politico reported on a "massive" super PAC effort, Preserve America PAC, led by Chris LaCivita (of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth fame from 2004) and funded by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus.  In September former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg made it known that he had decided to concentrate his efforts on Florida, planning to spend $100 million to tip the state to Biden.  Activity by Republicans opposed to Trump was fascinating to watch and seemingly very effective.  The Lincoln Project has led on searing messages portraying Trump as unfit and a danger to our democracy.  Defending Democracy Together, led by six prominent conservatives including Bill Kristol, has a number of projects, including Republican Voters Against Trump.  There were myriad examples disenchanted former Trump supporters as well as Republicans who served in previous administrations who backed Biden. 

In a campaign there is always the possibility of an October surprise, a late-breaking development that shakes up the race.  For the 2020 campaign, there were two late developments.  The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18 came as a shock.  Trump quickly nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett.  Republicans hoped the nomination would galvanize supporters (+), while Democrats emphasized the threat the posed to the Affordable Care Act if she were confirmed (+).  Hearings started on Oct. 12 and on Oct. 26 the Senate confirmed Barrett without a single Democratic vote, just eight days before Election Day.  It was a major conservative win at the cost of a further ratcheting up of partisan acrimony (+).  President Trump's positive test for COVID at the beginning of October provided a second big shock.  Trump was potentially at dire risk, and he did spend three days in the hospital but by Oct. 12 he was back on the campaign trail (+).

Many times throughout the fall campaign President Trump sought to raise doubts about the integrity of the election.  Hundreds of lawsuits were contested around the country throughout the summer and fall.  Republicans argued for strict interpretation of election law in state after state, on everything from drop boxes to ballot received by deadlines, while Democrats sought to relax rules on in view of the pandemic.  Despite Biden's consistent lead in polls, the country headed into November 3 amid uncertainty and worries about possible unrest. 

Record numbers of Americans cast their ballots before Election Day as COVID prompted a major shift toward mail (+) and early in person voting.  By Oct. 31, the U.S. Elections Project reported an astounding 90.4 million people had already voted. 

The pandemic did not disappear.  Trump put a major focus on developing a vaccine through "Operation Warp Speed."  It seemed extremely unlikely that a vaccine could be developed and introduced before Election Day, but Trump said repeatedly that a vaccine was very close (+).  On Sept. 22, 2020, the U.S. hit the milestone of 200,000 lives lost due to COVID-19. In Sept. 26 the U.S. reached eight million cases, on Oct. 16 eight million cases and on Oct. 29 nine million.  In the week before Election Day, even as cases reached record levels, Trump maintained the U.S. was "rounding the corner." 

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).  As noted above, in the Fall the Trump campaign maintained an active travel schedule; candidates and surrogates, did many rallies and events in battleground states despite the pandemic.  The Biden campaign did much fewer tightly constrained pseudo-events with small numbers of participants.

The list of battleground states can vary over time and depending upon to whom one is talking.  Recent campaigns have revolved around about nine or ten battleground states.  The 2020 map started 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, campaigns may upgrade or downgrade a state's importance as it becomes more or less competitive.  For example, the Trump campaign realized relatively early on that Colorado was going to be a difficult state to win; it put little into advertising there and the Biden campaign followed; from the Biden campaign's viewpoint it was "safe battleground" state.  Virginia too leaned strongly toward the Democrats while Iowa, Ohio and Texas leaned to the Republicans.  A campaign needs to have devised several "paths to 270" in the event that some of its states do not gel as the race draws to a close.  Campaigns look to "expand the map," playing in states where, if things align properly, a win is possible.  Democrats made serious play in Arizona from the outset, and in Georgia later on, while Trump made a major effort to win Minnesota.  One can also think of "expanding the paths to 270."  The Biden campaign had a number of possible paths to victory, while the Trump campaign had a relatively narrow set of options and could not open other paths due its more limited resources.

See: Battleground States

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).

The Modern Campaign

Presidential campaigns have grown increasingly sophisticated.  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.   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 (>).  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" (>).  

People in targeted areas and groups can expect to see the candidates themselves, a lot of political ads and other campaign communications, and they 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.

Candidate and Surrogate Travel

The candidates' time is one of the most important resources a campaign has.  Campaign stops are scheduled in media markets with high concentrations of mobilizable or persuadable voters.  They range from rallies, roundtables and speeches to unnanounced or off-the-record stops.  In addition to the candidates themselves, a wide variety of surrogates trek through, ranging from family members to political figures to minor celebrities. 

Travel by the Principals in the 2020 General Election Campaign

Aug.  Sept.  Oct. Nov.
 By State
 President Donald J. Trump
 Vice President Mike Pence x
 Former Vice President Joe Biden

 Sen. Kamala Harris

Rationale, Methodology and Limitations


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.  For 2020, Democrats have radically adjusted that model due to the pandemic.  Meanwhile, the Trump campaign and the RNC have have built their organization in close cooperation over about a year and a half, and are achieving record numbers of voter contacts.  Of course, it is not just quantity but quality that matters, but person-to-person contacts are effective and it is a truism voters like to be asked for their vote.

[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.  (In 2020 the Biden campaign was distinctive in keeping its paid media operation in house).  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.

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, and because it is relatively inexpensive can allow for a more prolonged conversation with the targeted group.  As with TV advertising, for online advertising digital ad buyers try to reserve premium spaces such as on popular news sites. 

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.

See: Ad Spending in the 2020 Presidential Campaign

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.  Through his use of Twitter and the constant controversies surrounding him, Trump excels in getting 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.

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).  Both the Trump and Biden campaigns declined the general election grant.

The 2020 race was a record breaker.  As reported by the Center for Responsive Politics, through Nov. 23, Biden for President raised a total of $1.044 billion and spent $1.043 billion while  Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. raised $774.0 million and spent $778.4 million.  In-person fundraising events with well-heeled donors have been a staple of the fall campaign, but due to the pandemic the Biden campaign shifted to virtual fundraisers and still was able to raise record amounts.

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 2020 was $26.5 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, mostly attacking the opposing candidate. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, through Nov. 9 outside groups supporting Trump spent $316.7 million led by America First Action at $149.1 million, while groups supporting Biden spent $568.5 million led by Future Forward USA at $150.6 million and Priorities USA Action at $137.0 million (>).

The COVID-19 Campaign

It is interesting to consider how this campaign would have turned out had there not been a pandemic.  So much of the Biden campaign message focused on Trump's mishandling of the pandemic.  At the same time, the pandemic torpedoed the Trump campaign's strategy of touting the strong economy.  The candidates and their campaigns responded very differently to the pandemic.  President Trump seemed unable to acknowledge the loss of life and suffering, while Joe Biden was the empathy candidate.  While Trump and his campaign flouted social distancing guidelines and recommendations by holding large rallies, Biden and his campaign responded with caution, holding contrived events with very limited access.  Pandemic instituted innovations such as drive in rallies and use of painted circles or hula hoops to ensure social distancing are not likely to be featured in future campaigns, but other changes such as more of an emphasis on virtual fundraising could endure.