A presidential campaign is a vast exercise in communications.  Personal encounters are usually most telling in shaping impressions of a candidate, but a candidate can only meet so many people first-hand and must get his or her message out to a wider audience through an infinite variety of free media opportunities and paid advertising.

Presidential candidates and their campaigns, political parties, groups supporting or opposing various candidates, and groups seeking to inject their issues into the presidential campaign dialogue are working hard to get their messages out.  Crafting an effective message is not an easy task; citizens are bombarded with countless communications every day and are busy with their day to day lives, so the intended target may not even receive or pay attention to the message. 

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Among the possibilities for paid media, depending on its budget, a campaign can run ads on broadcast, cable or satellite television, on radio stations with varying formats, it can run print ads in national, local or community newspapers or in magazines, it can put ads on the Internet or on various social media, it can print up nice, glossy brochures or less expensive flyers, it can do direct mail or robocalls, or it can put up a billboard.  Television continues to get the majority of campaign media spending, while direct mail and Internet also receive significant shares.  An interesting article on Neilsen website describes how businesses can use "marketing mix modeling to support fact-based budget allocation decisions;" campaigns face the same kind of decision-making.1

In terms of free media, a candidate do all manner of interviews and media appearances, deliver a formal policy speech at a think tank in Washington or New York, hold a town hall meeting outside the Beltway, write a book and do a book tour (+), make a photo-friendly visit to a significant location such as the border or an energy plant, or even stop in for an impromptu visit to a local cafe.  Some candidates are better communicators than others.  Careful consideration of a candidate's use and misuse of language can provide insights into his or her outlook and world view.2  Because the candidate cannot go everywhere, the campaign will sometimes send surrogates, generally family members, elected officials or celebrities.  A candidate's wife can be a particularly effective ambassador for the candidate.  The campaign can generate free media as well, for example by rolling out a coalition, doing a canvass or posting an edgy video on YouTube.  Campaigns continue to devote increasing attention and resources to social media; Donald Trump's use of Twitter in 2016 was a major factor in his success.  Facebook, a titan of social media, has come under considerable scrutiny.  Social media's role in spreading misinformation is a significant problem, and the big social media companies have taken differing approaches to stem abuses.3

For the latter part of the primaries and the Fall campaign, the coronavirus pandemic changed the communications equation in a number of ways.  In the Fall, the Trump campaign pushed forward with 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 was criticized as it ran counter to public health recommendations.  Meanwhile, the Biden campaign went largely virtual.  The state campaign teams organized a lot of virtual events with surrogates.  The relatively few in-person events Biden and Harris did had very limited numbers of participants and pooled media.  Instead of large rallies to energize participants, there were unpublicized, contrived events to make the news.  Instead of active field offices and canvassing, Democrats opened voter activation centers or depots where supporters could stop by to pick up materials.

In determining the message he or she wishes to convey, a candidate starts with his or her individual experience, intelligence and values and has input from a team of trusted advisors.  Paid consultants may weigh in to determine how the message should be presented, i.e. what medium, what approach (serious and straightforward, humorous, dramatic...) and so forth.  Consultants at times seem to be ubiquitous and some argue that they have changed campaign discourse for the worse.

The effectiveness of the message depends on such factors as timing (what other events are happening in the world), the medium used (how the message is delivered), and the receptivity of the audience.  In modern campaigns there is a lot of testing, focus grouping and polling to shape the message.4  Sometimes a meticulously crafted message will flop, while a slapped together one will go viral. During the long campaign, candidates will inevitably stray from the talking points or make gaffes which completely overshadow the message.  Meanwhile supporters are out spreading the word.  A contact through social media, a call, note or visit from a neighbor, supporter or campaign staffer can be much more effective than an annoying robocall.  Even small features such as the logo or typeface a campaign uses or the musical zing at the end of an ad can make a difference.  With more and more Americans using the Internet and mobile devices to obtain news and information about politics, campaigns are devoting more resources to online communications and social media.

Of course, the candidate and the campaign are not the only ones communicating; the message environment is crowded with communications from competing campaigns, interest groups and the political parties.  Groups such as  American Bridge 21 Century PAC and America Rising PAC, are trying to tar potential candidates of the other side with as many negatives as possible.  The media are sifting through and reporting these messages or parts of them.


1. See: Josh Kowal.  "5 Important Questions To Ask Your Marketing Mix Vendor."  Neilsen, Jan. 10, 2019. 

Also: According to Kantar Media, CMAG, an estimated $5.25 billion was spent on political advertising in the 2018 midterms comprising $3.1 billion on local broadcast TV, $1.2 billion on local cable TV and $950 million on digital. (>)

And: Tom Edmonds, a Republican media strategist and former president of the American Association of Political Consultants, estimated in 2012 that 55-percent of campaign advertising dollars go to television, 15-percent to direct mail, 13-percent to Internet, 8-percent to radio, 8-percent to newspaper and 1-percent to outdoor advertising.  (Presentation at Newspaper Association of America/American Society of Newspaper Editors Convention in Washington, DC, April 5, 2012).

And: John Sides, Lynn Vavreck and Christopher Warshaw.  "The Effect of Television Advertising in United States Elections."  Conditionally accepted at the American Political Science Review, Aug. 24, 2021.

2. Candidates have a variety of rhetorical approaches and abilities ranging from stream of consciousness rambles (Trump) to blunt and plain spoken (former candidate Richard Ojeda or former potential candidate Michael Avenatti) to cautious (Sen. Kamala Harris) to garrulous and meandering (former Vice President Joe Biden) to abstract (Marianne Williamson). Is a candidate able to connect with his or her audience; can he or she deliver a stirring speech or does he or she seem to take the air out of a room; does he or she come across as direct and authentic or seem overly scripted; can he or she think on his or her feet and respond to questions? 

One aspect of language which candidate and President Donald Trump has put a spotlight on is the question of truthfulness.  The Washington Post found that through Dec. 30, 2018, President Trump had made 7,645 false claims, including two days in early Nov. 2018 where he made over 100 false claims on a single day.  The Toronto Star has also been tracking false claims by President Trump and tallied over 4,000 false claims by him as of Jan. 2019; the project notes that "the sheer frequency of Trump’s inaccuracy is a central story of his presidency."  By April 18, 2020 the Washington Post tally had increased to 18,000 false claims in 1,170 days.

Data:  Washington Post  |  Toronto Star
Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly.  "President Trump has made 7,645 false or misleading claims over 710 days."  Washington Post, Dec. 30, 2018
Daniel Dale.  "Trump has said 1,340,330 words as president. They’re getting more dishonest, a Star study shows."  Toronto Star, July 14, 2018.  Trump provides an extreme example for those studying the use and misuse of language. 

Joan Conrow.  "What drove the COVID misinformation 'infodemic'?"  Cornell University Alliance for Science, Oct. 1, 2020.

3. Amid concerns about competitiveness (+), privacy, manipulation, and complaints by conservatives and others about bias (+), there are arguments that big tech companies need to be broken up or at least better regulated (+). 

Political speech is at stake and these companies are grappling to find the right approach.  Twitter has been adjusting its policies throughout the cycle, trying to find the right balance, while Facebook has drawn criticism for "unkept promises, uneven policies (+)."  On Feb. 4, 2020, after much input, Twitter announced a new rule on synthetic and manipulated media (+).  On May 26 Twitter applied fact checking to a couple of Trump tweets for the first time (+).  On Sept. 10 Twitter announced expanded policies to protect civic conversation under which it will "label or remove false or misleading information intended to undermine public confidence in an election or other civic process (+)."   On Oct. 9 Twitter announced additional steps to "increase context and encourage more thoughtful consideration before Tweets are amplified (+)."

There has also been much focus on paid advertising.  In Oct. 2019 the Biden campaign asked Facebook and Twitter to stop running a video ad from the Trump campaign that contained false claims about Biden and the Ukraine; as reported by the New York Times, Facebook refused.  On Oct. 10, 2019 the Warren for President campaign started running intentionally false ads on Facebook that put a spotlight on the platform's policy on political advertising.  The ads, which met Facebook's criteria, stated, "Breaking News: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election (+)." 

Facebook did implement some changes as the general election approached.  In a Sept. 3, 2020 post Zuckerberg announced Facebook would block new political and issue ads during the final week of the campaign because "in the final days of an election there may not be enough time to contest new claims."  On Oct. 7, 2020 Facebook announced it would temporarily not run political ads in the days immediately following the Nov. 3 election "to reduce opportunities for confusion or abuse."  The late Oct. restriction on new ads resulted in technical issues which affected some advertisers, who were not happy (+).

In contrast to Facebook's generally hands-off approach, Twitter tried a different route.  On Oct. 30, 2019, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced Twitter would stop political advertising on the platform.  He stated, "Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale (+)." 

Google also announced a few changes to its political ads policy in 2019 (+) and said it will not run election-related ads in the days following the Nov. 3 election. 

4. Sasha Issenberg.  "The Death of the Hunch"  May 22, 2012.  Slate.  See for example Nielsen link below.

2016  |  2012  |  2008


"a nonpartisan, nonprofit 'consumer advocate' for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding...  FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania." 

The Computational Propaganda Project

Project at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University..."a team of researchers investigating the impact of automated computer scripts–computational propaganda–on public life. This work includes analysis of how tools like social media bots are used to manipulate public opinion by megaphoning or repressing political content in various forms: disinformation, hate speech, fake news, political harassment, etc."


this is very old but it'll make you think...


"a global measurement and data analytics company that provides the most complete and trusted view available of consumers and markets worldwide."

Gartner L2

Digital IQ Index® seeks to provide an actionable metric for digital competence--"a robust tool to diagnose digital strengths and weaknesses and help organizations prioritize incremental investment in digital."  The methodology considers an organization's website, digital marketing, social media, and mobile.


"Founded in 1997, ClickZ has grown to be one of the largest digital marketing communities in the world today. Alongside the growth of Facebook, YouTube and more, ClickZ has been there, providing the latest news, insights and intelligence along the way."

TV Ads and Other Communications
Stanford University: Political Communication Lab
Museum of the Moving Image: The Living Room Candidate
Internet Archive: Political TV Ad Archive


Mike Dec's site on presidential campaigns and candidates.

Trump Twitter Archive

Brendan Brown has put together this archive of Trump tweets from May 4, 2009 to the present.

Television Bureau of Advertising  |  Political
NCTA-The Internet & Television Association
News Media Alliance (formerlyNewspaper Association of America)