Campaigning is the art and science of “selling” political candidates to voters. Candidates engage in a variety of campaign activities aimed at winning elections, including raising money, building name recognition, making public appearances, purchasing political advertisements, and debating with other candidates. Social scientists who study politics are interested in campaigns and elections because they are important components of American democracy. Elections allow citizens to select leaders and hold them accountable.
Campaigns for public office generally have two stages: the primary election and the general election. The goal of the primary campaign is to gain endorsement from a political party in order to advance to the general election. Primary campaigns appeal to the party faithful, that is, voters who identify with a certain political party.
Candidates will often present more extreme policy positions during the primary campaign because they have to appeal to party members who are more ideologically extreme in their views than the general public. During the general election phase, candidates adopt more moderate voter appeals to market themselves to the broader public.
Campaigning techniques changed significantly in the late twentieth century as a result of the popularity of mass communication, namely, television and the Internet. The 1960 presidential race between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy marked a turning point in American politics where television gained prominence as a medium for reaching and persuading voters. During this election, listeners who heard the Kennedy-Nixon debate on the radio believed that Nixon had won the debate, whereas viewers who saw the television broadcast thought that Kennedy was the victor.
In addition to requiring candidates to be camera-friendly, television enabled candidates to reach voters directly instead of relying on their political party. The rise of candidate-centered campaigns deflated the power of the major parties in American politics. In response, party officials have come up with new and creative ways to maintain relevance in the electoral process, namely, by providing candidates with media assistance and funding. The political parties’ ability to raise funds is crucial for candidates given that a contemporary national election costs about twenty times more than elections did in the 1950s.
The Internet has played an increasingly important role in campaigns for political office. Voters turn to political blogs and other online resources to get information about elections and candidates. For example, the Web site You-Tube makes it possible for people to look at campaign ads from across the country with the click of a button. Not surprisingly, a growing number of candidates for public office are using Internet appeals to reach voters. Experts anticipate that the Internet will become an influential campaigning tool as this medium becomes a popular means of distributing tailored information to voters.
The rise of media-centered campaigns has brought about an increase in the cost of campaigning. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2004 presidential contest cost over $1.2 billion. Some scholars argue that the high price tag attached to winning public office is antidemocratic in that only wealthy candidates have the necessary resources. Others counter that the electoral process remains democratic because a majority of campaign contributions come from private individuals. Lawmakers passed several campaign finance reform laws in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century in an effort to limit the amount of special interest money in campaigns.
The 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) limited campaign contributions and required candidates for federal office to disclose all of their financial contributions. FECA also outlawed financial contributions from corporations to candidates. In response, corporate-related organizations—Political Action Committees (PACs)—were formed to influence elections. Subsequently so-called 527 organizations have formed that advocate for certain policies instead of specific candidates, although their media and other political tactics aim to influence election outcomes. Through issue advocacy advertising, or ads that discuss a political issue in a way that critiques a certain candidate, 527s play an increasingly influential role in elections.
Congress made sweeping changes to FECA in 2002 with passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act. This legislation outlawed soft money, or money that is ostensibly donated to political parties for “party-building activities” but is often used to help candidates. It also restricted 527 organizations from running issue advocacy ads in the months leading up to an election. It is unclear whether this legislation will have the effect lawmakers intended or special interests will find loopholes enabling them to get around the new restrictions.
Candidates have the option of running three different types of political advertisements: issue, image, and negative. Issue ads present the candidate’s stance on policies, whereas image ads attempt to enhance the candidate’s reputation in the eyes of voters. Candidates are increasingly going negative, that is, emphasizing their opponent’s negative aspects instead of their own positive attributes. Most researchers agree that this approach can help candidates win elections, but there is debate as to its potential liabilities. Some argue that negative ads tend to be dishonest, can alienate more moderate voters, and might cause voters to tune out of politics and not vote at all on Election Day. Others argue that negative ads are more memorable than positive ads, increase voter awareness of candidates, and cause more people to turn out to vote. The jury is still out on the overall impact of going negative, suggesting perhaps that its effects vary from race to race.
SEE ALSO Advertising; Computers: Science and Society; Democracy; Elections; Internet; Internet, Impact on Politics; Kennedy, John F.; Nixon, Richard M.; Persuasion; Political Parties; Primaries; Propaganda; Television; Voting
Ansolabehere, Stephen, and Shanto Iyengar. 1997. Going Negative: How Attack Ads Shrink and Polarize the Electorate. New York: Free Press.
Jacobson, Gary C. 2003. The Politics of Congressional Elections. 6th ed. New York: Longman.
Lau, Richard R., and Gerald M. Pomper. 2004. Negative Campaigning: An Analysis of U.S. Senate Elections (Campaigning American Style ). New York: Rowman and Littlefield.
Shea, Daniel M., and Michael John Burton. 2006. Campaign Craft: The Strategies, Tactics, and Art of Political Campaign Management. 3rd ed. New York: Praeger.