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 entitlement reform or income stagnation.  In the general election Trump continued to rally under the banner of "Make America Great AgainTM" (#MAGA) (>) while Clinton advanced a "Stronger Together" theme (which many pundits derided after the campaign).

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."  As expected, 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.

General Election Campaign Gets Underway

In a real sense the general election begins once it is clear who the major party nominees will be; for both parties that will in all probability occur well before their respective national nominating conventions.  Once they have garnered enough delegates to secure their nominations, the presumptive nominees turn their attention away from the primary campaigns to the general election and the goal of obtaining 270 electoral votes in November.  Major party nominees may move toward the middle, toning down more extreme elements of their messages that they had used to appeal to party activists during the primaries. The campaigns start to add staff and advisors, place a few top people at the national party committees and build out organizations in key states.  The addition of the running mates give the campaigns another way to get out their messages.  The national convention makes the nomination official and, if all goes well, provides a "bounce" for the ticket.  For 2016 RNC chairman Reince Priebus determined to hold the GOP convention considerably earlier than in recent cycles and the Democrats followed suit.  The Democratic Convention concluded on the evening of July 28, leaving just over 100 days of fully engaged campaigning until Election Day.
 

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.

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.  In Fall 2016 Democrats sought to expand the map, making investments in Arizona, Georgia and Utah (GA, UT, AZ also TX).  Arizona drew particular attention; both Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine visited Arizona in the final week.  Meanwhile, the Trump campaign pushed into Michigan and New Mexico, pressed in Colorado, Wisconsin and Virginia, even ventured into Minnesota, and continued to focus much resources on Pennsylvania (+). 

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








                        

Selected states in detail (in progress):
AZ | CA
| CO   DC   FL   NY   NC   OH   PA   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).  Ed. - Note that this model is updated from past cycles.

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 and precinct-walking 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. 

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.  For the entire two-year election cycle the Clinton campaign and joint fundraising committees reported total receipts of $622.2 million, while the Trump campaign and joint fundraising committees reported total receipts of $408.9 million.  CFI points out a big difference between how the two raised their money: Trump's "small donor numbers were record shattering."  Clinton raised $136.8 million in contributions of $200 or less compared to $238.6 million in contributions of $200 or less for Trump.

In addition to the money raised 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. 

However, 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.  Recall that in 2004, Section 527 groups such as America Coming Together and The Media Fund on the Democratic side and Progress for America and Swift Boat Vets and POWs for Truth on the Republican had a significant impact.  In 2008 such groups were less of a force.  In 2012 outside groups were major players again.  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 weighed in heavily with independent expenditures mostly attacking the opposing candidate.  The main group on the Clinton side was the Priorities USA Action super PAC, which spent $110.3 million, most of which went to TV advertising.  A number of groups made independent expenditures in support of Trump; the Get Our Jobs Back Inc. super PAC led the field, reporting spending $50 million (>).

The Modern Campaign

Presidential campaigns have grown increasingly sophisticated.  The 2012 Obama re-election campaign set the standard.  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.   The experience of the 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" (>).

Field Organization

A hallmark of the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns was a massive ground game with numerous field offices, field organizers, and volunteer neighborhood team leaders, which significantly outmatched the organization on the Republican side.  In 2012 the Obama campaign had the advantage of building out its organization over a period of a year, without facing a primary challenge.  Meanwhile, the Romney campaign went from one state primary contest to another leaving scant infrastructure, and it never really caught up on the ground.  In Fall of 2016 the Clinton campaign was significantly better organized in terms of the number of field offices, but Trump's data operation and use of social media carried the day.

[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].

Ad Wars

Much of the money raised by the campaigns goes into paid media, particularly television advertising.  The campaigns are also giving more and more attention and resources to online advertising as well as advertising on social media.  Running a pre-video ad on YouTube or a banner ad on the local newspaper's website can be a very effective way to reach a specific demographic group in a particular state.  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.

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.  Similarly, for online advertising digital ad buyers try to reserve premium spaces.  In addition to ads from campaigns, super PACs and interest groups add their voices to the mix.


#SocialMedia

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.  Trump through his use of Twitter and the constant controversies surrounding him excelled in earned media.

Social media is a still evolving area that has great potential.  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 an impersonal message.  The campaigns have staff busy tweeting, posting on Facebook, developing infographics and sending out emails.  While the scope and effectiveness of these efforts is difficult for outside observers to assess, observers point to the Trump campaign's use of data and social media as a key element of its success. 

Worst Campaign Ever?

The 2016 presidential campaign may not have been the worst in American history, for there were some pretty 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.   Many Trump supporters viewed Clinton as a criminal and wanted to "lock her up," while Clinton saw many of the Trump supporters as "basket of deplorables" who were "irredeemable."  On top of the flawed candidates, a broken campaign finance system did not help matters.  The Campaign Legal Center charged that "the campaigns of the presidential candidate of both major parties are involved in unprecedented coordination with super PACs in violation of the law (+)".  Little wonder that more than half of American adults viewed the presidential election as a significant source of stress (+).



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