The campaign organization communicates the candidate's message to the voters, highlighting his or her strengths and downplaying his or her weaknesses. 

American presidential campaigns represent the state of the art of modern electoral campaigning.  They are able to attract the best people and put the most recent techniques into play.  Modern political campaigns have many areas of responsibility including political, field, communications, new media, research, outreach/coalitions, data/voter file, scheduling and advance, operations, get out the vote, legal, and finance.  Ultimately the success of a campaign depends on the qualities of the candidate, but a candidate's campaign team can make a difference. 

From the campaign manager or state director and top staff in headquarters to the field organizer toiling away in a ramshackle office in a small town, to the unheralded intern or the volunteer making calls at a phone bank, a campaign depends on people willing to work long hours for modest or even no pay.  Because of the demanding nature of the job, many campaign staffers are in their 20's and 30's, but there are also the "gray hairs" who can call on their experience working on a succession of presidential campaigns.  Any candidate has a trusted inner circle of advisors, some of whom may not even be part of the campaign staff.  Senior advisors make greater or lesser contributions to the campaign.  The candidate's spouse sometimes is quite involved in the campaign.  Campaigns seek endorsements from current and former elected officials, and these individuals, depending on their inclination, can also play an active role in the campaign.

Campaigns also have a stable of consultants and vendors to help with specialized tasks such as polling, fundraising and paid media.1  From an historical perspective, campaigns have become increasing professionalized in recent decades, and they are using increasingly sophisticated means to communicate with voters, ranging from micro-targeting to social media. 

Pre-Campaign to Post-Campaign

Even before the campaign starts, a potential candidate usually has a political organization, be it a leadership PAC, a Section 527 organization, a 501(c)(4) or a re-election campaign.  In the pre-campaign period, that is the period prior to the midterm elections, the glimmerings of campaign organizations start to take shape.  As a next step a potential candidate may opt to form an exploratory committee or he or she may directly form a campaign committee. 

The first staffers get to work setting up headquarters, sometimes in a temporary space.  The location of the national headquarters can make a difference.  Recent campaigns suggest there may be an advantage to being situated outside the Beltway; Obama (Chicago), George W. Bush (Austin) and Bill Clinton (Little Rock) all located outside Washington, DC.  In 1999, when Vice President Al Gore's campaign appeared to be floundering he shut down his DC headquarters and moved all those willing to go to Nashville.  The outside the-Beltway approach to campaign headquarters is likely to continue as campaigns set up shop in 2015. 

Fundraising is a key part of the early months, and the campaign strives to bring in the resources that will enable it to compete.  While money is important to building a campaign organization, it cannot in itself guarantee success.  

The organization grows, perhaps opening a few state offices.  The strength and presence of a presidential campaign in the fifty states is very uneven.  During the primaries, over a period of many months or even a year, campaigns develop sizable organizations in the key early states, while in later states a campaign may be active for just a few weeks or not at all. 

If a campaign lags, the candidate may eventually decide to make some changes and bring on new people to try to revive the effort.  Shakeups in a campaign are usually not a good sign.  Although John McCain was able to survive the near implosion of his campaign in 2007 and Newt Gingrich managed the same feat in 2011, for Hillary Clinton, the replacement of her campaign manager in Feb. 2008 may have come too late.

In the weeks before voting in a particular state primary or caucus, the campaign implements a get-out-the-vote plan, and volunteers may come in from around the country to help.  If a candidate achieves success in one of the early states, the result can be an influx of people, money, and interest that challenges the ability of the campaign to make effective use of it.  More staff are brought on. 

Once the nomination is secured or in view, the campaign will bring on additional talent as it builds out a national organization.  The campaign will also place its own people in key positions at the national party committees (DNC and RNC) as well as naming people to work with the convention committees.  Some staff will be assigned for the vice presidential nominee, and he or she will also bring some of his or her own people.

In the Fall, out in the states, three entities help bring a presidential candidate's message to the voters: (a) the candidate's campaign organization; (b) the unified effort designed to elect party members at every level from the court house to the White House (known as the coordinated campaign for Democrats and the Victory campaign for Republicans); and (c) the state party.  In the case of an incumbent president, the White House is also closely involved.  Additionally, there are independent but allied groups that reinforce the campaign's messages.  Electoral math and the quest for 270 electoral votes dictate that a presidential campaign should focus its resources on certain states, while other states may be largely bypassed. 

Once the election is over, the process of packing up and winding down the campaign, built up over so many long months, takes place, bringing with it a sense of nostalgia.  Many members of the winning campaign team find places in the inaugural committee or on the transition, while hoping for jobs in the administration.  For members of the losing campaign it is also time to dust off the resumes and try to figure out what to do next. 

Campaign Management

A campaign manager needs to be able to make tough decisions, often working with limited resources in a tight time frame.  Usually the manager does not make the big strategic decisions; although he or she weighs in on them, his or her task is to implement the strategy.  That requires creating an environment where the staff are working towards the goal of electing the candidate, not battling and sniping amongst themselves.2  To be effective, a campaign must be organized so as to present a consistent message.  It would not work for one campaign staffer to say one thing and another to say something contradictory.  Thus there is a process to ensure that communications are approved.  As an example, reporters out on the campaign trail may find that campaign staff will not answer basic questions, instead referring them to proper channels.  At the same time, the campaign must be flexible enough to respond to changing circumstances and to present a message that is not so scripted it is devoid of life and interest.  Although Mitt Romney strove to build a "nimble" campaign in 2011, by Fall 2012 tweets, Facebook posts, blog posts and such famously had to be approved by 22 people.3  A consistent message is important, but if the message is not working, the campaign must be willing to change it.  Sometimes just a little tweak or refinement will do the job, and other times a major overhaul is required.  Data and analytics have come to assume an increasingly important role in modern campaigns because they allow a campaign to test and refine its messages.

Review of 2012

The 2012 campaign showed the tremendous advantage an incumbent can wield.  This was also true for President George W. Bush in 2004.  The groundwork for Obama's re-elect was laid starting with the establishment of Organizing for America at the Democratic National Committee in January 2009.  President Obama formally launched his re-election effort on April 4, 2011.  Meanwhile, Romney only became the presumptive nominee following the withdrawal of former Sen. Rick Santorum on April 10, 2012.  During the primaries after the Romney campaign completed a primary or caucus, key staff moved on to other state contests.  The strategy worked, but left little infrastructure for the general election campaign.  Not until June did the Romney campaign really begin to bulk up its staff for the Fall.  The Obama campaign thus had a year or more head start and was able to build up an unprecedentedly large and sophisticated organization.  A heavy emphasis on metrics and building the ground game produced results for Obama.  The Romney campaign was vastly outmanned by Obama's team and never really caught up.

 1. Al Shaw, Kim Barker and Justin Elliott.  "A Tangled Web: Who's Making Money From All This Campaign Spending?"  ProPublica.  March 21, 2012.

2. Joshua Green.  "Inside the Clinton Shake-Up."  The Atlantic, Feb. 12, 2008.

3. In a Jan. 2011 article Time's Michael Scherer quoted Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom: "Last time, Mitt's campaign was like IBM. This time, if he runs, he wants to be like JetBlue...  Which is to say, more nimble and more efficient and ready to respond." (Michael Scherer.  "Mitt Hits the Road Again."  Time.  Jan. 20, 2011).
Daniel Kreiss.  "Seizing the moment: The presidential campaigns' use of Twitter during the 2012 electoral cycle." in New Media & Society.  Sage Publications.  Dec. 5, 2014