Presidential election campaigns follow a set of familiar steps, from the early maneuvering and testing-the-waters activities in the pre-campaign period to frenetic last-ditch efforts of the party nominees in the fall.  Each presidential campaign occurs in, and is shaped by, a unique historical context.

Considering the Field of Play

Beyond the temperaments, leadership abilities, and characters of the candidates, one must also consider the context, or playing field on which a campaign is fought, for this sets broad bounds within which the candidates and their organizations must operate.  Events, social and economic conditions, cultural tendencies, technology, and rules and laws governing the election process all combine to create a political landscape which may advantage or disadvantage one or another of the candidates.  The historical context in which a campaign is waged impacts its substance, pushing various domestic and foreign issues into greater or lesser prominence.  Further, since our presidential election campaigns are so long, the terrain can change somewhat even during the course of one election cycle.

Consider the communications environment.  The technologies a campaign can use to reach voters are constantly developing as are the means by which voters receive information.  In the past, the whistlestop tour may have been the best way to communicate with voters.  More recently the 30-second television spot was the preferred currency.  Now the Internet and social media have assumed an increasingly important role, and more and more people keep in touch with events using their smartphones or other devices.  Campaigns devote increasing resources to data and analytics to determine how to craft and target their messages (1, 2).  They must also take into account a news ecosystem which has changed dramatically in the past decade.  The rise of the Internet has drained revenue from traditional media, causing outlets to slash newsroom jobs and forcing some newspapers to close altogether.  New news outlets nevertheless continue to pop up, and the blogosphere provides a robust and vibrant source of information and sometimes misinformation.

Polarization and Dissatisfaction
In recent years the United States appears to be an increasingly polarized nation, divided into "red" and "blue."  Partisan bickering and gridlock seem very much the order of the day; dysfunctional government, where ideologues dominate the discourse and moderates are an endangered species, has meant that critical issues ranging from the deficit to infrastructure needs to immigration reform remain unresolved.  Dysfunction was on full display during the government shutdown that took place from Oct. 1-17, 2013.  Faced with an intransigent Congress, President Obama has sought to achieve as much as he can through executive actions, raising concerns among conservatives that he is overreaching his constitutional authority.  Thus in June 2014 Speaker Boehner announced he would initiate a lawsuit to challenge Obama's "aggressive unilateralism" (+); the suit was finally filed in Nov. 2014.  Obama's Nov. 20, 2014 executive action on immigration led to further cries of executive overreach. (+)

There are many plausible explanations for the polarization.  An argument can be made that sharp divisions go right back to the early days of the Republic and that gridlock is built into the system.  Another line of reasoning points to the fragmented media universe which now enables citizens to get their news and information primarily or exclusively from ideological sources, contributing to rigid and narrow viewpoints (>).  Many argue that big money is distorting our system.  The professionalization of politics, from the proliferation of lobbyists to the ubiquitous role of consultants to the attack ads and mailers to the widespread use of polls, may be jamming the works.  Sophisticated redistricting practices have led to fewer competitive districts reducing the number of moderate voices.  Numerous ideas have been put forth to reform Congress and bring the institution into the 21st century, ranging from biennial budgeting to more interparty communication.  Another diagnosis comes from Philip K. Howard, author of "The Rule of Nobody," who argues, "Rules have replaced leadership in America.  Bureaucracy, regulation, and outmoded law tie our hands and confine policy choices."  Howard calls for sunseting and simplification of laws to restore responsibility.  Roots of divisiveness can also be traced to the battle over Florida following the 2000 presidential campaign, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and even Watergate.  Ultimately, much as our nation's monuments need to be refurbished from time to time, so too our democratic institutions must be updated and modernized. 

Regardless of the cause(s), evidence of dissatisfaction is clear.  In recent decades voters increasingly are chosing to register as independents or non-affiliated rather than align with the two major political parties (see political parties).  Survey after survey shows the low regard citizens hold for Congress.  The ongoing Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011-12 also show discontent with the system.  Turnout in primaries is shockingly low.  A 2014 midterm elections primary "half-time report" by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate found that "fifteen of twenty-five states set new low turnout records."  According preliminary estimates by the  United States Election Project, for the Nov. 2014 midterms turnout as a percentage of voting eligible population was 36.4 percent, the lowest since 1942; turnout was below 50-percent in 43 states and DC and below 30-percent in seven states (>).

Campaigns 2016 Style
There is clearly room for improvement in American election campaigns, including presidential campaigns.  Our campaigns, while long and expensive, often fall short in producing substantive discussion of issues.  Campaigns seem more geared to scoring points and lining the pockets of consultants than addressing problems facing the country or community.  The major parties' processes for choosing their presidential nominees place a premium on the ability to raise money in the year before the election as much as on ideas or experience.  Individuals who might make excellent presidents may choose to self-select out rather than enduring the grind of a presidential campaign.  One wonders whether an Abraham Lincoln or a Theodore Roosevelt-type candidate would even be electable in the modern era.

The conduct of federal elections is governed by rules set out in Title 11 of the Code of Federal Regulations (>) (Federal Election Commission), by state laws (>), and by rules of the political parties.  These laws and rules have evolved over time. 

For example, one area that has drawn considerable attention at the state level is voter ID laws.  In terms of party rules, for 2016 the Republican and Democratic presidential primary calendars are roughly in harmony, each starting with four early contests.  However, in an effort to avoid a primary process in which their candidates "slice and dice" each other for months on end, Republicans approved significant changes to their presidential nominating rules to make their schedule more compact.

Most significantly, the last several campaigns have occurred in a "Wild West" period of campaign finance.  The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United (Jan. 2010) ended the ban on corporations and unions making independent expenditures.  The DC Circuit Court decision in (March 2010) expanded the impact of Citizens United.  Now super PACs "can raise unlimited sums from corporations, unions and other groups, as well as wealthy individuals."  More recently in McCutcheon (April 2014), the Supreme Court struck down aggregrate contribution limits to federal candidates and committees.  Continuing the trend toward big money, in Dec. 2014 Congress passed and President Obama signed into law a $1.1 trillion spending bill containing a rider which markedly increasing the amount an individual can contribute to the national party committees.  While the law sets out a system of partial public financing of presidential campaigns, in reality that system has completely fallen by the wayside. 

In "The Keys to the White House," Allan J. Lichtman, professor of history at The American University in Washington, D.C., identifies thirteen factors ("keys") which he argues determine whether the incumbent party will win or lose the White House.  Examples of the keys include the balance of seats in the House of Representatives, whether there is a contest for the incumbent party nomination, real per capita economic growth, and whether there has been a major military or foreign-policy success.  Lichtman argues that it is these factors, not all the speechifying and debates and ads, that determine the outcome.

Context in 2016 and Recent Elections

2016 - The race for the White House in 2016 will not include an incumbent president seeking re-election; this has implications for both parties.  The candidates for the Democratic nomination will have to address or offer ideas about how to build on the legacy of the Obama administration and will also seek to differentiate from some of those policies.  President Obama's legacy will be shaped in part by what happens and what gets done in 2015-16.   (As a historical note, excluding Harry Truman and LBJ, who both ascended to the White House following the deaths of the incumbent presidents, the last time a Democrat was elected on his own to succeed another Democrat occurred in 1856 when James Buchanan succeeded Franklin Pierce.  For Republicans, Vice President George H.W. Bush was elected to succeed Ronald Reagan in 1988 and Herbert Hoover followed Calvin Coolidge in 1928).  Unlike Reagan, it appears that President Obama will not have much in the way of coattails to help carry a Democratic successor into the White House in 2016 and indeed he may be more of a burden.  The pendulum swing favors the Republican nominee in 2016. 

Change in Partisan Balance Following the 2014 Mid-terms



U.S. Senate 53D 45R
U.S. House 234R 199D 2v (D)


Governorships 29R 21D

State Legislatures 27R 19D 3 split + NE PDF
8 split + NE PDF

updated Dec. 27, 2014
Republicans are ascendant at the state and national level, but changing demographics may pose challenges for the GOP in 2016.  After the 2012 campaign, the RNC launched its Growth and Opportunity Project (+), which sought to address some of the deficiences that contributed to the party's White House and Senate setbacks.  Although Democrats have argued that the changes are merely window dressing, in 2014 Republicans enjoyed improved performance among members of minority groups and women.  The 2014 midterms have given Republicans control of both the House and the Senate for the next two years, and voters will be watching to see what they do.  In 2016 voters will be asked to give the GOP control of both the legislative and executive branches. 

Meanwhile, Democrats face serious challenges of their own.  The 2014 midterms dealt the party setbacks at every level, as it lost control of the Senate, fell short in governors' races, and lost between 300 and 350 state legislative seats, giving Republicans "their highest number of legislators since 1920."  Democrats have their own gender gap, among white males.  One need only look at the U.S. political map, which is a sea of red with dots of blue in urban areas, to see that Democrats have a problem in rural areas.  Democrats are also being shut out in the South.  Little wonder that the Democratic National Committee announced its own "top-to-bottom review" following the 2014 midterms. (+)  

Economic issues will likely be central in the 2016 campaign.  The American economy was much improved as 2014 drew to a close, in part due to very low gas prices.  However, the economy faces myriad challenges, from a tax system sorely in need of overhaul, to middle class income stagnation, to the national debt, to the future of entitlement programs, to the best approach to addressing poverty (1, 2).  There are also a whole range of intractable and divisive issues such as the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare, immigration reform, and global warming/climate change will no doubt be discussed and debated throughout the election cycle.  In the ever more interconnected world, foreign affairs cannot be ignored.  In a July 13, 2014 interview on CNN, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) stated, "I do believe that the things we’re seeing in the world today, in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime, is a direct result of an absence of American leadership."  A final point to watch will be how dissatisfaction with the system is expressed in the presidential campaign. 

2012 - The American economy remained sluggish throughout the 2012 cycle; signs of economic improvement proved fleeting, and the fallout from the 2008 economic collapse was significant.  For example, a Federal Reserve report found that from 2007-10 "median net worth fell 38.8 percent, and the mean fell 14.7 percent."  Meanwhile the national debt at the beginning of the election year, Jan. 1, 2012, stood at $15.2 trillion.  Republicans finally settled on former Gov. Mitt Romney as their nominee in large measure because of his business experience and "Mr. Fix It" reputation acquired at the helm of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.  Ultimately, changing demographics trumped economics in the 2012 campaign.  America is becoming an ever more diverse country, with growing Hispanic and Asian populations, and the Romney ticket fared poorly among those groups, in addition to being unable to shake the Democrats' "war on women" narrative.

2008 - The collapse of the housing bubble and the myriad ramifications of that collapse ultimately had the most telling effect on the outcome of the 2008 election.  The housing sector, which had been propelling economic growth, weakened markedly in 2007.  In March 2008 Bear Stearns collapsed and the Federal Reserve intervened.  By Sept. 2008 a full-scale economic crisis had developed, dominating the closing weeks of the election.  On Sept. 7 the federal government placed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into conservatorship.  Such was the seriousness of the situation that, even in the heat of the campaign, Congress managed to pass the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, a $700 billion financial rescue/bailout bill, which President Bush signed into law on Oct. 3.  Major fluctuations roiled financial markets.  For example, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 777.68 points (6.98%) on Sept. 29, 678.91 points (7.33%) on Oct. 9, and 733.08 points (7.87%) on Oct. 15, while gaining 936.42 points (11.08%) on Oct. 13 and 889.35 points (10.88%) on Oct. 28.  President George W. Bush's job approval ratings hovered around 30-percent throughout the election year.

2004 - The 2004 election in essence was about national security.  The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 had burned into the national psyche.  Within a month anthrax letters spread further anxiety to the extent that people were afraid to open their mail.  Increased security led to a new set of realities including long lines at airports and unsightly barricades around some public buildings.  President George W. Bush's popularity soared with the successful prosecution of the war in Afghanistan; his job approval reached 92 percent in October 2001 and was still at 83 percent in late January 2002.  The focus shifted to Iraq, and by the summer months of 2002 there was much speculation in the press and political circles about a possible war to force a "regime change" in Iraq, and about what form such a war would take and when it would come.  On March 19, 2003, having failed to gain the backing of the U.N. Security Council, the United States, backed by a "coalition of the willing," launched a strike on a meeting of key leaders in Baghdad, thereby beginning the war with Iraq.  Democrats selected Sen. John Kerry as their nominee in significant part because he was a Vietnam veteran and was thus seen as someone who could speak with authority on national security.

2000 - The event that most colored the political landscape in the 2000 cycle was the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.  This sordid story dominated the news in the latter part of 1998, culminating in the U.S. Senate sitting as a Court of Impeachment in January 1999.  President Clinton survived, but the scandal set up a strong undercurrent which continued to resonate throughout the election cycle, creating a very awkward situation for Vice President Gore.

1996 - In 1996, the Cold War had receded into people's memories, and the campaign was fought on domestic issues.  The debate over the Clinton administration's health care proposal, Republicans' gain of control of the House in the 1994 mid-term elections, and the unprecedented shutdowns of the federal government all set the stage for the 1996 campaign.

1992 - The context of the 1992 campaign can best be summed up in the slogan, "It's the economy, stupid."