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. 

*  *  *

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.1

In terms of free media, a candidate do all manner of interviews and media appearances 2, 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.  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.  Campaigns continue to devote increasing attention and resources to social media; Twitter really came to the fore in 2016 3, while newer tools such as Snapchat and Periscope popped up.

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 parties6.  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. 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).

2. See for example letters from some of the Republican campaigns requesting equal time after Donald Trump's Nov. 8, 2015 appearance on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" (PDFs):  Gilmore  | Graham  |  Huckabee  |  Kasich  |  Pataki.  NBC reached agreements to run some ads from the campaigns (+).

3. Yin Yin Liu.  "#Never Hillary vs #Never Trump."  Dec. 21, 2016.  Rowman & Littlefield International blog.  A very informative article with lots of useful details and links to resources and research.

4. Sasha Issenberg.  "The Death of the Hunch"  May 22, 2012.  Slate.

RESOURCES  pages from: 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."

Brandwatch: 2016 Presidential Election Visualization

...analyzes, illustrates and interprets the public's online conversation around each presidential candidate. Brandwatch's live visualization will allow anyone to witness the public social media reaction to every aspect of a modern day presidential campaign. (+)

Political Bots

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."

Public Echoes Of Rhetoric In America (PEORIA) Project

The Graduate School of Political Management, in partnership with Zignal Labs, launched this project in an effort to "quantify how voters react to campaign messages."  The PEORIA Project released its first report on May 28, 2015 focusing on the eight candidates who had declared at that time (+).


this is old but it'll make you think.


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.


Internet Archive: Political TV Ad Archive
"The Political TV Ad Archive collects political TV ads in selected markets across key states in the 2016 elections, unlocking the metadata underneath and highlighting quality journalism to provide journalists, civic organizations, academics, and the general public with reliable information on who is trying to influence them and how."

Stanford University: Political Communication Lab

Museum of the Moving Image: The Living Room Candidate

Nielsen Wire



Rhetorica-Dr. Andrew R. Cline

Sunlight Foundation

"A nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that uses the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency, and provides new tools and resources for media and citizens, alike."  Ad Hawk (+)

Trump Twitter Archive

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

Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau
Television Bureau of Advertising

Newspaper Association of America