Political Campaign Strategies

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Political campaigning is a serious venture in the United States, requiring planning and coordinated strategy. In this lesson, we'll talk about various campaign strategies and see how they have been used through history.

Political Campaigns

Autumn is a great time of year. Trees are gilded with the soft hues of changing leaves, crisp breezes dance through fields of corn, and the airways are filled with the sounds of pompous airbags yelling at each other. Yep, it's election season. Every four years in the United States we get to watch as political candidates reveal their latest campaigning strategies in an attempt to grasp that most coveted of political seats: the presidency. In between these elections, we can follow senators and representatives on their campaign trails, and even state governors and legislators. In the American democratic system, campaigning is a birthright of republican citizens, an exercise in democracy, and to some, practically a competitive sport. How candidates play the game, how they campaign, says a lot about their ideals and policies, sets tones for their time in office, and makes for some darn entertaining television.

Campaign Locations

There have been nearly as many campaign strategies in American history as there have been political candidates, so let's just review some of the more common themes we see in these campaigns. One big one is where the campaign takes place. Most candidates today travel around the country (or state if it's a local election) and try to bring their issues to the voters. That's the standard today, but it wasn't always this way.

For a long time, most candidates relied on front porch campaigns, in which newspapers, investors, or supporters came to the candidate. While a common strategy in the 19th century, the term was really popularized in the 1896 presidential election when candidate William McKinley literally spent most of his campaign on his front porch, while his opponent traveled hundreds of miles around the country. McKinley won. To this day, a candidate may be said to run a front porch campaign if they put little money or effort into campaigning. It's generally assumed to represent an election in which a candidate is basically unopposed or guaranteed to win.

McKinley surrounded by reporters at his house

Candidate Focused Campaigns

Another strategy that defines many campaigns is a focus not on the issues, but on the candidates themselves. While this has become a major feature of today's political landscape, it's an ancient tradition. In America, focusing on candidates over issues dates back to at least 1796, when Thomas Jefferson was attacked by opponents for liking French culture too much, and John Adams was labeled a supporter of the British Crown. This was only the second real election in US history, since Washington had transitioned between terms without contest. So, there's a deep precedent here.

Today, there are two main campaign strategies that focus on candidates more than issues. A positive campaign is when candidates focus exclusively on themselves - their background, experience and positive traits. The other form is the negative campaign, focused on the negative attributes of the opposing candidate. Sometimes this is relevant to the issues (that candidate has a weak economic policy!) but more often is what we call mudslinging: an attack directly on their person. By the election of 1800, John Adams was called a ''repulsive pedant'' with a ''hideous hermaphroditic character'' and Jefferson was accused of personally endorsing robbery, adultery and incest. Sling that mud.

John Adams was not afraid to run some negative campaigns

Voter Focused Campaigns

The last category of campaigns we'll look at, and one which has become increasingly important in the age of digital statistics, is the voter focused campaign. Basically, candidates attempt to identify with what voters care about the most, and cater their campaigns accordingly.

A lot of this idea is caught up in what we call the median voter theorem. If we assume that voters will support a candidate who is closest to their views, then candidates are more likely to win by committing to issues important to the median voters, or those who statistically fall in the middle of both extremes.

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