Do political campaigns in the United States matter?

Given the difficult political environment, Democrats this year are forced to believe in the power of campaigns.

Bill Clinton Hosts DC Fundraiser For Hillary Clinton
In 2007, Hillary Clinton's bid for presidency was a "prime example of how not to run a campaign" [GALLO/GETTY]

As the end nears for seemingly endless presidential campaigning, a murmur can be heard questioning how much of this really makes a difference. Does all the advertising, debates, speeches, strategies, voter targetting and candidate positioning actually affect the outcome of the election? “Do Campaigns Matter?” brings up the debate between scholarly students of elections and the practitioners of the dark arts over how important are campaigns.

For us academic analysts of elections (called political scientists by those unfamiliar with what a science really is) emphasis is often put on “objective” factors, meaning those existing in the political environment that influence election results. These would include the state of the economy, the popularity of the incumbent, the relative strength of the two parties and the public’s confidence in their country’s future direction (Right track? Wrong track?). So the stronger the economy, the more popular the incumbent and his party and the public’s overall sense of well being, the more likely it is that the current occupant, or his party, will keep the White House.

The 2008 Republican nominee, John McCain, would be a poster boy for a candidate facing the headwinds of an unfavourable environment – including a plummeting economy, and an incumbent so disliked he couldn’t get invited to his own party’s convention. Add on that his Republican party had lost its majority in both houses of congress in the 2006 elections, and was given responsibility for two expensive and unresolved wars. No matter how much credit is given Barack Obama’s effective campaigning that year, the political setting gave any Democratic nominee a considerable advantage in taking the White House. 

For academics these factors go a long way to predicting the outcomes of elections, including 2008.

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Alas, they are also conditions over which candidates and their staff have little control. Not surprisingly the people paid to run these campaigns stress the variables that they earn their salaries for managing.

This shifts the focus, for starters, on the attractiveness of the candidate; how articulate, disciplined and skilled a politician he or she is. Then might be how appropriate is the campaign’s strategy; is it the right one for the candidate, the opposition, the resources available. What about the campaign message? Does it meet the demands of the press and voters for change or experience, hope or reassurance, throw the bums out or steady as she goes. Fundraising is another vital ingredient. Of overarching importance is the campaign leadership, their ability to organise the effort, work under pressure and get along with each other. These are factors that, in the main, can be shaped by candidates and their staff.

Hillary Clinton’s 2008 effort is a prime example of how not to run a campaign. Beginning as the consensus front runner for the Democratic nomination, her campaign proceeded to waste her assets. Her message of experience in Washington played badly in a political climate that was fed up by anyone connected with the Nation’s Capital. Her strategy of frontloading her efforts in the early primaries left her unprepared and out of money for the drawn out battles that she faced later. Her campaign staff was poorly managed, internally conflicted, expensive and ineffective. With her husband interfering and Hillary not able to assert control over the campaign, she lost to a more focused, better disciplined and arguably more attractive candidate. She was simply outplayed in the electoral game of primary politics.  

The political environment for the 2012 general election presents the Democrats with much fewer advantages than they had in 2008. The Republicans are still benefiting from their advances in the 2010 elections, not only in national offices but in governors and state legislatures who can tilt their state’s voting patterns toward their party. The Democrats’ seven point advantage in voters identifying with the party which they held over the Republicans in 2008 has been wiped out (this is also the percentage of the vote that Obama won by in that year). The economy – while improving – is barely expanding, and suffers from a still-high unemployment rate, as well as a depressed housing market. Confidence in the future is negative. By 55 to 40 per cent, people think the country is on the wrong track. Anti-incumbent resentment remains strong, but this time the president is Democratic.

In short, given the difficult political environment, Democrats this year are forced to believe in the power of campaigns. Their early and extensive negative advertising against the Republican nominee underlined their uncertainty of depending on the Obama record. Their massive fundraising effort was motivated by the Republican advantage in SuperPAC monies but also by the expectation that they would need an unprecedented national grassroots effort. And their hi-tech micro-targetting already the best-in-show, has been upgraded and extended. Their mining of voters’ personal data builds on the 2008 “ground game“, and relies on social media and door-to-door canvassing targeted to key states. The hope is that these personalised contacts will prove more effective in turning out the vote than Romney’s expensive mass TV- intensive advertising.

But there are a number of problems with relying on campaigns to bring victory. One is that by the time someone has become a presidential nominee of a major political party they have reached the pinnacle of an enormous system of elections and governments. If you’ve made it in American electoral politics this far you tend to be a good candidate. Thus both sides are pretty evenly matched in quality of the campaigns, quantity of resources and attractiveness of the candidates. Which doesn’t mean that mistakes aren’t made, just that they are unpredictable and randomly distributed. It’s not surprising then that the polls in June of an election year – before the most aggressive general-election campaigning by either side has begun – are decent predictors of the November outcome.

While both candidates are running the best campaigns they can, the Democrats have less confidence than in 2008 that they can depend on the inertia of the political environment to propel them to another term heading the executive branch. The public’s anti-incumbent instincts remain securely in place but this time working against Obama. The economy still is a negative, the public is uncertain where the country is headed and partisan paralysis in Washington is securely in place.  The final blow – illustrated in the debates – is that the opposition party managed to nominate a credible presidential candidate, especially when compared with the anti-evolutionary dimwits that ran against him in the primaries.

Do campaigns matter? This year the Democrats certainly hope so.

Gary Wasserman is professor of government at Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Qatar. He received his PhD with Distinction at Columbia University. He is the author of The Basics of American Politics (14th ed) and Politics in Action (2012). He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy and Political Science Quarterly.