In the general election, a number of landmarks lead the way to Election Day: the traditional Labor Day kick-off, the ad campaign, September debate negotiations, the debates themselves, and a grueling last ditch effort as the candidates go all out to win over a few more voters in key states.  Charges and countercharges fly; excitement builds.  While all this is happening, the campaigns are operating with one goal in mind: 270.  Two hundred-and-seventy electoral votes is the number needed to win, and major party presidential campaigns deploy their resources accordingly.

2012 Overview

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.  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.

Starting in May 2012 and through the summer the Obama advertising campaign defined Romney in unfavorable terms.  Attacks on Romney's record on Bain, outsourcing, and his refusal to release his tax returns took a heavy toll , bolstering a perception the Romney was "not one of us" and did not care or relate to the concerns of ordinary folks.  Most observers believe that the Romney campaign did not adequately respond.  Indeed the Romney campaign and its allies were trying to counteract that uncaring perception right to the end.

Romney and his campaign made a number of unforced errors.  The "47-percent" remarks secretly recorded at a fundraiser on May 17, 2012 and made public four months later on September 17 proved particularly damaging.  There were other remarks ("let Detroit go bankrupt") that reinforced the negative perceptions of Romney and Obama and the Democrats made ample use of them (some conservatives would argue with an assist from the mainstream media). 

The campaign itself seriously misjudged the electorate, evidenced by their confidence heading into Election Day that they were going to win.  Romney fared very poorly among Hispanic and African American voters who comprise an increasing share of the electorate.  The Census Bureau report "The Diversifying Electorate—Voting Rates by Race and Hispanic Origin in 2012" (PDF) found that compared to 2008 the number of white non-Hispanics casting votes decreased by 2.0 million, while the number of blacks voting increased by 1.7 million, Asians by 547,000 and Hispanics by 1.4 million.

Despite the factors weighing against him, Romney seemed to be very much in the game.  The economy continued to plod along, and then came the first president debate, held Oct. 3, 2012 at the University of Denver.  Up to that time, Obama had been seen as having a narrow but significant lead.  Romney's animated performance reversed that, energized his supporters, and put a crack in the Obama campaign's sense of confidence and inevitability.  From that first debate the Romney campaign built a momentum narrative (1, 2, 3 but see also 4, 5) that it carried right into the closing days of the campaign.  (Some Republicans argue that Romney "let up" and did not follow through on his advantage after the first debate.)  The Obama campaign, meanwhile, continud to emphasize its ground game, as it had from the outset, focusing on "1) expanding the electorate by registering new voters, 2) persuading undecided voters, and then 3) turning out our supporters" (1, 2 [PDFs]).

Overall the 2012 campaign was not particularly edifying.  Both sides pointed to an "enthusiasm gap" for the other candidate.  Obama had not lived up to the expectations of many of his supporters, while a considerable share of the support for Romney seemed more anti-Obama (note that that did not work in 2004 either when a fair amount of support for Kerry seemed to be anti-Bush).  Obama's campaign while brilliant, was also unsatisfactory in that it focused much of its attention on painting Romney in a bad light or highlighting the efforts of his grassroots supporters, rather than setting out what he would seek to achieve in a second term.  Recall that in the 1996 campaign, President Clinton at least introduced the rhetorical construct of the "Bridge to the 21st Century."  The best that Obama's team came up with was a "new economic patriotism."  In turn Romney continued his referendum approach for much of the campaign, preferring to focus on failings of the "Obama economy" (1, 2), and not delving into his own plans much beyond talking points.  Turnout was down from 61.6% of the voting eligible population in 2008 to 58.2% in 2012. 

Battleground/Swing States and Other States

In a real sense the general election begins once the nominees are known; then the presumptive nominee turns his or her attention from the primary contest to the opponent he or she will face in the general election and the goal of obtaining 270 electoral votes.  The 2012 campaign is the first since reapportionment following the 2010 Census so a "new math" was required to reach the magic 270. 

A campaign must determine how best to spend the resources it has available.  In some states the campaign will "play hard" or even "play very hard."  These contested states receive frequent visits by the candidate, his wife, the vice presidential candidate, and surrogates, and the campaign makes serious ad buys in them.  At the other extreme, some states are essentially written off as unwinnable; they receive minimal resources.  The 2012 campaign revolved around about nine or ten battleground states. 

Travel by the Principals in the General Election Campaign [Final Week]

April May June  July  Aug.  Sept.  Oct. Nov.
By State
 Pres. Barack Obama
x x
x x x

 First Lady Michelle Obama
x x
x x x

 Vice President Joe Biden x x
x x x

 Former Gov. Mitt Romney  x
x x x

 Ann Romney 

x x

 Rep. Paul Ryan

x x x

 Gary Johnson

x x x

 Jill Stein

x x

Rationale, Methodology and Limitations


Selected states in detail:
| CO | DC | FL | GA | IL | IA | MA | MI | MN | NV | NH | NJ | NY | NC | OH | PA | TX | VA | WI

As the weeks progress, a campaign may upgrade or downgrade a state's importance as it becomes more or less competitive.  This cycle, the Romney campaign's initial hopes in Pennsylvania and Michigan faded.  The addition of Rep. Paul Ryan to the ticket put Wisconsin into play.  In the closing weeks, the Romney campaign put Pennsyvlania back into play and even ran some ads in Minnesota.  Early on, the Obama campaign was tempted to invest in Arizona but ultimately they decided not to.

In 2008 candidate Obama won states such as Indiana and Virginia, which a Democrat had not carried since 1964, as well as North Carolina, which the Democratic nominee last won in 1976.  This time Indiana was seen as solidly in the Republican column, and North Carolina was seen as very challenging.  Nonetheless, Democrats saw a number of paths to 270 (+).  Although Republicans argued early in the cycle that Obama's campaign would face "very difficult decisions about which path to take in 2012" (1, 2), conventional wisdom was that Romney needed to thread a narrow path to achieve the White House.  Republican strategist Karl Rove advanced a "3-2-1" strategy which would have given Romney the requisite 270 electoral votes.  As outlined by Rove, Romney needed to carry Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina, the three states which have traditionally voted Republican, flip Ohio and Florida back into the Republican column, and pick up one other state.  Of the battleground states Romney ended up carrying only North Carolina.

Persuadable Voters and Base Voters

Once a campaign has decided it will contest a particular state, it does not blindly throw resources in.  In presidential elections a significant share who turn out will vote for the Republican candidate no matter what and another significant share will vote for the Democrat no matter what.  Thus much energy and resources are devoted to trying to reach the remaining portion of the electorate—persuadable swing voters—with the right message.  These voters comprise somewhere between 8- and 10-percent of the electorate (+).  Micro-targeting techniques allow this to be done with increasing precision.

For a campaign, the electorate can be divided into three groups: those who are for the candidate, those who are "agin" him and the undecided.  In the fall, much of the campaign's resources are directed to this third group.  Then, in the closing weeks, the campaign makes a substantial effort to mobilize its base supporters. 

Campaign stops are scheduled in media markets with high concentrations of persuadable voters.  People in these areas can expect to see a lot of political ads.  Direct mail pieces go out to swing voters.  The message is carefully tailored to attract persuadables or allay their concerns.  To attract persuadables, the major party nominees generally move toward the middle, toning down more extreme elements of their messages that they had used to appeal to party activists during the primaries.

Due to increased early and absentee voting, "Election Day" has become a somewhat variable term, but as it approaches campaigns redouble their efforts to mobilize supporters.  Phone-banking and precinct-walking are staples of get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts leading up to Election Day itself (+).

Campaign Finance

The fall campaigns of the major party candidates have since the 1970s been financed by direct grants from the Federal Election Campaign Fund, which in turn is financed by the $3 check-off on individual income tax returns.  The campaigns must agree to abide by a spending limit, although they can raise funds for legal and accounting expenses.  The candidates officially become party nominees at their conventions.  In June 2008, the Obama campaign announced it would forgo federal funds.  On September 8 the FEC certified the McCain/Palin campaign to receive $84.1 million (this is the $20 million figure provided for in the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act adjusted for inflation).  For the 2012 cycle both the Obama and Romney campaigns opted to forego federal funds.

Total Receipts
Total Disbursements
Obama for America
Obama Victory Fund 2012
Swing State Victory Fund
Obama total:
Romney for President Inc.
Romney Victory Inc.
Romney total:
Gary Johnson 2012 Inc.
Jill Stein for President

Source: FEC through Dec. 31, 2012; figures rounded to nearest dollar.  Money raised by the joint fundraising committees (1, 2) is split among the presidential candidate, national party, and state party committees.  Johnson committee had debts and obligations of $863,362.

Additionally, the national parties are allowed to spend a fixed amount advocating the election of their nominees; the limit for coordinated party expenditures in 2012 was $21.7 million (+).  The parties are also free to make independent expenditures supportive of their nominees. 

However, the campaigns were not the only players on the field.  Super PACs and other outside groups spent tens of millions of dollars.  Recall that in 2004 Section 527 groups such as America Coming Together and The Media Fund on the Democratic side and Progress for America and Swift Boat Vets and POWs for Truth on the Republican had a significant impact.  In 2008 such groups were less of a force.  Court rulings in Citizens United (Jan. 21, 2010) and (March 26, 2010) made super PACs possible, opening up what some termed a "Wild West" of campaign spending.  Super PACs and other groups weighed in heavily with independent expenditures mostly attacking the opposing candidate.  According to, Restore Our Future spent $88.6 million opposing Obama, American Crossroads $84.5 million and Americans for Prosperity $33.5 million; meanwhile Priorities USA Action spent $65.1 million opposing Romney.

Field Organization

As in 2008 the Obama campaign built a massive ground game with numerous field offices, field organizers, and volunteer neighborhood team leaders.  During the primaries the Romney campaign went from state to state rather than leaving an infrastructure in place as Obama had in 2008, and it never really caught up.  In the general election the Obama campaign had significantly more field offices in every battleground state (for example 131 in Ohio compared to about 37 in Ohio and over 60 in Colorado compared to 13 for the Republican Victory effort).  Additionally, unlike the Romney campaign, the Obama campaign had a staffer in every state and was thus able to mobilize support on behalf of the president even in the most Republican states.  [On a technical note, the field organization on the ground in a given state is typically carried out by a coordinated campaign or Victory campaign which is funded by the state party and the national party and seeks to elect party officials up and down the ticket]. 

Ad Wars

Much of the money raised by the campaigns goes into television advertising.  Generally a campaign will put together an ad team which includes both political and Madison Avenue talent.  Based on polling data, the themes the campaign wants to stress will have been identified.  The ad team generates ideas to convey those themes, and produces spots which are then tested in focus groups, and, hopefully, approved by the campaign management.  However, the work does not stop with an ad "in the can" and approved; careful planning is required to ensure that the ads are seen by the target audience.  The demographic watching "60 Minutes" differs markedly from that watching "Judge Judy."  It is left to media planners, juggling GRPs and dayparts, to put together ad buys.  In addition to ads from campaign ads, super PACs and interest groups add their voices to the mix.

Of course television is not the only paid medium available to the campaigns.  Radio is an effective way to reach some audiences, for example during drive-time.  Because of its lower profile radio is sometimes used to deliver negative messages.  Persuasion mail and phone calls also convey the campaigns' negative messages.  Magazine and newspaper advertising can be very effective, but was not used much.  More and more attention is being given to online advertising as well as advertising on social media, and this will be an increasing focus in the future.